Questions, Answers from an Animal Behavior Meeting


ST. LOUIS, MO. — Experts from around the world attended the Symposium of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior July 15. The event coincided with the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention. A pawful of the attendees agreed to answer selected reader questions:

Q: Due to recent dog attacks where I live, I took it upon myself to do something about this. I’ve written various experts, but no one bothered to answer. What do you suggest as good protection against dog attacks? — J.R., Largo, FL
A: “If you know there may be an issue, carry an air-horn, umbrella, or even books,” says applied animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin, of San Francisco. CA.   Back in the 1950s, legendary animal behaviorist Dr. R.K. Anderson, of Minneapolis, MN, was chief animal control officer in Denver, CO, and a pioneer in the study of the human/animal bond. If you anticipate an attack, he says, “Avert your gaze, don’t make eye contact, and stand still; we tell kids to make like a tree. Usually, the dog sniffs you and walks away, or even walks away without approaching. If you feel threatened, go to the ground and cover your head. Don’t run.”
Unless you’re adept at climbing nearby trees; outrunning most dogs is fruitless and only excites already pumped up canines.
If dog attacks are common in your area, I argue that this isn’t so much about the dogs as their irresponsible owners (there are leash laws). Organize a community meeting with local police and animal control personnel. Your question is fair, but you shouldn’t have to worry about dangerous dogs every time you go outside.

Q: Oreo, our year-old cat, runs through the house while she poops. Cleaning up the mess is getting old. We adopted another cat, hoping that watching Memphis use the litter box would teach Oreo, but this hasn’t worked. We have two litter boxes, and Oreo does use the box to “pee.” What should we do? — D.H., Mesquite, NV
A: Sometimes cats do actually learn by watching one another, so your approach made some sense. This is exactly why an assumption about behavior problems should not be made without first seeing a veterinarian.
Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviorist in Sydney, Australia, says: “My guess is that defecating is painful for this cat,” she says. “Track how often the cat defecates; if you can, keep a chart. Constipation may be an issue. Is the stool hard or soft? And what type of diet are you feeding? Is there a lot of corn and oats (in the cat food), which some cats are allergic to? Then report all this to your veterinarian, who might require help from a behaviorist or AVSAB vet.”
The problem may be physical, behavioral, or both. For example, Oreo might have a constipation issue and associates the litter box with pain. So even if the constipation issue is solved, there remains a behavior component.
“If your veterinarian is reasonably sure this is strictly behavioral, you may try confining the cat to a small room, such as a bathroom, with the litter box on one side and food and water bowls on the other,” Seksel suggests. “Visit frequently and play with your cat there. Once your cat has a bowel movement, you can let him out for a time because you know he won’t have an accident. Wait several weeks before gradually allowing him his freedom again.”

Q: My 14-year-old Maine Coon cat has recently become very aggressive when company arrives, especially people who own dogs. He even attacked me when I tried to remove him once, and I received 14 puncture wounds. He attacked me twice after I finished raking leaves. While this behavior is becoming more frequent, he’s basically a wonderful cat who loves to be groomed. What’s going on? — R.L, Hurricane, UT
A: “Anytime you have a new behavior, particularly in an older pet, rule out a potential medical problem first,” says Dr. Karen Sueda, Los Angeles, CA-based president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). In this instance, the issue could potentially be gastrointestinal pain, hyperthyroidism, or a neurological problem.
In any case, Sueda says it’s far easier and safer for all involved to keep your cat calm, compared to attempting to calm an already aroused cat. When you’re expecting company, place your cat in another room.
“Once the company settles in, let your cat out and distract him with whatever he likes best — being groomed, play or treats,” Sueda suggets. “Plugging in a pheromone diffuser, such as Feliway, may help. (Feliway is an analog of a pheromone, which can help cats chill out.). If you make progress, ask your dog-owning friends to visit, but before they walk into the house, spray Feliway on their shoes. If these methods fail, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist or AVSAB member vet.”

Q: Do adult dogs remember their mothers? — M.M., St. Paul, MN
A: Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg, of Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, says: “It depends on how many months or years have passed and when the dog was removed from its mother. We know dogs can remember people, even many years later. If a dog was removed as a puppy, then I think the dog would be very unlikely to recall (its mother). However, if a dog was separated from its mother as a young adult or older, I see no reason why there wouldn’t be recollection. But I’m not so sure a dog is capable of under recognizing “this was my mother.”