DEAR READERS: I have long been railing against what has become a standard practice in many animal shelters: intimidating a newly arrived dog when he or she is eating by pushing a stuffed glove that looks like a hand on the end of a stick at the poor animal. This is done to elicit “food-guarding aggression,” and dogs who growl and snarl are likely to be killed. Other temperament tests are also of questionable value, considering the situation and state of most dogs in unfamiliar and stressful conditions.
"No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters,” an article by veterinarians Gary J. Patronek and Janice Bradley published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, has urged animal shelters to stop such tests:
“Shelters already screen from adoption obviously dangerous dogs during the intake process. Subsequent provocative testing of the general population of shelter dogs is predicated on an assumption of risk that is far in excess of existing data and relies on assumptions about dog behavior that may not be supportable. We suggest that instead of striving to bring out the worst in dogs in the stressful and transitional environment of a shelter and devoting scarce resources to inherently flawed formal evaluations that do not increase public safety, it may be far better for dogs, shelters and communities if effort spent on frequently misleading testing was instead spent in maximizing opportunities to interact with dogs in normal and enjoyable ways that mirror what they are expected to do once adopted (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, training). In conjunction with a thorough and objective intake history when available, these more natural types of assessment activities will help identify any additional dogs whose behavior may be of concern. Engaging in the normal repertoire of activities familiar to pet dogs has the additional benefit of enriching dogs' lives and minimizing the adverse effect of being relinquished and confined to a shelter, will be more indicative of the typical personality and behavior of dogs, and may help make dogs better candidates for adoption.”
I would urge shelters to also practice group housing wherever possible, keeping adoptable dogs in compatible groups and avoiding single caging.
DEAR DR. FOX: HELP! I am at my wits' end. I have an 11-year-old male tabby cat. His weight is in normal range, health is good (I take him to the vet for checkups, plus anything else not routine) and appetite is good, but he started spraying in the house about two years ago, mostly in corners of stairwells and rooms.
I got him and his littermate sister when they were 8 weeks old. They have always been indoor cats, but when this started, my vet said, "What you have here is a tiger in a cage,” and said I should let him out to roam the neighborhood. My cat usually goes out in the evenings and comes in when called. He’s brought us a few mice.
He and his sister don’t get along anymore, though they used to. The mostly ignore each other, but sometimes will hiss and attack.
My husband was diagnosed with cancer approximately two years ago, when this spraying started, and I can’t help but wonder if this has contributed to the problem, as the household was in a lot of turmoil at the time.
I have tried everything -- drugs from the vet, Feliway, sprays, etc. -- but he continues to spray. There are three litter boxes indoors, and one outside, which he does use. He is very skittish and afraid, but he has always been this way. -- E.D., Potomac, Maryland
DEAR E.D.: Certainly a home in turmoil can upset cats, and spray-marking and house soiling are not uncommon reactions. What is important in your case is the fact that your cat still sprayed inside the house after you followed the vet's advice and let him out. I would never have recommended this, but many vets do. This probably makes things worse with outdoor cat fights and bites, bringing home fleas and other more serious potential health problems, as I document in the article “Releasing Cats to Live Outdoors” on my website, DrFoxVet.net.
Frankly, I find it ethically unprofessional for veterinarians to suggest such "outdoor therapy" for indoor cats who start to spray, a suggestion widely made in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States. Letting the cat out could mean cat fights, death by automobile or a cat who comes home and sprays inside the home because he is insecure and needs to mark his territory.
There are other reasons why cats spray, and many effective treatments including pheromones, behavior changes, mood- and anxiety-modifying drugs and activities other than letting the cat run free. For your cat, I would have the veterinarian rule out stress-related cystitis and possibly stones or calculi before consulting with an animal behavioral therapist.
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