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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

Photo: an anngrey Amelia and Bill the cats

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.”

“They wake me up with their fighting and screaming. She stalks him without mercy.”

We know that an animal behavior problem can make you feel like your home has been invaded.

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.

Grafix: cat sticking its head through the blinds

Define the “Problem

What (specifically) is your concern? Write it down as a statement. Really, this will help.

Graphic Animation:  Dog drinking from toilet.

Be completely honest.

Grafic: two cats fighting
What is the focus of your animal’s issues?
Grafic Animation: dog jumping for food
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)
Grafix: a black cat spraying

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 behaviorAgain, 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 talk—if 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.

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 scratching the trousers of a dressed-up business woman.
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. Many animal behaviors are due to genetic hardwiring/natural instinct, and as such they are generally age-predictable, normal, and appropriate.

Identify myths and old spouse’s tales regarding the care and training of animalsHow 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 local bookstore.

Measure Your Commitment

Photo: Desi and Fellini the kittens who stuffed themselves into a basket

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


Do a Behavior Audit

By what names (including nicknames) is your animal called? Demeaning names people choose for their pets (Fleabag, Uglie, etc.) often do speak to attitude and expectation.

What do you know anything about your animal’s lineage? Aging often brings on physical disorders that can effect behavior, hyperthyroidism, failing eyesight, deafness, 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.

Photo: Angelle the cat

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.

Animated Grafic: Cat building a sandcastle in litterbox.

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” just isn’t often enough. How many days do you use the toilet before flushing?

How often (and with what) is the litter box itself cleaned? Some people have never actually washed a litter box! 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.

Your Impressions Count

After completing the Behavior 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?)

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

Do the humans involved agree as to the problem?

Download our Behavior Audit.

The Behavior Audit is a PDF file.
If you don’t already have Adobe’s Acrobat Reader, download it for free.
Graphic: Get Adobe Reader

JCHS Does Cat Behavior Consults

Graphic: Man walking his dog, looking as if the man is flying because the dog is pulling so hard.

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. E-mail us.  

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 consults by e-mail.

Consider 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, download it for free.
Graphic: Get Adobe Reader

Behavior Links

Grafix: cat saying I don't like that brand

Animal Behavior Topics—from the Sacramento SPCA

Animal Communication—links

Does Your Pet Need Therapy?—WebMD

DooDoo VooDoo—it’s science, but it works like magic

Pet Behavior—from the Denver Dumb Friends League

Planet Urine—stop the peeing


Caring for Your New Cat—Johnson County Humane Society

Cat Behaviors A to Z—WebMD

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

The Cats House—the 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.

Caring for Your New Cat is a PDF file.
If you don’t already have Adobe’s Acrobat Reader, download it for free.
Graphic: Get Adobe Reader
Photo: James the cat in his bed, staring at us

Don’t Declaw!

If James (cat to the left and former feral) coud talk, that’s exactly what he’d say.

Onychectomy, aka declawing really is more than just a manicure. It is the aputation of all or part of the last joint of each toe. Look at your hands and feet. Imagine that each digit is missing everything from or including the last joint!

A tenotomy is a surgical procedure where the tendon that allows each claw to engage/disengage is severed. It’s much less invasive than either the “surgical-dissection method” (more preferred) or the “guillotine method” (least preferred) of removing claws.

Declawing (amazingly enough) is still considered to be “controversial” in the USA. Some veterinarians just won’t do it. Others think laser surgery makes the recovery less painful. Still others think a tenotomy is the way to go.

The United Kingdom considers declawing’s illegal there.

Please go to and study this link BEFORE you make an appointment to have a cat declawed.

Declawing—it’s more than just a manicure

Issues & Alternatives—medical, ethical, and behavioral concerns

Cat Scratching Solutions—six lessons written by veterinarian Christine Schelling, DVM

Cat Tree—plans for building a four-perch structure (2’ x 2’ x 4-6’)

Other scratching post/cat furniture links

Grafix: animation of a cat scratching
Photo: Magic the Westie dog



Dogs Behavior Changes in Aging Dogs—WebM

Dog Behaviors A to Z—WebMD

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

Karen Pryor Clicker Training—ten reasons your dog may develop behavior problems

Training Your Dog and Youdog behavior problems: why, what, and how to solve them

Graphic: animated book with flipping pages.

JCHS Booklists

Animal Communication

Feline Behavior

Last update: 02/26/19


Contact Us at

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

NOTE that we are a small group of volunteers, most of whom work during the day. We will get back to you as soon as we can.



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