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Johnson County Humane Society

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Animal Behavior Concerns

|   Behavior Can Be a Killer   |   Define the Problem   |   Measure Your Commitment   |   Do a Behavior Audit   |   Your Impressions Count   |   Get Help   |  Consider an Animal Communicator   |   Behavior Links   |

Behavior Can Be a Killer

“Behavior problems” kill more companion animals than any other cause of death. Sad but true.

“She barks at everything that moves.”
“If that cat hangs his butt out over the litterbox one more time, I’m gonna scream.”
“I only went to the grocery store but by the time I got home, the dog had eaten the whole side off the chair.”

Animals exhibiting problem behaviors are not bad animals. This is a very important concept, especially when children are involved. The last thing we want is for children to grow up thinking that animals are expendable, or “things” to be discarded simply because they do what we want, or fail to please us.

Define the “Problem”

What (specifically) is your concern? Write it down as a statement.

Graphic Animation:  Dog drinking from toilet.

Be completely honest.

What is the focus of your animal’s issues?
  Other animals?...(generalized or specific)   The primary caregiver?...(defending/dominating)
  Other human family members?...(generalized or specific)    Human strangers/guests?...(generalized or specific)
  The animal’s territory?...(marking or defending)   The animal herself?...(self-destructive behaviors)

Find the pattern. (There always is one, sometimes we’re just too dense to see it. Use a calendar to keep track of incidences and consider keeping a journal.) When did the problem behavior start? How long-standing is it? Is it constant or intermittent? What makes it worse/better?

Consider any coping or behavior modification methods you have already tried and their effects on the behavior. Again, be completely honest.

What circumstances motivate this animal to behave or misbehave? (When the parents argue, the child cries, and the cat sucks wool to relieve her stress.)

How much negative reinforcement is operating? (When Luther starts barking, the owner immediately distracts him by picking Luther up, hugging him, and talking baby talkif you were Luther, you’d bark too if you knew your favorite person would hug and make a fuss over you.) 

Could other mixed messages be getting in the way? (Cheetah, who persistently rearranges the dried flowers in the vase on the table is caught in the act. “Cheetah, I saw you do that! Come here!” Cheetah hesitates but reluctantly comes forward. You pick Cheetah up and hold him in front of your face and yell “No, no, no! Don’t you ever do that again! ” If you were Cheetah, you’d be confused by the mixed message. She called me, I went over to her, and then she picked me up and yelled in my face for obeying her.)

Graphic Animation:  Cat scratching the trousers of a dressed-up business woman.

The problem with punishment (i.e., negative reinforcement) is that it just can’t be implemented quickly enough. For this to work, you have to be there with that punishment the nanosecond the animal misbehaves. Additionally, you have to be there with that punishment every single time Cheetah messes with those dried flowers.

You’d be much better off setting mousetraps on the table and covering them with a sheet of newspaper. This is one reason why it’s so important to consider the effect of your immediate reaction toward the animal after the problem behavior occurs.


Graphic Animation:  Cat dipping in goldfish bowl.

Could it be that this example of abnormal or aberrant or inappropriate behavior is actually an example of normal or instinctual or appropriate behavior? (Your terrier constantly digs herself out under your fence to escape. Your Siamese cat has a loud voice and “talks” too much. Most animal behavior is due to natural instinct, and as such it is generally age-predictable, normal, and appropriate.)

Identify myths and old spouse’s tales regarding the care and training of animals. (How many times do you hear “housebreaking is easy, all you have to do is rub her nose in it?”)

Use your resources! (Talk to your veterinarian. Surf the Web. Get books from the library or bookstore.)

Measure Your Commitment

Not everyone knows how (or cares) to think like a cat or a dog, or a horse or a rabbit.

How committed are you to keeping the animal if the behavior could be modified. Sometimes the “light at the end of the tunnel” is a lifesaver (literally).

What level of behavior change would it take for the animal to be allowed to stay in your home? (Complete change, partial change?)

How committed is the rest of your household to help modify the animal’s behavior? (Since the key to behavior modification is consistency, everyone who interacts with the animal on a daily basis needs to be part of the team.)

Photo:  Libby grooming her kitten, Misty.

Do a Behavior Audit

By what names (including nicknames) is your animal called? (The names people choose for their pets can be enlightening.)

What do you know about your animal’s lineage? (Aging often brings on physical disorders that can effect behavior like hyperthyroidism, failing eyesight, arthritis, etc. Some behaviors are especially “typey” for particular breeds.)

When was this animal’s last vet visit? What was it for? What was the outcome? (If the “problem” is indiscriminate peeing, your animal needs a urinalysis to rule out a medical concern before behavior modification is initiated.)

Evaluate your current brand of food. (Allergies to food additives can cause all sorts of behavioral and physical problems.)


Which drugs (and dosages) is this animal currently taking? (A dog on Lasix for congestive heart failure is more likely to pee inside before you get home because she can’t hold her urine as long due to the diuretic effect of the drug.)

Has this animal been declawed? (It’s not unusual for declawed cats to become “bitey” because they’ve lost part of their natural defenses. Inappropriate elimination is seen as a result of declawing in some cases where the softer, postoperative litter was not used until the paws were completely healed.)

Evaluate your current brand of litter. (Heavily perfumed litter can end up smelling dreadful after it’s been peed on.)

How often is the litter box scooped? (“At least every week” is a telling response.)

How often (and with what) is the litter box itself cleaned? (Some people have never done this! Remember that phenols, contained in products like Lysol or PineSol, are TOXIC to cats.)

Where is the litter box kept? (If it’s too close to the food and water dishes, or out in the midst of traffic patterns, there are bound to be problems.)

Graphic Animation:  Smelly litterbox. Clean litterbox.

Download our Behavior Audit, a file you can download and print.

The Behavior Audit is a PDF file. If you don’t already have Adobe’s Acrobat Reader (the application necessary to read PDF files), click the button below to download it for free.
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Your Impressions Count

After completing the audit, take some time to think.

What strikes you the most about what’s going on?

How competent is your animal? (Does he seem:  fearful angry depressed stressed ill bored content?)

Animated Grafic: Cat building a sandcastle in litterbox.

How would you characterize your household? (Does it seem:  tense chaotic loud quiet peaceful?)

Do the humans involved agree as to the problem?


JCHS Does Animal Behavior Consults

Cat BehaviorMany (ok, ok, most) JCHS members live with cats. One or two are willing to work with caregivers who have feline behavior concerns. Phone consults and home visits are possible.

In addition, printed material about the following issues is available upon request. E-mail us.

  Aggression   Fears, Phobias, and Stress
  Behavior Patterns Conflicting with Domestication   Inappropriate Elimination
  Bonding/Attachment    Ingestive Behavior Problems
  Excessive Grooming   Scratching and Shredding

Dog BehaviorSue Pearson (Spot & Co.) runs positive-reinforcement obedience classes for puppies and adult dogs throughout the year and has generously agreed to field dog-behavior questions for us. Please schedule requests for phone consults by e-mailing Sue directly.

In addition, printed material the following issues is available upon request. E-mail us.



 Fears, Phobias, and Stress

 Hyperactivity, Noise, and Destruction

 Inappropriate Elimination and Marking

 Ingestive Behavior Problems

 Roaming and Escape


Consider a Consultation with an Animal Communicator

We are fortunate that one of our members, Sondy Kaska, is an animal communicator. Understanding your animal companion’s reason for a particular behavior can help you arrive at a resolution satisfactory to both of you. Excessive barking, failure to use the litter box, fighting between animals in a household, jealousy, over-protectiveness, and a multitude of other behavioral issues can be addressed.

To learn more about animal communication and how to schedule an appointment, download Sondy’s brochure.

Sondy’s brochure is a PDF file. If you don’t already have Adobe’s Acrobat Reader (the application necessary to read PDF files), click the button below to download it for free.
Graphic: Get Adobe Reader

Behavior Links

Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelinesfrom the American Animal Hospital Association

Animal Communicationlinks

Pet Behaviorfrom the Denver Dumb Friends League


Cat Behavior Topicsfrom the Sacramento SPCA


Cat Fancier’s Guide to Problem BehaviorsCindy Tittle Moore’s legendary opus from, back when the Internet was in its infancy. It’s still great information!

DooDoo VooDooit’s science, but it works like magic

Planet Urinestop the peeing

The Cats Housethe site was designed after the first book was printed. This is what appears to be t.h.e. most cat-friendly house ever. Great ideas abound.

Don’t Declaw

Declawingit’s more than just a manicure

Issues & Alternativesmedical, ethical, and behavioral concerns

Cat Scratching Solutionssix lessons written by veterinarian Christine Schelling, DVM

Cat Treeplans for building a four-perch structure (2’ x 2’ x 4-6’)

Other scratching post/cat furniture links


Dog Owner’s Guide Topic Listfrom breed profiles and tips for choosing the best dog for your lifestyle to kids and dogs to canine aggression



JCHS Booklists

Animal Communication

Feline Behavior


Last update:  07/01/17

Contact Us

JCHS      P.O. BOX 2775      IOWA CITY, IA  52244-2775


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