Dealing with behavioural issues


Behavioural issues are reasonably common in dogs and cats, and can involve various types of anxious, aggressive, obsessive, impulsive or confused behaviours.

Symptoms of a behavioural issue can include:

  • Anxiety with unfamiliar situations or people, where your pet cowers, shakes, urinates with fear, tries to escape, or even lashes out with biting or scratching
  • Signs of panic, destructiveness, or escape attempts when left alone, or during thunderstorms or fireworks
  • Aggressive behaviours, such as becoming dangerously possessive over objects or territory
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation inside the house
  • Obsessive behaviours, such as excessive tail-chasing or barking at shadows
  • Confused behaviour, such as appearing to forget normal training or sleeping routines, or seeming lost

Can’t my animal just live with their behavioural “quirk”?

Animals with a genuine behaviour problem can suffer from reduced quality of life, and their behaviour can be stressful or harmful to other animals or people around them. Improper management of your pet’s issue can unfortunately worsen the problem. It’s therefore very important for affected animals to receive the correct diagnosis and management for their specific problem.

How should behavioural issues be managed?

If you suspect a behavioural issue in your pet, it’s best to book an appointment with your veterinarian, where you can discuss your pet’s symptoms and have them further assessed.

Your vet will perform an examination of your pet and, in some cases, may also recommend further health tests such as blood and urine testing to ensure there isn’t an underlying medical reason for your pet’s behaviour. Common examples of medical issues causing abnormal behavioural symptoms include:

  • Hyperthyroidism causing agitation or aggression in cats
  • “Hidden” pain (e.g. neck or back pain) causing aggression during handling
  • Bladder or kidney issues causing inappropriate urination
  • Brain lesions (e.g. tumours) causing signs of confusion

Additionally, sometimes “behavioural issues” can actually be an undesirable but normal response of a pet to an environment that is not meeting their natural needs for mental or physical health. For example, some cases of problem barking can be due to inadequate exercise or mental stimulation being provided for a working dog breed, whilst some inappropriate toileting in cats can be due to unwillingness to use a dirty or otherwise unsuitable litter tray.

If your vet diagnoses a behavioural issue, they may recommend one or several of the following options, depending on your pet’s particular problem:

  • A trial of prescription behavioural medications or other supportive aids -
    It is important to note that in most cases, medication is unlikely to be a 'quick fix' and is usually not sufficient as a sole treatment. Medications generally work best when they are used to calm your pet’s heightened or abnormal mental state, so they can focus better during behavioural modification (i.e. 'brain retraining!') exercises that will help with the underlying problem in the long term.
  • Referral to a specially-trained behaviour veterinarian for further assessment and assistance.
  • Working with an approved trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques.

By working closely with your veterinarian, you’re likely to achieve the best possible outcome – for both your pet and yourself!