Some of the saddest emails 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: Their 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 when petted, not biting, speaks volumes about her good temperament, despite her extreme pain.
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 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 the 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 -- such as 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.
how to hold a cat
Q: When I was growing up we had a cat who'd tolerate just about anything, including being held in any position and even being dressed up for tea parties. (Well, for a while, anyway.) The cat I have now isn't like that at all. He doesn't like our kids holding him. How can we get him to tolerate it better? He doesn't bite or scratch, but can't get away fast enough.
He likes the kids, and rubs against them. He just doesn't seem comfortable in their arms. -- via email
A: Children and cats are natural together, but you need to lay some ground rules for the safety of both. I think with some careful, secure handling, your cat can learn to enjoy -- or at least tolerate -- more attention from your kids. Maybe he'll even learn to be dressed up someday!
Cats can bite or scratch children, and animals can be injured by the well-meaning attention of children, especially young ones. The key to keeping children and cats together safely is to make sure their interactions are supervised, and to teach children how to handle and respect cats.
Teach your children how to hold a cat properly, with support under the animal's chest and legs. A cat who feels secure and safe is far less likely to scratch or bite.
Toddlers can really try a cat's patience, even though they aren't being anything but normal. Young children can't understand that poking, squeezing and patting aren't appreciated. Although most cats figure out quickly that children this age are best avoided, your children could be bitten or scratched if your cat is cornered or startled. Keep an eye on all interactions. And consider putting a baby gate across the entry to a "safe room" for your cat, so he can have a place to go where he isn't pestered.
School-aged children can learn to care for a cat and take an increasing amount of responsibility -- under supervision, of course. One way to teach younger school-aged children is to play the "copycat game." If your children pet the cat gently, stroke their arms gently to show how nice it feels.
And always teach your children to let go when the squirming starts. A cat who wants to go will get away one way or the other, and you don't want him fighting to get free. Build up a tolerance for time in the arms of your children and I think he'll do fine. -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
now even more critical
-- Giving heartworm preventive has never been more critical than now with news that the drug used to treat infestations of the parasite will not be available in the near future. In a letter sent in early August, Merial, the manufacturer of the drug Immiticide, asked veterinarians to conserve existing supplies. The announcement led to some "stocking up," and now Merial has no product to sell.
The American Heartworm Society has provided guidelines to veterinarians on how to manage heartworm disease until the drug's supply is back to normal, guidelines that include restricting exercise for parsite-infested dogs to prevent collapse. The problem is most critical for shelters; studies show that up to 60 percent of shelter dogs test positive for the parasites, which can be fatal. Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes, and easily prevented by a monthly medication with a good safety record.
-- Dogs are being used in nearly a dozen states to calm witnesses before they are called to take the stand in court. Houston's program is designed specifically for domestic abuse cases and given a clever name: Paw and Order SDU (Special Dog Unit). The programs are not without controversy; defense attorneys have challenged this program, saying the dogs' presence may make witnesses more appealing and, as such, more believable.
-- Studies suggest that in 80 percent of households where an animal is being abused, children are also being victimized. Starting Oct. 1, Connecticut will be the latest of a handful of states that require the reporting of animal abuse should trigger an investigation of child or spousal abuse as well.
-- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.