Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/18/2007 10:01:11 AM ET 2007-04-18T14:01:11

When Watachie, a German shepherd, was just 4 months old, he totally demolished a sofa, ripping the cushions to shreds.

“I got home from work and the living-room floor was covered 3 feet deep with fabric pieces, fiber, magazine scraps and who knows what else,” says his owner, Liz Palika of Oceanside, Calif. “Standing where my sofa used to be was a 2-by-4-foot frame with springs attached.”

Calico kitty Angel perched on top of a computer monitor and urinated into the air vents. “All of a sudden, my screen went all weird and the monitor started hissin’ and smokin’,” says Wendy Christensen of New Ipswich, N.H.

We’ve all heard about them — the dogs and cats with what could charitably be called extreme behavior issues. Indeed, the stories make for some good laughs and entertaining home videos on TV, but the end result isn't always so funny.

The leading nonmedical cause of death for dogs and cats is euthanasia for unwanted behaviors. That’s tragic, because most such problems stem from normal, natural behaviors — barking, chewing, scratching, eliminating — that can be controlled with early training, regular reinforcement throughout the animal’s life and an understanding of a pet’s need for exercise and mental stimulation, as well as certain standards of hygiene. In extreme cases, anxiety medications can help.

There goes the house
Dogs, in particular, often are given up for their destructive tendencies. They’ve been known to chew the siding off homes, dig up newly installed sprinkler systems and underground wiring, and destroy mail delivered through a door slot.

It's not hard to see why when you consider that dogs have been bred for generations to pull sleds, herd sheep, hunt all day or guard flocks. So they need plenty of mental and physical activity to occupy themselves, and simply having a yard to play in while people are gone all day isn’t enough.

After Watachie destroyed the sofa, Palika called a dog trainer for help. Watachie went on to earn an obedience trial championship, attend the Frisbee World Finals, learn to pull a wagon and become a certified search and rescue dog. Palika herself is now a dog trainer and author of "The KISS Guide to Raising a Puppy."

“The No. 1 reason dogs end up in shelters is that people don’t start training early enough and then don’t continue with the dog’s training either at home or with a trainer,” Palika says. “Puppies should begin training as soon as their vet gives them clearance to do so, and owners should continue training throughout the dog’s adolescence.”

Animals usually are surrendered to shelters during the adolescent period, which starts at 8 months of age and continues until about 2 years, says Jill Goldman, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Laguna Beach, Calif.

“Behaviors that were seen as puppies may have been manageable because the animal was small and wasn’t able to do much damage," she says. "But when the animal becomes larger, then the problems become larger as well and less easy to be managed.”

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When it comes to bad behavior, cats most often are abandoned for house soiling.

Sara, a 7-year-old cat, up and stopped using her litter box. Instead, she was urinating throughout the house. In frustration, her owners banished her to the garage, where she began pulling her fur out from stress.

Many cats in Sara’s situation are given up, often to the local animal shelter, where they’re more likely to be euthanized than treated and placed in a new home. Sara was lucky. Her owners sought the advice of Sheila Segurson, a veterinary behaviorist at Sacramento Veterinary Behavior Services in California.

Sara, as it turned out, had an aversion to her litter box because her owners only scooped it every four or five days. She was also fearful of visitors to the home and felt threatened when she saw other animals outside the windows of her home.

Segurson advised scooping Sara’s litter box daily, changing the litter and cleaning the box weekly and placing the box in a room that was quiet and out of the way. She also recommended enriching Sara’s environment by providing regular playtime and giving her a tall climbing post with a high perch where she could see everything going on in the room and feel safe. Within three weeks, Sara was living in the house again and her fur was growing back.

In the case of Angel, the computer-wrecking cat, there was a medical reason for her bad behavior: a flare-up of cystitis, a bladder infection. Once she was treated, Christensen built a nice comfy platform for the cat that sits on top of her new, fully functioning monitor.

Angel is a poster cat for seeking the advice of a veterinarian when a pet’s behavior isn’t all that it should be. Pain or other physical problems can cause your dog or cat to behave abnormally in an attempt to express that something’s wrong.

When people and pets don't mix
Goldman says that many times animal-behavior problems result because people and pets aren’t a good match. Too often, pets are chosen for appearance rather than the reality of their temperament and exercise needs.

“If somebody has a couch-potato lifestyle, but they have an animal that requires a lot of activity and exercise, it’s not going to be a good match,” Goldman says.

To help, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals developed the “Meet Your Match” program, which pairs distinct canine and feline personalities with adopters whose personality and lifestyle fit them best. After completing a questionnaire about the traits they want in a pet, people are directed toward cats or dogs that meet those requirements. Responsible breeders go through much the same process when matching up puppies or kittens and people.

This can be especially helpful for pet owners with little kids.

“We get so many owner surrenders because people have small children and a rambunctious, unruly springer,” says Kate Kyer, a rescue and adoption coordinator for English Springer Rescue America in Frisco, Texas. “The dog wants to play, jumps around, knocks over the toddler and is tossed out in the backyard, where it becomes bored. A bored dog becomes destructive and obnoxious. Next thing I know, we get a 2- to 9-year-old springer that is pronounced ‘untrainable’ and ‘too active,’ all for want of attention.”

Unrealistic expectations about the amount of time needed for training contribute to the problem. Dogs and cats don’t come programmed with good house manners.

“I refer to dog training as at least 60 percent ‘people training,’” Kyer says. “The whole family must be entirely engaged in the process.”

If you’ve already discovered that your lifestyle doesn’t mesh with your dog’s activity level, be prepared to make changes to satisfy your dog’s needs, whether that’s taking it on longer or more frequent walks (good for you, too!), hiring a dog walker or lining up the kid next door to throw tennis balls for it until they’re both worn out.

As for cats, pet owners probably won't be able train their feline friends to stop scratching the carpet, but there are ways to redirect the behavior into something positive. For instance, try placing a few cardboard scratching boxes around the house and sprinkle them with catnip to entice kitty to use them. Or invest in a carpet- and rope-covered kitty tower that will attract your cat’s claws.

With some breeds, particularly toy dogs, house-training is a big issue. When a breeder tells you that, don’t assume that your dog will be the exception.

When Marsha Pugh of Hughesville, Md., brought home her first Italian greyhound puppy Expo, his first act was to jump onto her coffee table, up onto the back of her sofa and lift his leg on her curtains. It took months of praise and treats for outdoor elimination before she considered him even marginally house-trained.

Don't leave me!
Sometimes, training or the lack thereof isn’t the problem. Dogs and cats often suffer from separation anxiety, which can result in such behaviors as obsessive licking or chewing and urinating inappropriately — often on the bed.

Synthetic pheromones such as Feliway for cats and DAP for dogs are aimed at calming anxious pets and ending anxiety-related problems.

In the case of Molly, a greyhound owned by Roxanne Willems Snopek of Abbotsford, British Columbia, medication and environmental management helped.

“Molly responded beautifully to [anxiety medication] Clomicalm, and we modified our life by closing bedroom doors when we left her alone,” Snopek says. “If we ever tried to cut down her dose or forgot a few days, she let us know right away by pacing, peeing and generally looking like she was expecting a tax audit.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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