Animal Behaviour

Understanding your pet

Providing the best care for your pet isn’t just about their physical health – we know you want them to be happy and contented as well. Sadly some pets develop behavioural problems which suggest they are suffering from stress or anxiety. This can lead to a lot of stress for their owners as well.

Typical behaviour problems include cats and dogs urinating in the house, destroying furnishings or being aggressive. Common underlying causes include anxiety, boredom, a phobia of some noises or simply confusion over who is in charge of resources.

Vet and Clinical Director Rob Kilby has a special interest in animal behaviour and has already helped dozens of owners with their problem pets. We’re happy to talk about behaviour issues during our standard appointments but to get to the root of a problem and really do something about it we recommend a specialised session.

Rob will make a visit to your home and spend a minimum of 2 hours with you and your pet, looking at how you can address their problem behaviour. He’ll work out a plan of action with you and will provide a written report afterwards so you don’t miss out on any of his expert advice. You can expect a follow-up phone call a few weeks later to assess progress, and then you’ll agree between you what further appointments may be necessary.

We find a lot of owners let behaviour problems build up over months and years which makes them much harder to treat. If you are worried about any of your pet’s behaviour it’s always easier to nip it in the bud before it becomes well established. Remember we’re always at the end of the phone with free advice if you’re not sure what to do.

Noise Phobia

Some dogs are much more sensitive to noise than others, this is a trait with which they can be born and their subsequent upbringing can influence how they react to noises as they grow up and during adult hood. A traumatic event or episode of being startled or frightened by noise can be the basis of a noise phobia. When the fear experienced at the time is closely associated with the noise heard, this noise becomes the trigger for the fearful behaviour.

The fear response is a relatively normal physiological mechanism, which has a protective function. This fear however can become greatly exaggerated and thus starts to become a phobia, which can be detrimental to the animal’s quality of life. These phobias can then become extended by the dog to other sounds or situations, through a process known as generalisation. Other sounds which have a similar waveform and frequency sound very similar to the animal and thus become incorporated into the collection of noises to which a phobic response is shown. Similarly other situations and noises that precede the feared sound, can become triggers for the phobic response and thus the thunder phobic animal becomes fearful of high humidity, heavy rain or even dark cloudy skies.

Most dogs that have a noise phobia of some sort employ a coping mechanism, when feeling fearful. They often need to hide behind or under furniture or under a blanket. Often if they are allowed access to a small-enclosed space they will use this as a hiding place e.g. a cupboard under the stairs. It is important that dogs are allowed to perform their coping behaviours as part of their way of dealing with their fear. If these escape and hiding behaviours are prevented, we risk the phobia becoming a blind panic, which can lead to destructive behaviour, soiling and possibly self-injury.

There are ways in which these dogs can be helped. Firstly we need to find a way in which to make the noises they are afraid of meaningless. This can be done by use of a sound effects CD which can be used to desensitise the dog to the appropriate sounds. After a period of some weeks, a process of counter conditioning can be started where the sounds become the triggers for a good event such as a meal being given, a treat being given or a game depending on what the dog values most. This will hopefully give these sounds a positive association for the dog.

In the early stages, the effect of the desensitisation can be accelerated by use of anti-anxiety products such as a pheromone diffuser or collar or oral treatments which can reduce the stress and give a feeling of wellbeing in the dog, allowing it to cope more easily with any potential threats.

These therapies can also help at the time of the stressful event.  Any treatment should be started at least 2 weeks before the phobic event (such as fireworks night) but may still be helpful if started later.

There are now several products available which provide a relaxing effect and help animals to cope with the stress and anxiety caused by loud noises.  These work by increasing neurotransmitter levels which promote relaxed behaviour or by mimicking mild sedative effects. There is now also a diet specifically designed to enhance calm behaviour which has proved to be very effective in our experience. We can also provide a prescription medication for severe cases which bring relaxation and also block short-term memory so that by the next day the event is forgotten. This can also be used retrospectively so that if a dog has had a frightening experience the drug can be given shortly after to eliminate the memory of it. This will not treat the underlying problem but will help prevent it getting worse with time.

The owner’s response to the fearful dog also plays an important part. When a dog shows fear it is natural for the owner to try and soothe the dog and fuss it to give reassurance. Unfortunately this increased attention can cause reinforcement of the problem by confirming to the dog that there is a threat present. The best approach is a happy, jolly no nonsense attitude to try and show that there is nothing to be afraid of.

On the occasions when noise phobia occurs especially fireworks or thunder, the curtains should be drawn and some music played or the TV switched on to prevent flashes being seen and try and mask the quieter noises. Also if possible take the dog for a good walk before darkness falls and then feed a large carbohydrate rich meal 2 hours before the event so that it is more likely to sleep. The dog should be allowed to seek refuge wherever it feels most safe and once the event has passed the normal routine should be returned to as soon as possible.

Resource Guarding

Safety first, avoiding further aggression and the possibility of being bitten is of utmost importance, never confront or challenge an aggressive dog.

If aggression is displayed use the ‘time out’ technique. Attention of any kind from an owner is of great value to most dogs. Immediately any aggression is shown, storm out of the room in silence and slam the door hard leaving the dog in isolation for 3 minutes, then ignore him for a further 30 minutes. This will prove to him that aggression achieves nothing but a lack of attention. Alternatively, if it can be done safely, put the dog in isolation for a few minutes such as outside or in a different room.

It is now widely accepted that the theory of ‘Dominance’ in dogs is out dated.  Dogs very rarely try to ‘dominate’ us and most behaviour interpreted as ‘dominance’ is actually guarding of resources or is driven by owners inadvertently conferring high status on their dogs.  If a dog finds that using aggression is successful in maintaining control of, preventing loss of or gaining more of an important resource then they are likely to continue with that strategy.  This can include food, toys, chews, the comfy spot on the sofa or even attention from their owner.  If you have allowed your dog unlimited access to things like this over time then they will naturally assume the resource is theirs to control and they may act to defend it.  To help deal with a resource guarding dog the following steps may be helpful.

Status Reduction

  • The owner should maintain a height advantage at all times, no sitting on the furniture or bed for the dog and no sitting on the floor for the owner.
  • Do not allow the dog to go through narrow gaps first, open doors/gates gradually and push the dog back with a foot or if the dog lunges at the gap close it again smartly. Repeat this until the dog waits to see what happens then go through and allow him to follow.
  • No rough and tumble games. This just teaches the dog he is the fitter, stronger and more agile than you.
  • The dog should be made to work for any resources e.g. food, games, toys and attention by performing a short obedience routine of at least 3 commands before getting the reward.
  • The dog should not be allowed to beg for food and should never be fed from your plate. If kitchen scraps are to be given then they can be included with the dog’s meal.
  • Throw and fetch games are ok, but they must be initiated by the owner and stopped also by the owner before the dog gets bored.  The owner should remain in control of the game and the toy. If the dog is possessive over a toy and doesn’t return it, a second toy or food treat should be used as a distraction to get the dog to leave the first toy.
  • The dog should be made to work to gain attention (which is one of the greatest resources). If he constantly asks for attention he should be ignored initially, if he goes away and settles, then after a short break he can be called in and attention given.
  • Pulling on a lead must be avoided. This gives the dog the impression he is in control on the walk, a ‘Canny Collar’ is recommended. If the dog persists in pulling the owner should walk more slowly or stop and call the dog back to their side. Only then should the walk progress.

Separation Anxiety

Many dogs become stressed or anxious when separated from their owners. These dogs are usually the type, which are over-attached or have had little experience of being left alone during puppyhood. Dogs which may suffer this kind of anxiety are often nervous or timid individuals, ones which follow their owners around the house at all times and need close contact whenever at rest, such as resting a paw or their head on the owner. The problem often has its origins with a lack of habituation to being left alone when young.

Puppies need to learn to cope with being left and need the self-confidence to trust that the owner will return eventually. Dogs that do not cope well with this become anxious when they sense that their owner is about to leave the house. For example, the morning routine before going to work is a powerful trigger which the dog will rapidly recognise as an indication of impending abandonment. The anxiety may begin well before the dog is left and this makes the moment of actual leaving even worse.

Signs of separation anxiety include urination or defecation indoors when the dog is normally well house trained, destruction of flooring, wall coverings, and woodwork, often around the exits from a room or from the house, barking repetitively and excessive greeting on return of the owner.

There are various ways in which a dog can be helped to cope with its anxiety at being left alone. The triggers, which a dog recognises as signs of impending abandonment, are such as putting on coats and shoes, picking up keys or general activity around the front door. These triggers can be made less meaningful to the dog by doing this sort of thing at random times but then not going out or going out of one door and straight back in another. This should be done without fuss so that it becomes a routine event, which gradually becomes meaningless to the dog.

Before actually leaving for real, the dog should be ignored for 30 minutes. It is tempting to fuss the dog excessively just before leaving when you know it will be anxious however this is counterproductive as the change from maximum attention to zero when you close the door is harder still for the dog to cope with. Most anxious behaviour and/or destruction occurs in the first half hour after you leave, thus a distraction such as a food stuffed Kong toy or Buster Cube or a tasty chew is a good way to divert the dogs attention from your departure. It is best to leave quickly and quietly with minimum fuss while the dog is distracted.

If time allows repeated leaving and returning again without fuss is a good way to reduce the significance of your departure and if possible leave for very short periods at first and return before the anxious behaviour starts.

While you are away you can improve the dogs feeling of wellbeing by leaving an old jumper with your scent on and leaving lights on and the TV or radio to try and make the environment as similar as possible to when you are home.

Never punish or speak harshly to an anxious dog on returning home to find further destruction or toileting. This will only increase their anxiety and make the problem worse.

Pheromone products are also available which improve the dogs feeling of well-being and provide reassurance. These emit a synthetic equivalent of a pheromone, which a nursing bitch produces to give her pups a feeling of reassurance. This effect persists throughout a dog’s life and can be used to prevent anxiety of various sorts. There are also various dietary supplements which have been shown to be very effective at calming separation anxious dogs.

In addition to this it is helpful to make the dog a more independent individual in his or her everyday life. This can be done by not giving attention to the dog when they come to you for a fuss but ignoring them or sending them away. If ignored the dog will eventually go and rest somewhere, albeit in close proximity. Once this has occurred then the dog can be called in and fussed after a 5-10 minute break. This proves to the dog that attention is given on your terms and is not something that they control or can rely on at any time. This should also apply to whenever you return to the house or are separated from the dog for any period of time. The dog should be ignored for 5 minutes even if they are jumping up in greeting. This sets the example of calm behaviour to the dog to show that the period of separation is not something to be made an issue of.

Dogs with serious separation anxiety need to be retrained to accept the loss of contact with their owner and to cope with the separation period. This must be done very gradually and a specific training regime is often required. Various medications are available which may help the dog cope with the situation and speed up the learning process. If basic techniques are not working, a retraining programme will be required. Please contact the surgery to find out more.

Urinating Indoors

Spraying or urine marking is a normal behaviour whereby cats mark territorial boundaries and provide themselves with security with in their own area. Urine is often deposited regularly at specific sites to convey information about sex, sexual state, hierarchy and possibly emotional state. Cats will naturally spray to top up their own scent or to cover up that of a rival.

A healthy solitary cat in a stable and secure environment will not usually feel any need to spray or urinate in the house. Any breakdown in the cats normally secure environment or threats perceived within its core territory can lead to an in door urinating problem.

Spray marking must first be distinguished from normal urination before any further analysis is undertaken. A true urine mark is performed with the tail held straight up and sometimes quivering. Alternate stepping movements of the hind feet may be observed and the urine is deposited in short squirts of about 1ml in volume, usually against a vertical surface. In contrast normal urination involves voiding of a stream of urine of 20ml or more from a squatting position, usually into a prepared toilet hole or litter box.

Whenever urine is deposited in small frequent quantities it is important to first rule out diseases of the urinary tract before interpreting this as a behaviour problem. FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease) can be a painful condition and cause partial or complete blockage of the urethra. This may cause the cat to attempt to urinate in an un-natural position. This is a stressful and potentially very serious problem.

Most in-door toileting problems occur due to anxiety caused by disruption of the cats social or territorial situation. Owners may unwittingly disturb the cats environment by introducing new furniture, redecorating, having regular visitors, having dogs come to visit or introducing a new cat. Alternatively other rival cats may invade the core territory through a cat flap to steal food or to challenge a resident cat. The cat will then try to reinforce its territory by marking prominent features such as corners of furniture and around entrances. They will often mark electrical items as the warmth and smell of these seems to attract attention.


Entire males commonly spray as a marking behaviour, castration reliably reduces this and the smell deposited is much less pungent. In females, spaying does not alter the behaviour unless it occurs only when they are in season.

Reinforcement of core territory

The house is usually regarded as the core territory i.e. the more central and secure part of the cats’ domain. It is important to prevent entry of outsiders by using a microchip operated cat flap or close it altogether and actively let the cat in or out via a window or door. Most cats will learn to ‘ask’ to go out when they want to. The ‘Sureflap’ can read your cats’ microchip and only open for those that are pre-programmed. This is a very effective way of preventing other cats invading while allowing your cat the freedom it requires. For more details contact the practice and ask about ‘Sure Flap’.

Reduce the number of rooms the cat has access to, as this will make security more easily maintained for the cat and make cleaning up after any relapse easier.

A Feliway diffuser should be installed in the cats’ main resting area to give a pheromone based back ground of reassurance.

Competition for resources 

In multi-cat households, some individuals may be quite stressed by lack of availability of important resources such as food and water bowls, litter trays and secure/elevated resting places. Cats prefer to have toilet facilities, drinking and eating facilities all in different places. Litter trays especially must not be next to food or water bowls. No one wants to eat their dinner next to their toilet! It is important that these are supplied in various places with good separation and at least 1 item per cat. Ideally 1 per cat +1.

Litter trays 

These should be large enough in dimensions for the cat to get in easily and not too tall for older possibly arthritic cats. Litter should be deep enough for the cat to dig a good deep hole. Some litters are abrasive, hard on the feet or scented and are aversive to some cats. A softer more absorbent substrate may be more attractive to the cat. Many cats feel vulnerable when toileting and will prefer to be in an enclosed space such as an upturned cardboard box with a door cut in one side which can be placed over the litter tray, or an ‘igloo‘ type tray. When cleaning out the tray remove all solids but don’t be too fussy removing all wet litter as this will contain pheromones which will encourage repeat use. Clean out the tray thoroughly once weekly.

Cleaning up 

Areas that have been sprayed with urine should be cleaned thoroughly with a warm biological washing powder solution. This removes the fatty acids and pheromones which are recognised by a cat and which stimulate it to over mark. Do not use bleach based cleaning products as these breakdown to ammonia which is also a constituent of decaying urine and will encourage the cat to repeat spray this area. A final wipe down with surgical spirit will remove or destroy any remaining odour.

Repellents and fresheners only mask the smell to humans and do not fool the cats more acute sensory perception. Reduce access to favourite targets, especially things which are often brought in from outside e.g. shoes.


Never punish your cat for inappropriate urinating. This includes shouting, squirting water and rubbing their nose in the urine. The cause of the problem is likely to be anxiety based in the first place, if the cat receives a punishment for performing something designed to relieve anxiety it will probably become yet more anxious and the problem may well escalate.


Various medications are available to help relieve anxiety and improve learning to cope with new situations.  We are able to offer advice regarding the appropriate use of these. No medication can be expected to work without addressing all of the underlying causes of the problem.


Some cats do not get on well within multi-cat households and despite all efforts, continue to find their existence stressful. For some individuals it is kinder to re-home them to a single cat environment to give them the security they need.

Diet & Behaviour

It has long been accepted that diet can have a profound effect on behaviour.  Some animals may have hypersensitivity to certain proteins in their diet and these can be virtually any protein which has been encountered before in the animals’ life. The immune response from the gut can affect the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain and therefore can manifest as changes in behaviour.

Some animals can be much more reactive or hyperactive when eating certain foods and so can benefit from being fed a restricted protein diet or a diet that has only one protein source to try and avoid proteins which cause problems. Others may be lacking in certain calming neurotransmitters and so can benefit from a supplement of certain Amino Acids to enhance their own internal production.

An exclusion diet is designed to be of a novel protein and carbohydrate source and contain no additives or preservatives. White fish and potato is generally recommended, as these are not generally present in commercial dog foods. Plain water only should be offered to drink and any treats should also be of fish, which can be cooked until it becomes a dry morsel.

Alternatively a prescription diet such as Pro Plan HA or Hills z/d Ultra can be used as these have hydrolysed proteins which cannot be recognised by the dog’s immune system.

The diet should be continued for 2 months before a dietary cause can be ruled out. Some dogs may respond dramatically within a few weeks. The importance of exclusion of all other foods cannot be stressed enough. Any titbits or other deviations from the diet will negate all previous time on the trial and it must begin again from day 1.

There is a commercial diet available which has enhanced levels of Tryptophan.  This is the Amino Acid used to build Serotonin which is the neurotransmitter involved in calm behaviour and feeling relaxed.  Alternatively the diet can be supplemented with Tryptophan either directly of via carbohydrate rich foods.