Some of the saddest letters I get are from people who are punishing or even contemplating ending the lives of formerly well-mannered pets with new behavior problems. So many of these pet lovers chalk up the changes to "spite" or some other offbeat reason while missing the most obvious reason of all:
The pet is sick.
Some everyday examples:
-- An 8-year-old cat who has always been pretty relaxed suddenly starts zooming around, knocking things off tables and using claws in play.
-- A 9-year-old collie mix who has always been trustworthy and happy suddenly starts snapping when being petted.
-- A 6-year-old cat suddenly starts missing the litter box, even though there has been no change in the location, filler or cleanliness.
People often 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 snapping dog? A painful ear infection may be the culprit, or perhaps joint pain. 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 be able to be well-mannered pets again. 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 look 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 overall 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. If you're already dealing with unwanted behavior, call your veterinarian first. Because punishing a sick pet isn't fair, and it won't fix a thing.
Veterinary behaviorists: Best of both worlds
A veterinary behaviorist can be the answer to many a difficult pet-behavior challenge. These veterinarians have additional training and certification in animal behavior, and so can work with pet lovers to address any problem simultaneously from medical and behavioral angles. And, of course, they can prescribe medications that may help with retraining in the short run or fix a behavioral problem permanently in the long run.
Your veterinarian should be able to refer you to a veterinary behaviorist in your area, or you can contact your nearest school or college of veterinary medicine. -- G.S.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori.
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You'll also find more on pet health and behavior, a searchable archive of all past columns, and reviews of "dogmobiles," pet products and pet-care books, along with a popular Web log offering frequent contributions from the entire Pet Connection staff.
What to do when "he" lays an egg
Q: We have a 3-year-old nanday conure. The people we got her from had told us the bird was male, but last night she laid her first egg. What should we do? -- M.C., via e-mail.
A: For help with this one, I turned to Dr. Brian L. Speer, one of the world's top avian veterinarians and my co-author on "Birds for Dummies" (Wiley, $22). Speer says that in such cases, removing the egg is the common recommendation. But there's more to know about egg-laying birds and how to handle them.
"Unlike many mammals, birds do not cycle regularly," says Speer. "Their reproductive cycle is dependent on environmental cues that tend to support and justify the expenditure of energy for reproductive purposes."
Such clues, he says, include thinking there's a mate available, believing there's an adequate nesting site in the cage, having adequate food and a healthy environment. To keep your bird from continuing to lay eggs, Speer says it's important to evaluate the bird's care, especially when it comes to handling and the environment.
Instead of offering your bird the materials that can be used for nesting, says Speer, provide food puzzles stuffed with lower-calorie foods to keep her busy "foraging" for meals in an imitation of how she'd behave in the wild. And just in case a member of your family is being perceived as the "mate," be sure pair-bonding between a single person and bird is discouraged by having all members of the family becoming involved in bird care.
Finally, mix things up. "A bird's environment should be continually changed, altered or moved," says Speer. "That's because constant changes in the environment tend not to encourage or support reproductive activity."
So ... throw the egg away, and then take a good close look at the messages your bird is getting. If they're saying "lay," it's time to shake things up a bit. -- Gina Spadafori
Muddy paw cures
Q: We have a 2-year-old golden retriever. We keep his nails trimmed. But if it's wet when he goes outside, he comes back in with mud all over him. Then we have to wash his feet. Can you declaw dogs? Any ideas? -- D.C., via e-mail
A: You're kidding me, right? You're asking if it's possible to have the tips of your dog's toes hacked off so you don't have to use a towel on his muddy feet? Let's put that idea to rest right away: No, you can't declaw your dog. And even if you could, it wouldn't stop your pet from tracking in mud.
But that doesn't mean you have to have mud all over the house just because your dog goes out in wet weather. To minimize the muck, keep the fur on your dog's feet trimmed short, especially between the pads. That'll limit the amount of mud that sticks to the paws.
And get some mats. Put doormats designed for high-traffic areas both outside and inside all doors to catch as much mud as possible before your pet gets on the carpet. The larger the mats the better, since a bigger size will offer a bigger chance that all four feet will hit the rubber on the way in.
Finally, teach your dog to wait on the inside mat until he's told he can proceed into the house. Keep a towel handy by the door, and use it to wipe off your pet's feet. With consistency and praise, your dog will learn not only to wait until he's wiped, but also to offer each paw in turn to make the job easier. -- Gina Spadafori
Stink? It makes scents to dogs
While veterinary behaviorists aren't sure why dogs like to roll in stinky stuff and eat rotten things, many believe these pets are marking themselves with their most prized possessions to show them off to all of their two-legged and four-legged friends. For a dog, wearing stinky stuff is like wearing the best of all designer-label scents.
Not only do dogs have millions more scent receptors than we have, they are also polar opposites when it comes to putting stuff on their skin. While people like smells that are fresh, floral and fragrant, dogs prefer dirty, dead and (to us) disgusting. While my wife, Teresa, likes to dab herself with her favorite perfume, my dogs have generally preferred scents like pile-of-whatever and long-dead skunk.
Forget trying to prevent your dog from Dumpster-diving or digging up the stinkiest things imaginable. For you it's disgusting; for them it's divine. With thousands of years of practice behind them, dogs will continue to go boldly where no man, or woman, would ever choose to go. The only way to stop the stinky search-and-roll is to keep your dog on the leash -- or teach a foolproof come-hither when called. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Drinking water needs warmth
A frozen source of water isn't any better than no water at all. If you have an outside source of drinking water for any of the animals in your care, make sure the liquid remains unfrozen during winter.
Pet- and farm-supply stores and catalog merchants stock devices for keeping water liquid, from heated bowls to heater coils. They're good investments when it comes to keeping clean, fresh water flowing for any pets who spend time outside. -- Gina Spadafori
Take dogs anywhere in rugged Xterra
When it comes to what makes a good "dogmobile," it's hip to be square.
That's because the safest way to transport a dog is in a crate that's strapped down inside the vehicle. And crates fit best in vehicles that are squared off in the rear.
Problem is, you won't find that many of them. Trends in automotive design tend to favor round edges and sloping backs. Many of the SUVs and crossover wagons I've test-driven have had ample floor space to fit large-sized dog crates in the cargo area, but the sloped-rear design meant you couldn't close the rear hatch.
Not so with the Nissan Xterra. The tough-guy design -- with hard, square edges -- means every inch of cargo space is usable and dog crates fit easily into it. For this reason and a few others, this midsized SUV is one of the best "dogmobiles" I've driven.
The Xterra makes it easy to deal with dirt and dog gear. Grooved rubber in the cargo area keeps the muck contained and makes it easy to clean out. The combination of cargo hooks, racks and countless nooks and crannies means that every bit of gear will fit inside or on top, and can be cinched down for security no matter what road you're on.
The Xterra's also a kick to drive. Mind you, it is a real SUV -- especially the Off-Road edition I was testing, at a tick over $29,000 -- and a certain amount of stiffness goes along with that. But it's comfortable on the highway, surefooted off-road and not even hard to maneuver in city traffic -- and I do mean city traffic: I had it in downtown San Francisco. Fuel economy is a moderate 16/21 mpg.
For an SUV with such an off-road pedigree, the Xterra was surprisingly comfortable, especially the seats, with great lumbar support. It has a well-designed interior, too -- everything you'd want to turn on, turn off or look at is just where you'd want it. -- Gina Spadafori
BY THE NUMBERS
Where kitties snooze
You can buy a nice bed for your cat, but chances are he'd rather sleep in yours. That's one conclusion to draw from a 2004 survey of cat lovers, who were asked where their cats slept (multiple answers allowed):
Anywhere he wants 51 percent
On the bed 51 percent
Couch/chair 41 percent
Floor 23 percent
Garage 12 percent
Cat bed 11 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
Keeping pets in their place
Many people can't deny their pets anything. But overly permissive treatment does not strengthen the bond between people and their pets. It's better to persist, insist and be consistent to help your pet see you as a teacher and a leader.
For example, if you don't want your pet entering a specific room, allow no exceptions. When you are not home, set up a barrier to prevent access. When you're present and able to observe, tell your pet "ah-ah" to interrupt trespassing. If your pet stops, praise him enthusiastically, call him away from the forbidden zone, and offer him a treat. If needed, move the pet back from your virtual barrier. Be patient: The lesson will take quite a few repetitions to learn.
(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
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