A 10-year-old cat who has always been pretty relaxed suddenly starts zooming around the house every day.
A 4-year-old golden retriever who has been always been a sweetheart suddenly starts snapping when her ear is touched.
A 7-year-old cat suddenly starts soiling the rugs regularly, even though there has been no change in the location, filler or cleanliness of the litter box.
Will training fix these problems? Probably not, because at their root, chances are they're medical in nature.
People often become frustrated or even frightened by a sudden change in their pets' behavior. Then they'll look for one simple training tip that will bring back the problem-free relationship they had with their animal companions. But sometimes what pet lovers assume is a behavioral problem really isn't -- it's a medical problem, one that will be resolved only with proper diagnosis and treatment.
That zooming cat? There's a pretty good chance she has a condition called hyperthyroidism, in which the thyroid gland overproduces, and in so doing prompts behavior changes in a cat whose body is suddenly supercharged.
That snappy retriever? A painful ear infection may be the culprit. The fact that she's snapping, not biting, when petted despite her extreme pain speaks volumes about her good temperament.
And what about the cat whose perfect potty habits are suddenly gone? His case could have any number of medical causes behind it, from an infection or kidney disease to diabetes.
With good medical care, all three of these pets will likely be made healthy again, and should return to their previous patterns of good behavior. Cases such as these make clear why the first rule of solving any behavior problem is to make sure that it's not a medical problem. This is especially true if the behavior change is sudden.
If you start trying to retrain a pet who's sick, not only will you get nowhere but you'll also delay the resolution of a condition that may be causing your pet discomfort or pain.
It's important to know what's normal for your pet, and to be looking for small changes in appearance or behavior that could be the early signs of illness, even before they prompt annoying behavior problems. It's important to always keep an eye on your pet's condition, for example, being careful to note a loss in weight, a newfound dullness to his coat or a change in energy levels.
Changes in eating and elimination habits are also worthy of investigation, as are subtle shifts in temperament -- like a pet who seems a little more aloof, or more clingy.
Double your vigilance when your pet crosses into the senior years. Many of the problems pet lovers assume are just part of the aging process -- stiff joints or absentmindedness -- can be treated, with both traditional and alternative methods available. Such treatments can vastly improve your aging pet's quality of life, and yours as well, since you won't be dealing with the accompanying behavior problems.
Don't wait until the change in your pet escalates to a point where he is an annoyance -- get your pet the help that's needed now. You may be able to resolve any health problems before they change your pet's behavior for the worse.
While sometimes pets eat or roll in things that make the animals temporarily difficult to be around, if you're constantly wincing at your pet's objectionable odor, you need to make an appointment with your veterinarian. Bad breath can be a sign of rotting teeth or gums, and smelly ears are often a result of infections. An overall bad smell may indicate skin problems.
Don't ignore these warning signs. Disease can make your pet miserable and shorten his life. Stinky pets aren't normal. Proper diagnosis and treatment by a veterinarian can improve your pet's quality of life -- and your life, as well, by keeping your pet sweet-smelling.
PETS ON THE WEB
You know a breed has arrived when it turns up on a top TV show, as the little Cavalier King Charles spaniel did recently on HBO's "Sex in the City." These days, when I take my 2-year-old Cavalier, Chase, out in public, I'm asked two questions right away: "Can I pet him?" and "Where can I get one like him?" The answer to the first is always "yes," but the second's a little harder to help with.
This is one breed that comes with a big "caution" sign, because of a life-threatening congenital heart condition that's pervasive in these sweet-natured toy spaniels. This condition has killed many of these dogs in their prime. And while with all breeds it's important to buy from a reputable breeder, it's especially important with these dogs. Required reading can be found on the CKCS Club -- USA Web site (www.ckcsc.org) and the American CKCS Club (www.ackcsc.org).
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I wholeheartedly agree with your recent article on outside dogs and hope that people take your advice not to get a dog if it is not going to be part of the family. How sad it is to think of all the lonely dogs outside alone year after year.
Could you mention one more reason not to abandon a dog to the outdoors? In addition to all the points you made, these dogs are probably denied prompt and proper medical care because their owners do not notice their ailments. -- K.P.H., via e-mail
A: As happens every time I write about a controversial topic, I got a lot of mail on this column, from both sides. Those people who keep their pets outside were predictably angry to have anyone question the care of their dogs.
Happily for the dogs of the world, the numbers of letters from people who agree that dogs are not happy living their lives completely alone outside were much in the majority. Their numbers were bolstered by people who agree for a different reason -- they live near outdoor dogs, and have to listen to the barking of these neglected pets day and night.
Humane societies, behaviorists and other experts have long agreed that making a dog part of the family makes them not only happier, but also less likely to be a nuisance or a danger.
And yes, I neglected to mention your point, that dogs who live completely outdoor lives may not get the attention they need when it comes to medical care. That's because it can be difficult to spot the sometimes subtle signs of early illness in an animal who isn't living underfoot.
Q. I had always been told that yellow spots in the yard were caused by the female dogs. Now that I have only males, I find that is not correct.
Is there a way to prevent these spots, something to add to a dog's food or water? I'm looking forward to your answer, and to some greener grass. -- J.M., Carmichael, Calif., via e-mail
Female dogs take the rap for destroying lawns because they are more likely to release a large quantity of urine in a single spot, while the males are more likely to spread theirs in smaller amounts on vertical surfaces such as trees and shrubs. But as you've found out, even male dogs can release enough urine to trash a lawn.
Pet-supply catalogs carry food additives that are advertised to minimize the damage. There are also many folk remedies floating about, suggesting the addition of substances intended to change the nature or the volume of the urine produced.
I hesitate to recommend any additives to a pet's food or water, however. First, the results seem to be pretty mixed, at best, and second, I don't like to suggest adding anything to a pet's diet that's not being put there for the good of the animal. (I'm not saying the additives are dangerous, mind you, but that I don't like adding things to a pet's food unless it's going to be beneficial for them, not the lawn.)
The best solution is to set aside a less-visible part of your yard for your dogs to relieve themselves in. If that's not possible, you should dilute the urine by immediately flushing the area where your dogs have urinated with a couple gallons of water from the hose. This should lessen the fertilizing effect of the urine and help keep your lawn from spotting up.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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