Helping your pets cope Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Monday, 21 March 2016 07:57
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Dr Liesel van der Merwe is a small animal medicine specialist. Send her your questions: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by a veterinarian specialising in behaviour problems in animals.

I must say that I left quite saddened, as most abnormal behaviour patterns are due to the lifestyle our pets lead with us or are acquired due to learned behaviour encouraged by their owners.

The speaker started off by mentioning that many of the “funny” clips on YouTube regarding animals are actually aberrant behaviours.

Stress builds up in the animal and if there is no species-specific appropriate release event or environment it may translate into aberrant behaviour.

Owners may then reward or punish this behaviour without understanding why it is happening, instead of resolving the underlying problem.

Contributors are physical or social environment, lack of resources and lack of typical releasing behaviours for the species. If there is no opportunity for distressing by performance of normal species-specific behaviour then the pet may redirect its behaviour to a less suitable target, engage in vacuum activity or display displacement activities. Some types of behaviour may include:

Frustration: The dog is motivated to perform a behaviour but is prevented to do so.

Displacement behaviour: A normal behaviour shown at an inappropriate time, appearing out of context, for example when a large dog yawns if it is stressed by too close contact, such as hugging.

Redirected behaviour: A dog motivated to perform an activity but unable to gain access, directs behaviour at an alternative target, such as biting its sibling if it can’t get to the dog on the other side of the fence.

Vacuum activity: A pet highly motivated to perform instinctive behaviour but can find no available outlet, may perform vacuum activity, such as tail chasing or compulsive licking.

Locomotor compulsive disorders (chasing tail or running up and down the fence) tend to develop in situations of stress, anxiety, conflict or frustration.

Oral and self-directed compulsive activities, such as licking and chewing, may occur without any obvious conflict, more likely in situations with minimal stimulation. It might serve as a coping mechanism, leading to reduction of stress.

As owners we must reward or punish consistently. Before punishing behaviour, think it through from a dog’s perspective. Why is it responding in that way? Can we  prevent it rather than punish it?

Often I hear from clients that the dog has a large yard to exercise in. This they seem to think takes away any responsibility they have to interact with the pet, play and exercise the pet or take it for walks. Well, it does not. 

Dogs will not generally exercise without being joined by other dogs and by their owners. They enjoy social interaction. If they are just left in the back yard, many may develop some stress-induced behaviours.

Bored dogs will find something to do to release their stress and fulfil their need for activity or interaction. Some dogs start licking on their lower limbs and develop large sore patches called acral lick granulomas. This turns into a vicious cycle: the more they lick the more it “tingles” and the more they lick. With most compulsive behavioural disorders there is alteration in the neurotransmitters, resulting in progression of the behaviour.

I used to watch Cesar Millan’s ‘The Dog Whisperer’ programme and I remember him always working his dogs before feeding them. His opinion was that they needed to fulfil a need to work for their food as they would in the wild. My dogs now get breakfast scattered all over the front garden and they have to forage for their pellets. It keeps them busy for a good 30 minutes. Additionally they don’t gulp their food down, which is healthier.

Dogs are social animals and when they can see and hear things but not get close enough to interact, their levels of frustration will rise. Take them out for walks on a routine basis so they don’t work themselves up wondering: Are we? Aren’t we?

Even if the walk has to be very short, just getting out of the yard to look and smell may be all that is necessary to allow de-stressing of the day’s built-up frustrations.

Try to understand why your dog is acting like it is. Dogs aren’t humans. Don’t put your own personal interpretation on their actions. They are pack animals with a social hierarchy and have set behaviours and responses if not interfered with too much by us.

The onus is on us to allow appropriate release of these instincts within a world which is very much different to what the original ‘dog’ grew up in.

(Information from: Dr Frederique Hurley, Behavivet, Benoni)


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