Visiting Vet: Behavior questions

Vets need information from owners; owners need time with vets.

Behavior problems with pets can be complex, but they may be treatable. — David Taffet

“Oh, by the way,” the owner said as she was leaving with her cat at the end of their 20-minute annual appointment for physical exam and vaccinations. “Cheshire has been urinating outside her box lately. WhatI can I do about that?” My next client is waiting impatiently outside with his highly excitable Australian shepherd, who is barking constantly. I sigh. Feline inappropriate elimination (FIE) is a 20-minute behavior consultation all on its own, with several recommended tests. “I wish you had mentioned this when you scheduled your appointment,” I say, trying to sound relaxed. “We would have booked additional time.” I quickly print out a client education handout on FIE, and suggest we schedule a telemedicine consultation to continue the conversation. The cat owner leaves, annoyed. The Australian shepherd owner hands his dog’s leash to my assistant, saying, “By the way, what can we do about him being so hyper all the time?” I sigh. 

Later that day, catching up on email, a client wants to know what to do about her German shepherd, who has become increasingly aggressive toward people, and is now also chasing the cat. Another person emails about two little dogs who run to the window barking when people or vehicles go past. Should she get a shock collar? A third email asks for medication to make an old cat stop howling at night. “He’s keeping us up,” the owner says.”Can we get sleeping pills?”

Behavior problems. Please. If your child had a behavior problem, would you toss the question over your shoulder as you were walking out of the pediatrician’s office? If your elderly parent started howling at night, would you email your physician asking for drugs without getting an appropriate medical workup? Maybe you would, but I hope not. Behavior problems in pets are often complex. Some have purely medical causes, others appear to be exclusively psychological. Still others are an interplay of both. Diagnosis and treatment are complicated by the fact that Cheshire Cat and Dodo Dog can’t tell us in words what they are feeling. We depend on owners and their observations to help us figure out what is going on. This takes time, and a good history. 

If you need help with a pet’s behavior problem, I prefer if you start by calling my office. Explain you want a behavior consultation, and why. Based on the general nature of the problem, I can estimate how long an appointment to book. Sometimes I want Cheshire or Dodo to be physically present. Other times it makes sense to start with a telemedicine conversation. But before that phone call appointment, now is the time for you to write me that email. 

Write down everything you can think of that might be pertinent to Cheshire’s urination issues or Dodo’s aggression or barking. Try to put it in chronological order. When did it start? What was the first thing you noticed? Were there any changes in the environment or their routines? How did you respond? How did they react to your response? Did things get better, worse, stay the same? What kind of litter do you use? Where are the litter boxes? How many litter boxes? Who did Dodo snap at? What was that person doing at the time? When did you get Dodo? When did you get the cat? You get the idea. I recently had a family member have a neuropsychological exam. It took six hours over three appointments. One hour by telemedicine just to get the history. Four hours in person. Then a third one-hour visit to discuss results and treatment. Your email to me is that first hour appointment, giving me the history so I can prepare prior to your actual consultation. 

Common kitty problems like feline inappropriate urination and elderly cats who howl at night always warrant medical tests to rule out physical causes, and there are fairly standard treatments we try to address these behaviors, but it is still often a matter of trial and error. Cheshire can’t confirm that he doesn’t like the texture of that new brand of litter, or that he cries at night because he has cognitive dysfunction syndrome, and gets confused when it’s dark and everyone goes to bed. But we can test to see if he has a urinary tract infection. We can try giving pain medications and see if his arthritis is keeping him up at night. Often these behavior issues are multifactorial, and require several different approaches simultaneously to have an effect.

Dodo’s barking and aggression are even more complex, and may be harder to correct. To some degree, these behaviors are “normal.” Dogs bark. Dogs chase cats. Dogs may be aggressive to protect territory, establish dominance, and protect their pack. The problem arises when these normal behaviors go awry, or escalate to a level where they cannot be tolerated. I advise you start by consulting your regular veterinarian, then consider working regularly with a reputable trainer. But for issues like canine aggression, where the stakes are very high, my best advice is to contact a board-certified veterinary behavior specialist. After obtaining their veterinary degree, these docs have at least three additional years of training. They study sociobiology, psychology, genetics, psychopharmacology, ethology, and behavioral physiology and endocrinology. They can analyze Dodo’s undesirable behavior in much greater depth, addressing all possible causes, such as neurochemical imbalances, medical issues, learned dysfunctional behaviors, and ones related to normal social structure. They can then put together the best integrated program of medication and behavioral modification, and optimize your chances of success. 

Behavior problems are one the the leading causes of dogs and cats being turned in to shelters in the U.S. They are not issues to be lightly tossed out with a “by the way” at the end of an appointment, or answered in a quick email. Schedule a behavior consultation with your veterinarian. Try working with a reputable trainer. Then consider a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. You can find one at