September 18, 2008

Experts Explain Reasons Behind Pet Behavior

Puzzled about why Fido acts the way he does?  Although some pet behaviors may seem a bit odd, there is usually a sound reason for all of them. 

As Cesar Millan, host of the National Geographic Channel's Dog Whisperer, says "pay attention"¦.you can break the code."

For example, many pets spontaneously start running through the house as though they are on fire, appearing almost crazy to their unsuspecting owners. 

Millan attributes this behavior to simple boredom.

"Satisfied, fulfilled dogs do not do this," he told Woman's Day magazine.

"If you're away most of the day, or don't play with him enough, his energy has nowhere to go. It just builds up inside him until it explodes. This could be triggered by a scent, the sight of another dog on TV, or just his own frustration."

Cats can flip out from time to time for precisely the same reason.

"In their natural environment, they would be hunting outdoors," said Bonnie Beaver, author of Feline Behavior and a professor of small animal sciences at Texas A&M University.

"Today, the biggest thing they do is walk to their bowls to eat, then go back to sleep. All of their energy gets suppressed, and it can come out in a big burst," she told Woman's Day.

It's not difficult to calm them down, she said.   Increasing their activity to tire them out is typically all that's required. This might mean teasing a cat with a ball on a string or a battery powered toy.  For dogs, throwing a ball or Frisbee or letting him run in the park would likely do the trick.   The bottom line is that all animals, even the most aloof, require some type of stimulation.

Another odd behavior is some of the funny noises your pet may make at times. For instance, your cat may be gazing at a bird outside the window and then suddenly begins making a bizarre noise that sounds something like a strange chirping sound while simultaneous jaw clicks.   Experts call this chattering.

"It's a high-pitched, fast, stuttering kind of noise," Beaver explained.

So, what does this mean then? Justine Lee, an emergency veterinary specialist in St. Paul, Minnesota and author of  It's a Cat's World"¦You Just Live in It, says it may simply be your cat signaling a desire for a meal.

"Cats do this when they feel predatory but frustrated, and are unable to reach their prey," she told Woman's Day.

And while dogs don't chatter, they do whine conversationally as a means of communication.

"If they spot a cat, they may whine to express predatory drive; if they see a dog, they might whine because they want to play," said Lee.

Beaver said that if a dog begins whining with an added "oof" sound while standing at your feet he simply wants a little more attention.

Perhaps the most unusual pet behavior is one that makes many owners cringe in sympathy upon seeing the latest Stanley Steemer commercial in which a dog rubs his bum across his horrified owner's carpet.  Known as "scooting", this behavior is sometimes caused by irritation of feces-encrusted hair or gastrointestinal worms.  However, the most common cause is infected or impacted anal glands.

"Dogs have two large sacs inside their rectum that carry their personal scent," said Beaver.

"These usually empty when they go to the bathroom, but may become overly full of fluid or sebaceous material. They then begin to itch and the dog seeks relief by scooting."

And it's not only dogs that "scoot", cats do it too, and excess weight can make them more likely to do so.

"The heavier the cat, the more trouble she'll have emptying her sacs," says Beaver, who recommends taking affected pets to the groomer or vet.

"They need to have their glands expressed," said Lee, who cautioned owners to be concerned about any chronic scooting with blood.
"It can indicate an abscess, severe inflammation or a rare cancer called anal sac adenocarcinoma," she said.

But if your pet seems ok, the scooting is likely harmless.  One way to be sure the behavior is benign is if your dog begins scratching the ground with his nails after he "scoots" on it.

"He may simply be spreading his scent on a new environment to make it more familiar to him," said Millan.

Another behavior, one that often gives pet owners a good laugh, is when a dog chasses his own body parts, circling around in a frenzy trying to grab his tail.  While amusing to watch, it is less humorous when you consider what's really happening.

"It's his cheap way of finding a toy," says Lee.

"It usually means that he's desperate for some environmental enrichment."

She recommends the Kong, available at pet retailers such as PetSmart and Petco, and then putting treats or peanut butter in to the toy.  Your dog will then have many happy hours trying to ferret it out. Additionally, games of fetch and daily walks will also mentally stimulate your dog.

Experts caution, however, that if you see your dog biting his tail (or feet), it's time to take him to the vet as this could signal allergies or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Physical affection is the wrong response here, as it can actually serve to reinforce the behavior, Millan said.

Cats differ from dogs in this behavior in that they tend to chase after their friends' tails (and human ankles) as well as nipping at their own.  

"Our houses are relatively clean these days, so indoor cats don't use up their allotment of prey-chasing," said Beaver.

"When anything in the vicinity twitches, it can trigger a cat-and-mouse game."

In this case, a furry toy that stimulates memories of the hunt will keep your cat happy.