Why Does My Cat Scratch My Couch?

Most people know that cats will scratch objects with their front paws to sharpen their claws, but there are secondary reasons as well. Believe it or not, cats often use scratching for communication. They have scent glands on their paws, which leave their specific scent onto objects telling other cats they have claimed those objects as their own.

As a consequence, cats will scratch very obvious objects, such as couches, trees, doors, fence posts, etc. Both male and female cats will do this so it is not related to gender specific hormones. Therefore, spaying and neutering will not change the scratching behavior. Declawing will also not change the scratching behavior since the scent glands are still left behind on the feet so the drive to scent mark is still there.

Cats will also scratch as part of their play behavior, to stretch, to greet people, and occasionally to relieve frustration.
Overall, it is much easier trying to prevent problematic scratching behavior rather than trying to change a cat’s preference for a scratching surface. This means that owners should work hard to provide appropriate scratching surfaces as soon as they acquire a cat as a pet before problems arise to establish appropriate behavior. This will lead to a greater human-animal bond and reduce the likelihood of cats being relinquished to shelters.

General Recommendations
– Provide several scratching posts in multiple areas of the house where your cats like to spend their time (focus on areas where they sleep or play).
– Encourage cats to use the scratching surfaces by scenting them with catnip or placing dangly toys for them to play with easier.
– Try covering the inappropriate scratched surface with something cats do not like to scratch to try to deter them from further destroying that object (plastic, aluminum foil, mesh).
– Praise cats when they use the correct scratching substrates.
– Trim your cat’s nails regularly to minimize damage to your furniture.
– Declawing cats should be the last option.

Alex Philippine, DVM

The Impact of Stress on Indoor Pets

It has been well established that there is an important link between mental health and overall health and well-being of people. Avoiding stress plays a critical role in the general welfare of people. It should not be surprising that the same can be said for dogs and cats. Poor mental health in dogs and cats often lead to behavioral problems such as house soiling or aggression that may lead to animals being relinquished, abandoned, or euthanized. Although it may not be easily apparent, poor mental health can result in the development of disease conditions and a poor quality of life for the pet. Owners can best avoid problems by understanding the normal behavior and general needs of their dog and cat. In doing so, owners can provide the best preventative and therapeutic care for their pet.

General guidelines for the well being of indoor pets
An important need for the well being of children is a predictable daily routine, predictable consequences and environmental enrichment. When parents provide these things to their children, children are less likely to develop behavioral problems as they feel they have more control of their lives and circumstances. It should not come as a surprise that the same holds true for indoor pets. Daily routine for indoor pets include feeding, elimination, social play and environmental exploration, and sleep or periods of rest. These needs vary depending on the breed and age of the animal, as well as the household itself. By making these basic needs regular and predictable events, the indoor pet gains some sense of control and therefore less stress in knowing how these basic needs will be met.

The Indoor Pet Initiative
An excellent website on environmental issues for dogs and cats is available for veterinarians and pet owners, called the Indoor Pet Initiative . It was created by The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine with the purpose of providing information that describes the basic physical and behavioral needs of dogs and cats. It also provides basic recommendations for dealing with common behavioral problems and resources for help in addressing more severe or dangerous behavioral issues. Being aware of and understanding normal companion animal behavior and needs will help improve the quality of life of your pet dog or cat. One of the main goals of the Indoor Pet Initiative is to improve the quality of life of indoor pets by increasing knowledge and awareness of normal companion animal behavior and needs.

Dr Stephen Atwater

Dr. Stepita’s Behavior Tip

Adding a New Pet to the Family
    When considering adding a new pet to your family I highly recommend researching which species and/or breed best match your lifestyle and family situation. Your veterinarian is a great resource! Drs. Lynette and Ben Hart have studied breed and gender differences among cats and the information can be found in their new book, Your Ideal Cat. Interested in the dog version? The original study which was performed in the 1980’s is called The Perfect Puppy: How to Choose Your Dog by Its Behavior….. Look out for the updated version of this book which should be published soon (FYI- the Hart’s found similar information in the new dog study as they did when they performed the original study, but the new book will include more breeds).

Here are a few pieces of information found in these studies:
1. Female dogs are easier to housetrain than males
2. Terriers rank high in snapping at children
3. Bengal cats rank high in aggression and urinating outside of the litterbox

Meredith Stepita, DVM, Dipl. ACVB

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Izzy is currently up for adoption through Community Concern for Cats in Walnut Creek. Izzy is a sweet kitty, great with other cats and dogs, and settles in very quickly. She also is fine with loud noises like a hair dryer, the vacuum, etc. And she likes to lick! She can be silly and loves to play with other kitties. (click image for larger size)

Overcoming Nail Trimming Hurdles

Most dogs and cats do not enjoy having their paws handled, let alone their nails trimmed, but with a little bit of work you can change their emotional response to this procedure.

First, hold your pet in a position that is comfortable for nail trimming (for you and your pet) while feeding a high value treat. Use a treat that your dog or cat only receives at this time so he associates nail trimming with something he really likes. Start with a short amount of time (less than 30 seconds) and gradually work up to longer periods of time.

Next, feed the treat while you touch your dog’s foot. The key is to touch the foot only while your pet is interested and eating the special treat. When you stop touching his foot, the treat goes away. This is easier with 2 people.

Once he is comfortable with this progress to tapping his nail with the clippers while feeding the treat and finally clipping his nail while feeding the treat. Initially you will only be able to clip one nail at a time. Gradually work up to clipping more nails in one session.

Remember to only proceed to the next step when your dog or cat is calm, relaxed and eating treats. The whole process takes weeks to months. If your dog or cat becomes aggressive (barking, growling, lip lifting, hissing, snarling, snapping, biting), then consult your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist before proceeding.

Here’s a video:

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB

Jump start behavioral health in your puppy with socialization!

The days of keeping your puppy confined to the house until 16 weeks of age are over! The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (www.avsabonline.org), a well respected group of veterinarians who share an interest in understanding behavior in animals, believe it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive socialization as early as 7-8 weeks of age after a minimum of one set of vaccines and deworming at least 7 days prior to the first class, with other healthy dogs in an environment that is clean, not in places such as dog parks.

Socialization is the process by which pets develop a relationship with animals of their own species, other species, and humans. With adequate socialization starting as a young puppy, pets are often able to maintain these relationships for life, helping to prevent behavior problems. Although socialization should be continued throughout life, pets are more likely to be defensive, fearful, and possibly aggressive later in life if not properly socialized during their sensitive socialization period, between 3 and 16 weeks of age.

Here is a checklist of some, but not all, experiences your puppy should have before 16 weeks of age. Always associate the experiences with high value rewards such as treats or a tennis ball. Every puppy is different so make sure to go slow if your puppy shows signs of fear or anxiety. If your puppy shows aggression or extreme fear contact your veterinarian immediately.

___ Veterinarian/ Veterinary technicians
___ Person wearing hat
___ Other animals (including non-dog)
___ You with vacuum
___ Person (child & adult) on bike & roller blades
___ Jogger
___ Stranger on street
___ You mowing grass
___ Person with umbrella, open and close umbrella
___ Toddler (supervised)
___ Person with coat, take coat on and off
___ Man with beard
___ Drive – thru window or toll booth
___ Children playing ball
___ Walk on different surfaces (soft, hard, unsteady)
___ Mailman
___ Person with wheelchair, walker, stroller
___ Rain
___ Person in uniform (police, etc)
___ You with hair dryer
___ Handle your puppy on a daily basis (ears, mouth, paws, belly, tail, etc)

What other experiences can you think of that will be important for your puppy? Let us know for the next blog!

Remember: Avoid socializing your puppy in areas frequented by dogs of unknown vaccination status such as dog parks.

Here is a list of recommended books to use as a guide in raising your puppy:

• The Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey
• An Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet: Dog Behavior by Ian Dunbar, Ph.D., MRCVS
• Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Puppy by Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. and Daniel Estep, Ph.D.

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB

Why does my dog do that? : Mounting

    Nothing can be more embarrassing than your dog mounting other dogs (or even people!), but did you know that this is a normal canine behavior? Dogs mount in play as play is practice of future behaviors and excessive mounting in pubertal males is normal. Most people are familiar with such causes as sexual behavior and mounting used to express dominance (ie their position at the top of the hierarchy), but there are other causes, and for successful treatment the root cause must be determined.

    Less commonly, the cause of being mounted may be a medical problem such as testicular cancer or even giving certain medications; so for this reason, the first step is to have your dog examined by their veterinarian. Males and females may mount females in heat. Females in heat may mount inexperienced males. Other dogs that have been in contact with females in heat and smell like them may also be mounted. One of the more common reasons for mounting is when a dog is excited or over-stimulated and mounting is used as a way to relieve this excitement or anxiety. For example, your dog may mount or be mounted when they enter a dog park, when unfamiliar people come to your house, or when petted too much. Over time dogs may learn that mounting is a very self-rewarding behavior and people usually encourage the behavior by paying lots of attention to the dog (even if the attention is negative) when they perform the behavior. Behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated.

    Studies show that two-thirds of male dogs show a decrease in mounting after neutering. Once medical conditions have been ruled out and your dog is spayed or neutered; the next step is implementing an appropriate behavior modification plan.

    The first step in behavior modification is to avoid the situation in which the behavior occurs, so that the dog does not continue to practice the behavior. For example, if your dog mounts other dogs at the park, then they likely need a break from the park, at least for now. If a dog is continually put in the situation that elicits the negative behavior, then it is very difficult to re-introduce the situation in a controlled manner to decrease the behavior. A board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist can help to design a plan specific to your family’s individual circumstances to diminish the undesirable behavior. This may include implementing a program in which the dog works for everything in life that they want (to give the dogs structure and predictability in their life, set the owner up as a positive leader, and increase their responsiveness to commands), teaching commands that are incompatible with the unwanted behavior (such as eye contact and hand target), the use of tools such as a head collar for better control, and desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) exercises. DS/CC is the primary technique we use to change your pet’s emotional response to triggers of anxiety and arousal.

To find a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist in your area visit the website: www.dacvb.org.
To learn more about Dr. Meredith Stepita and her services, click here.

Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 4, The Grand Finale

     It’s hard to believe I have been able to cover so many differentials for behaviors associated with separation anxiety in just 3 blogs! The only other differential I want to briefly mention is predatory behavior. Destructive behavior (and even vocalization) can be seen when the dog is trying to get to prey; which could be in the form of rats behind the walls! The treatment is to remove the source as predatory behavior is different from other behavior problems in that it is not very amenable to behavior modification. Dogs are either born with it or not, making the prognosis poor for changing the underlying emotional response.

     In the first blog of this series, we discussed the signs for separation anxiety, so in this blog we will focus on what can be done about it! Confirmation of appropriate diagnosis is important. Separation anxiety is one of the most difficult behavior problems to treat as it is often extremely difficult to avoid leaving the dog home alone for most people (myself included). Like other behavior problems, the more the dog practices the behavior, the more difficult it is to change. Since not leaving the dog home alone for months and months while behavior modification is implemented is not realistic for most people, anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed by your veterinarian to facilitate this process. If the pet does need to be left alone, they should be left in the place they are most comfortable with multiple long lasting treats they can safely consume in your absence. The Kong Company has some great ideas for different long lasting treat recipes (http://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/). The dog should always be ignored for 10-15 minutes before leaving and until calm once the owner returns home in order to decrease the emotional highs and lows of these times.

     A key component to treating separation anxiety is to change the dog’s emotional response to being away from the owner. To do this, the dog first must be comfortable with the owner being in a separate part of the house. This is accomplished by implementing independence exercises. The dog is put on a mat with a favorite long lasting treat. Over many sessions the owner practices moving further away for longer periods of time. If the dog is not sleeping or relaxed and eating their treat, then the time and/or distance must be decreased during the next session. After many weeks, once the owner is able to walk around the house for 10-15 minutes out of sight of the dog, graduated departures can be started. This is an extension of the independence exercises with the owner being able to walk out the door for 1 second initially, working up to longer and longer (hopefully hours) periods of time. The long lasting treat should be picked up when the exercise is over so that your dog is rewarded for your absence, not presence. Using a video camera helps to monitor your progress once you are out of sight of the dog.

     Another part of behavior modification for separation anxiety is uncoupling the cues that tell your dog you are leaving from your actual departure. This involves practicing the cues when you are not actually leaving. For example, pick up your keys and then go wash the dishes or put your shoes on and sit down to read a book. Over time you can do more and more cues together until you are able to work up to a whole day’s routine without leaving. Remember that these are general recommendations and each individual patient should have a treatment plan devised by a Veterinary Behaviorist or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist for safety reasons and the best outcome.

    Well, that’s it for my discussion of separation anxiety. Stay tuned for more behavior blogs. If there is a particular topic you are interested in please let us know!

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 3, Why is My House Yellow?

Another common symptom of separation anxiety is urination and/or defecation in the house. First, all medical causes (I.E. intestinal parasites, urinary tract infections, etc) need be ruled out by visiting your veterinarian. Then, other behavioral causes should be ruled out.

Regarding urination, we must differentiate between urine marking (usually small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces) and inappropriate urination (usually large amounts of urine on horizontal surfaces). Urine marking can be due to hormonal causes in intact animals as well as anxiety and territoriality. Castration decreases marking in 70-80% of male dogs, regardless of the age of castration. Behavioral causes of inappropriate urination include management issues (I.E. home alone too long without access to an elimination area), substrate preference (carpet!), location preference, substrate or location aversion (bad weather), inadequate or lapse in house training, excitement urination, and submissive urination. Except for the last 2 causes, the same differentials apply to inappropriate defecation.
The first important step in treatment is to prevent situations that elicit the behavior. For example, a territorial pet that marks when people and dogs pass the house can be prevented from watching triggers through the window by pulling down the blinds or using wallpaper for windows (http://www.wallpaperforwindows.com/pc/home.asp). Also, dogs tend to mark new objects in the house, so keep these objects out of the dog’s reach. For example, avoid leaving a grocery bag or back pack on the ground when you walk in the door with your hands full. Instead, keep these items out of reach of the dog. Urinating and defecating are normal behaviors, so avoid punishing your dog. Punishment will also make the anxiety worse and the dog will not associate the punishment with the behavior if punished more than 1 second after the behavior occurred. Make sure to clean elimination in the house with a combination enzymatic/bacterial cleaner to degrade the urine rather than simply covering up the smell (my favorite is Anti-Icky-Poo, http://www.antiickypoo.com/). A belly band, which is essentially a male diaper, can be used as a short-term solution as long as it does not cause a cause skin infection. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be indicated.

If house training is the problem, here are some tips to help your dog be successful: Supervise your dog at ALL times, even keeping a leash on your dog and holding the leash. The dog should have one month without accidents in the house before allowing gradually increasing access to the house. When not directly supervised the dog should be confined. Take your dog outside to eliminate after waking up, coming out of the kennel, playing, eating, and right before bed. Initially take the dog outside every 1-2 hours and gradually increase the time over several weeks to months as they are successful. When you take your dog outside to eliminate pick a spot and wait there until your dog eliminates. Timing is important, so immediately after eliminating reward the dog with praise and a treat.
Dogs with excitement and submissive urination should be completely ignored when they are likely to urinate. Dogs often outgrow these behaviors as they reach adulthood, but may need specific desensitization and counter-conditioning protocols to change their emotional response to triggers for the behavior.

This is not an exhaustive explanation of treatment for all of the causes for urine marking and inappropriate elimination, but it’s a good start. Stay tuned to future blogs for an explanation of other causes or email us if there is a specific cause you would like discussed in more detail in a future blog.

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 2, Confinement Anxiety and Barrier Frustration

One of the first natural thoughts that crosses the minds of most people with a dog may cause destruction around the house is to confine the dog to a crate. Unfortunately, most of my patients with separation anxiety DO NOT improve when placed in a crate and often have concurrent confinement anxiety. They pant, salivate, whine, howl, bark, urinate, defecate, and/or are destructive when confined. They sometimes even hurt themselves, breaking teeth and cutting their skin trying to escape. What constitutes confinement? You must ask each individual dog as confinement can mean a small crate or even a room.

The first step in differentiating confinement anxiety from separation anxiety is to video tape the dog home alone OUTSIDE of the crate, loose or confined to part of the house. Often confinement anxiety alone is an easy fix as they are calm when left outside of the crate. If the dog must be crated (ie at a dog show) the crate should slowly be re-introduced using a desensitization and counter-conditioning protocol prescribed by your veterinarian. This is the primary technique we use to change your pets’ emotional response to triggers of fear. Desensitization is exposing the dog to their trigger for fear (ie being in the crate) at so low of an intensity that they are calm and relaxed, and slowly increasing the gradient of the trigger, staying below their threshold for displaying fearful behaviors. For example, starting the exercise with the dog near the crate and gradually working up to them being inside the crate, first for a short period of time and then longer amounts of time. Counter-conditioning is the process of changing their emotional response to the fear-elicit trigger, usually using a high value food reward.

Barrier frustration can look very similar to anxiety (barking, whining, howling, and/or destruction) although the dog is not actually anxious. This occurs when the dog is separated from a person by a barrier (ie door, window) and calm when the owner is out of sight and hearing range. In this case we would use desensitization along with counter-commanding. Counter-conditioning is different from counter-commanding in that with the latter we are not changing the dogs’ emotional response, but rather rewarding them for a behavior that is incompatible with the negative behavior we are trying to eliminate.

Meredith Stepita, DVM, ACVB

If your dog is suffering from anxiety and you would like to get them the care they need, please contact the only specialty veterinary behaviorist in Contra Costa County Dr. Meredith Stepita to schedule an appointment at Encina Veterinary Hospital in Walnut Creek: (925) 937-5000

Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 1, Boredom

     In the United States approximately 20% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. This is a behavior problem in which dogs shows signs of stress when the owner or favorite person is NOT present. Signs of stress can include panting, pacing, salivating, destruction (especially of the door the owner exited through), urination/defecation, vocalization (barking, whining), and sometimes even escape in which they may injure themselves.
     The one key diagnostic tool to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety is videotaping the dog home alone, as long as it is safe to do so. With the development of technology videotaping is easier than ever and if you do not have a phone/camera that records video or a video camera chances are you know someone that does. You can even set up a live webcam so that you can video tape and return before the dog destroys anything or injures themselves.
    Usually the behaviors associated with separation anxiety begin within the first 10 minutes of the owner leaving the house, so only 15 minutes or so of videotaping is usually necessary. During this series of blogs we will discuss different causes of behaviors associated with the signs of separation anxiety. Many of the root causes of these behaviors are not at all associated with anxiety and require very different treatment plans from that of anxiety. That is why correct diagnosis is essential.
    One cause for this already discussed in a previous blog is aggression. Dogs with territorial aggression vocalize in response to their triggers (people, dogs) passing by and approaching the house. They may even become destructive, chewing and scratching door frames or window sills during the aggressive episodes. Please see blog on my aggression for more detail.

    We will start in this article by discussing boredom or play/exploratory behavior as a cause of destruction when home alone. I commonly think of these causes when dogs younger than 1 year of age present to me for separation anxiety. On video tape these dogs are calm, but destructive (usually not to the door the owner exited through). These dogs should be left in “dog-proofed” areas where they cannot get to items to destroy. In these cases we also need to increase enrichment, and mental stimulation is just as important as physical stimulation. Ways to accomplish this when the owners are gone include taking the dog to doggie daycare (I recommend interviewing first before enrolling your dog), hiring a dog walker, and leaving the dog home with long lasting treats that he/she can safely eat (bully sticks, food dispensing toys, frozen peanut butter Kongs, everlasting treat balls). Long lasting treats and toys can be rotated so that they retain the dog’s interest. Make sure to try the treats/ toys when you are home initially to make sure your dog consumes them in a safe manner. For recipes to make the Kong more enticing visit the website: http://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/. When the owner is home engaging the dog in positive reinforcement training, agility or other fun class (see the website: http://www.clickertraining.com/), walks, and using a bike springer to attach the dog’s leash to your bike (see the website: http://www.springeramerica.com/) should help to tire the dog out so that destructive behaviors are less likely to be performed when left alone.

How do you enrich your dog’s life? Leave me a comment with your great ideas!

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)