by E’Lise Christensen, DVM DACVB and Amanda Modes, DVM, Behavior Resident
Determining the cause of animal behavioral disorders can be a puzzle. Problem behaviors aren’t just about emotions, past learning history, genetics, and the outside environment, but also physical health. Of course, some behaviors people dislike are normal for that species. But when behaviors are outside the normal range, veterinary behavior teams jump in. We spend our days unraveling these different components to provide the best medical and mental health support for animals who are suffering.
Animals are stellar at keeping medical problems under wraps. This means a lot of people don’t realize, and sometimes don’t believe, that their pet’s health may be impacting their behavior.
Problems affecting nearly every bodily system can lead to a wide variety of behavior issues for any species. If your cat stops using the litter box, it could have a urinary tract infection, diabetes, or knee pain. A dog that runs away when the leash comes out could be scared, but might also have an infected tooth, neck pain, or a skin rash. We all know nausea can lead to drooling, changes in appetite, and vomiting. But did you know that it can also be the cause of floor licking, tiredness, pacing, yawning, avoidance of food bowls, and even pica (eating non-food items like fabric, rocks, or even glass)? Just like people, animals can be nauseated and not vomit. Pain can be a significant, but often overlooked, component to unwanted behavior. Unless your dog is Dug—“the talking dog” from the movie Up—they may not be showing you how much pain they are experiencing, and they may not even react as we would expect on a veterinarian’s physical exam.
If your pet is exhibiting behaviors that are atypical for them, or affecting their quality of life, your first visit should be to your regular veterinarian for a medical evaluation. This includes a complete review of your pet’s medical history, a full physical examination when possible (even a hands-off exam can be very informative), and any recommended diagnostic tests. Only once medical causes have been ruled out can we be satisfied that a behavioral condition is solely responsible for the pet’s symptoms.
Whether your pet’s behavioral changes are due to a physical cause, their feelings/emotions, or both, there are typically many treatment options. These may include behavioral modification (training), avoidance of triggering situations, lifestyle changes, supplements, diet change, and/or medications. Many general-practice veterinarians can help you get this process started. If you find your pet needs additional help, a veterinary behaviorist is your next step. Either way, taking the time to work-up and treat any physical and behavioral conditions will make your life with your pet better.
• When cats get together it can be difficult to tell rough and tumble play from a full-blown scrap. Now researchers say they have decoded feline behavior to help owners spot when the fur might be about to fly.
Dr Noema Gajdoš Kmecová, first author of the research from the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy, in Košice, Slovakia a cat owner herself said understanding feline interactions could be difficult.
“Many owners are asking themselves the question, are these cats playing, fighting? Or what’s going on actually? We found out that there was actually very little scientific evidence to guide us in answering this question so we decided to go for it and study inter-cat interactions,” she said.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, Gajdoš Kmecová, and colleagues, describe how they examined the behavior of 105 pairs of interacting domestic cats recorded on videos collected from YouTube. They also advertised for cat owners.
The researchers randomly selected 30% of the videos and analyzed the cats’ actions to produce six behavioral categories, including wrestling, chasing, vocalizations, and motionless postures such as crouching. Each of the cats in the full sample were then assessed for these categories.
When the team looked at the frequency and duration of each of these six behavioral categories for the different cats they found they fell into three clusters.
Experts within the team then reviewed all 105 videos of 210 cats, labelling each interaction as either playful, agonistic, or intermediate.
The team discovered that the three clusters of behavior found in the initial analysis overlapped with the categorization of the interactions made by the experts, suggesting certain patterns or types of feline behavior could indicate whether cats were having a playful interaction or a scrap.
“When cats are young and when they are wrestling and not vocalizing they are most likely playing,” the team write. But when there are extended inactive pauses, vocalizations and chasing, the cats may be in the midst of a fight.
Intermediate behavior, the authors write, was associated with prolonged interactivity and included features associated with both playful interactions, such as lying belly up or pouncing, as well as aggressive behaviors, such as arching the back, and retreating.
However, Gajdoš Kmecová said even wrestling could occur in a positive and a negative context, so it was important to look at the overall pattern of behaviors and whether they were shown by both cats. For example, if claws and yowling were involved, a wrestle was unlikely to be a sign of play; and play was also unlikely if only one cat was attempting to engage in wrestling.
Gajdoš Kmecová said it was important to be aware that a playful interaction could switch into an intermediate or combative situation. “It’s very, very, dynamic,” she said. “When cats are getting noisy and are avoiding physical contact by [for example] making an inactive breaks during interactions, the situation might be changing to be agonistic.”
Gajdoš Kmecová added that the study showed feline interactions were not always a binary choice between playing and fighting, but that their behaviors could give helpful clues. “Maybe ask yourself are they playing, fighting, or is it something in between.”