Category Archives: Behavior

Cats and Claws

Cats leave dogs in the dust when it comes to the dexterity of the fore paws. This allows them to fish small cavities and holes, hooking hidden prey with their well-sharpened claws. Unfortunately, their claws can do a lot of damage to furniture, drapes, human skin, and other cats. Minimizing this damage potential can be a challenge, especially for indoor cats.

 Do I need to trim my cat’s nails?

The simple answer to this question is “no”, unless you are trimming their nails to maintain the natural look of your own skin. In fact, whether you trim your cats’ nails or not, they will constantly sharpen them. This process involves removing some of the outer layers of the nail as they grow so that they will remain clean and pointed. Those cats that cannot sharpen their nails (older cats and cats with extra toes) may need to have their nails trimmed to keep them from overgrowing.

To avoid having your cats tear up your drapes, rugs, or favorite chair, provide them with their own scratching surface. This could be a wooden post with or without carpeting, cut corrugated cardboard packed densely in a low box (about two to three inches high), or something bought from the pet store designed to attract their scratching attention. Adding catnip will often encourage a reluctant cat to try to a new surface. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a few items to find the right surface for you cat; it’s an obligation of all cats to make things difficult for their owners.

Cats also mark their territory by scratching. This may be the case if you find them practicing their sculpturing techniques on the trim around your door and windows, especially if there is an ‘enemy’ cat outside that is hanging around a lot. In addition to providing other objects for your cats to release their artistic inclinations, spraying a synthetic cheek gland pheromone in the area or using a pheromone diffuser may help calm them and eliminate the drive to mark their territory.

 When is it necessary to de-claw my cat?

 Hopefully, never. De-clawing cats is my least favorite veterinary obligation. Well, to be honest, emptying anal glands outranks de-clawing. There is one thought that can pick me up whenever I’m feeling life is a bit tough: we humans could have had anal glands.

If however it comes down to the cat must be de-clawed or the cat must go (too much shredded furniture or skin) de-clawing is something to consider. The procedure involves removing the entire third phalanx, the last toe bone, to prevent re-growth of the nail. Since this is more than just clipping a hangnail, it is important to make sure that your veterinarian believes in good pain control.

At our hospital, we place a pain patch on your cat the day before the surgery. We use a gas anesthetic for the general, IV fluids to maintain blood pressure and avoid dehydration, inject a combination of local anesthetics to eliminate the immediate post-operative pain, and bandage the paws for 24 hours to control bleeding. The following day, the bandages are removed, the IV catheter is taken out, and your cat is discharged in the afternoon. It may be coincidental, but since the advent of pain patches, cats seem to be in a much better mood when they see us at their next visit.

Post operative home care involves preventing your cat from jumping onto high places (the jump down is a bummer for a couple of weeks), maybe some oral antibiotics, using paper-type litter, and removing the pain patch in three to four days.

Because declawed cats have lost their best line of defense, keeping them indoors for the rest of their lives is critical for letting them have a long rest-of-their-lives. Actually, this is good advice for all cats since cats that go outdoors live on average half as long as those that live indoors only.


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Summer, Kids and Biting Dogs

National Dog Bite Prevention Week – the third week in May – was established to remind us of a common threat to the health and safety of all us, especially our children. According to the CDC, of the 4.7 million Americans that are bitten by dogs each year, 800,000 seek medical attention, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency department and about a dozen die.

About one half of those bitten are children. The injury rate is highest for children between 5 and 9 years old. For children four years and younger, almost two thirds of the injuries are to the head and neck.

In my 30 plus years as a veterinarian, I can’t begin to count the number of dogs that have been presented to me because they bit a child. Most of these dogs belong to the family of the victim or to a close neighbor. Almost all of these bites could have been prevented.

The CDC ( offers some good tips and rules to help prevent dog bites. The first safety tip they mention is, “Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.” is excellent advice. Since our children will have to be in the presence of dogs from time to time and many dog bites come from dogs that we thought were safe, it’s extremely important to teach our children how to correctly approach any and all dogs.

Below are listed some recommendations that I have for greeting all dogs, even those that we know and consider harmless. The greeting ritual outlined by these suggestions helps reassure the dog that we are not a threat or afraid and helps create a positive social bond between the person and the dog. This lessens the chance, but does not guarantee, that a bite may occur.

Please note that these recommendations are for those situations where a child may meet a dog, including dogs they already know. All children must understand and follow the CDC’s first rule to never approach an unfamiliar dog. Of course, any interaction between a child and a dog should be supervised by an adult who can control the dog and the child. These greeting suggestions should be followed by adults as well as children.

The Don’ts

  • Don’t look at the dog, especially at his eyes.
  • Don’t move towards the dog.
  • Don’t reach towards the dog with your hands or make a lot of movements with your hands.
  • Don’t talk to the dog.

 The Dos and Always

  • Do talk to the owner of the dog as if the dog is not there.
  • Do act calmly as if nothing is wrong.
  • Always ask the owner if you can pet the dog, but only after the dog becomes calm, has sniffed you and is not acting aggressive or fearful. If the owner says it OK for you to pet the dog, always let the dog come to you, never move towards the dog. If the dog won’t come to you when you ask it to, don’t go towards him or reach for him. He probably isn’t ready to trust you yet and that’s OK.

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Destructive Behavior of Dogs and Cats

One of the most common reasons for euthanasia in dogs and cats is behavior that leads to destruction or damage of the house and/or furnishings. It is a decision that is both difficult and painful for the owner, who has not been able to solve the problem and knows that the chance of finding a new owner who would be willing to work with a destructive pet is very small.

Behavior modification using techniques that are based on classical and operant conditioning has long been the approach to correcting inappropriate behaviors. These techniques require a considerable amount of understanding, time, and patience on the part of the owner of the pet. The problem with this is that many of these problems occur in homes where time is a precious resource.

Fortunately, there have been some excellent results from studies involving drugs that have positive effects on our pets’ moods. These medications can greatly improve the chance of success of the behavior modification techniques by placing the dog or cat in a state of mind in which they can learn faster and have fewer setbacks. The medications are not a replacement for teaching new behaviors; they only help remove the mental blocks that slow down or inhibit learning.

A major block is the distressful mental state associated with separation anxiety and panic attacks. These two conditions are improved by medications that increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. In dogs, the two drugs that have been approved for use in helping with these disorders are Clomicalm and Reconcile. In cats, Clomicalm has been found to be extremely successful in managing cases of inappropriate urination.

Separation anxiety is an extremely painful mental state of social animals that occurs when they sense that they have been abandoned or separated from their group. In dogs, the problem usually manifests itself when the owner goes to work. While alone, the dog suffering from this problem seeks to escape the confines of the home and/or release its anxiety by destroying parts of the house or items within the house.

Clomicalm and Reconcile can quiet this anxiety to a great extent, sometimes eliminating it altogether. Without the constant anxiety and resulting destruction, the owners gain an opportunity to work with the behavioral training that has the best chance of offering a long term solution. It is important to understand that these drugs are not substitutes for behavioral modification and must be used in conjunction with training.

By far and away the most common destructive behavior of cats is urinating outside of the litter box on clothes, carpets, walls and furniture. The first step in solving this problem is to have your cat evaluated for diseases that can lead to this behavior. If no physical condition is found by your veterinarian, behavioral concerns must then be addressed.

Most of the behavioral cases of inappropriate urination are associated with fear or distress. Often the behavior begins when an outside cat begins to haunt and mark the exterior of the house or a new cat is brought into the home. The presence of wild animals, including raccoons moving into attics, can also lead to marking behavior. The cat feels threatened and resorts to doing all it can to protect itself and its territory.

Clomicalm has been shown to have up to a 90% success rate in minimizing and/or eliminating inappropriate urination of cats. For veterinarians and owners alike, this is great news. Adding litter boxes, trying new litter, thoroughly cleaning rugs and carpets, and appropriately using pheromone sprays and diffusers should not be abandoned. Many of these techniques may be all that is necessary to change this aggravating and odiferous behavior. However, if these fail we now have a great backup.

Please remember that, while Clomicalm and Reconcile can help allow dogs and cats to become better learners, it is still our task to teach our pets new behaviors to replace those behaviors we consider unacceptable.

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Ain’t Misbehavin’

Many behavioral concerns in dogs can be summed up in a line taken from the warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is failure to communicate.” In the movie, the real question was who exactly had the communication problem. With behavior problems in dogs, that question should always be considered.

To understand misbehavior, we must first understand normal behavior. Most behaviorists would agree that dogs behave in predictable ways to changes in their environment. From this perspective, what we see as misbehavior is only normal dog behavior happening in the wrong place and/or at the wrong time. Why do they do this? From my experience as a dog owner and a veterinarian, it seems that what our dogs are hearing is something entirely different from what we think we are telling them. Sounds like me and my kids. When we recognize that dogs and people are communal species that have shared a long history, this might not be too surprising.

A common form of miscommunication is the way in which we often greet our dogs when we come home. Think back to your last reunion with your dog at your home. There was probably a lot of jumping, barking and carrying on – at least by your dog. And you were probably talking, petting or playing with your dog in response. For some dogs, this is not a problem. For insecure and anxious dogs, it may lead to further anxiety and over-protective behavior.

For people, greeting one another with reassuring vocal and body signals is a sign of mutual respect. Not doing so could easily create mistrust. In dog (wolf) language, our dog may be hearing, “My human can no longer handle the position of being in charge. I need to take over.” Your dog will probably argue with you by licking, bowing and even urinating submissively in his or her attempt to get you to maintain your leadership position. And that’s just the beginning of the problems.

How should you act? The answer that your dog wants to hear is like the leading male and female of a wolf pack would act. In wolf packs, the two leaders typically greet their subordinates at a reunion by simply ‘presenting’ themselves as being in good mind and body. This reassures the subordinates that all is in order and there is nothing to worry about. Play may come later, and at the initiation of the leader, but the greeting is all about this ‘presentation of sound mind and body’.

How should we act when we reunite with our dog when we come home? Without talking to, looking at, or reaching for your dog, walk into the house and take care of your things as if your dog was not there. Your dog may keep his greeting circus going for some time, but resist interacting with him until he relaxes. When he does relax, call him to you and reward him with play. Your dog’s greeting circus will be more subdued with each subsequent reunion. A calm and reassured dog will greet you with his tail wagging at body level and sniff you, but without jumping and barking.

In strict behaviorists’ terms, you have taught your dog to greet you in a relaxed manner since you stopped rewarding his excited greeting and rewarded him when he was calm. This is true. But I’m convinced there’s more to it than just a conditioned response. Dogs learn best when they know they have calm, trusting leaders. Unfortunately, we often try to calm our dogs in ways that suggest something other than a calm leader. Learning to recognize when we are ‘misbehaving’ is an important step in helping our dogs when they’re misbehaving. Greeting them properly is a good first step.

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