What Makes a Pet Misbehave?
Dog and Cat Behavior Problems
Behavior problems in dogs and cats can be due to medical or behavioral causes, or both. A clinical history, physical examination, and diagnostic testing will help determine if there are underlying medical conditions contributing to the problem. Although there may be a single cause for a behavior problem, it is often the combined effect of environment and learning on the pet’s mental and physical health that determines its behavior.
For example, the pet that is fearful of children may become more reactive, irritable, and aggressive as conditions such as dental problems, arthritis, or anal sacculitis make the pet more uncomfortable, painful, or less mobile.
Another example is the cat that has been exposed to other cats roaming across its territory, but only begins to mark when it develops an overactive thyroid at ten years of age. Correcting the thyroid problem, as well as behavior modification techniques, can resolve this problem.
What Are Some Behavioral Causes?
Any change in the environment or daily routine may contribute to the emergence of behavior problems in dogs and cats. For example, schedule changes, a new member of the household (baby, spouse, etc.), moving, illness or injury of a family member, loss of a family member or another pet, or the addition of a new pet, can have a dramatic impact on behavior. Medical or degenerative changes associated with aging may cause the pet to be even more sensitive to these environmental changes.
Learning, whether by reinforcement or punishment, also plays a role in virtually every behavior problem. When a pet’s actions result in unpleasant consequences (punishment), the chances of repeating the behavior will decrease. Punishment might be the application of something unpleasant or the removal of something good (e.g., petting stops when the behavior is displayed). If a behavior is followed by pleasant consequences, such as obtaining food, attention, or affection (rewards), the behavior is likely to be repeated (positive reinforcement).
These consequences could be administered unintentionally by the owners, as when the owner gives a reward following a behavior, or obtained by the pet itself through its actions, as when the pet gets a favored treat from its feeding toy. Although in practice the goal would be to use rewards to encourage desirable behavior in dogs and cats, many undesirable behaviors are encouraged because of reward responses, such as the owner who allows the dog into the house to stop the dog from barking, or when the dog finds leftovers in the garbage.
Another very powerful form of learning is that of negative reinforcement, where the pet’s behavior is reinforced because something desirable happens as a result of the behavior. This might be the case when a dog exhibits aggression at a stimulus (person, other animal) that frightens it, and the stimulus retreats, reinforcing the dog’s behavior. It can be difficult to determine what might be reinforcing a behavior, but if a behavior is ongoing, then (from the pet’s perspective) reinforcement is operating to maintain the problem behavior.
What Role Do Genetics and Early Experience Have in the Development of Behavior Problems?
Some of the most important causes of behavioral problems, and the ones that might be most difficult to improve, are genetic factors that influence or even dictate the pet’s response to stimuli, and the environment that the pet experienced during its most sensitive periods of development. These include (a) the socialization period, (b) prenatal and neonatal experiences, and (c) secondary socialization and development through to maturity. Lack of stimulation, lack of handling, lack of exposure, insufficient socialization, and particularly, a history of stressful or traumatic events, can have a major impact on the pet’s behavior.
What Tests Can Be Done to Determine a Behavioral Cause?
A good history is one of the most important means of determining the cause of a behavioral problem in a dog or cat. This involves an in-depth analysis of the pet’s medical and behavioral history, including any training, as well as the circumstances surrounding the problem itself. Daily interactions with the pet and any changes in schedule need to be explored. Often, the event that precipitated the behavioral change may be different from that which maintains it. If you can catch the problem on videotape, this can be a valuable diagnostic aid for the veterinarian.
Perhaps the most important element in determining the cause of the problem, and what diagnostic workup might be needed, will be the clinical signs that you report. Since we cannot ask the pet how it is feeling or if anything hurts, we will for you, the pet owner, to describe all of the signs that your pet is exhibiting, both behavioral and medical. Then, based on the history you provide, previous health problems, any medications that your pet might be taking, and the findings of a physical examination, additional diagnostic tests might be warranted. A final diagnosis of a behavioral cause can only be made after all other medical factors have been ruled out.