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Are there more behaviour problems in dogs and cats, or are we just getting better at seeing it?

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elite Fear Free Certified Coach

“I have had cats and dogs all my life and we never diagnosed them with behavioural problems”

“Staying in the backyard all day was just fine for the family dog when I was growing up”

And my favourite

“You just need to show them who’s boss”

Thankfully we now have more awareness of our pet’s emotional wellbeing, especially after spending the last 3 years in closer proximity to them in varying forms of lockdown. With this awareness, Veterinary Psychiatrists and Behaviour vets have seen a significant increase in demand for their services especially in my hometown of Naarm (Melbourne).

Additionally, society is seeing a shift in discussing and finding the right words for mental health challenges in humans, which is experiencing transference onto our furry companions.

So why the shift?

Well, pet parents have been present.

Having your neighbour mention, or complain, about your dog’s barking is completely different when you faced with it, while you’re juggling your three children’s lesson plans for the day, or hastily scheduled Zoom meetings, during workdays that just seemed to stretch on forever. (Am I allowed to talk about this yet? Too soon?) We tend to dip into our solution toolbox at this point, but we find that now our usual ‘solutions’ don’t seem to work.

- Taking the dog for extra walks didn’t work. - Extra food and treats didn’t work, although now your vet says the dog is overweight, despite the increased exercise. - The dog trainer you spent so much money on either

1) gave you complex exercises that required the kind of consistency any household with children just cannot muster, using MORE treats, even though the vet just fat-shamed your dog OR 2) showed you new and inventive ways of punishing your dog, like grabbing their muzzle, forcing them into an ‘alpha roll’ or pinching/‘checking’ them (hell no!) - And let’s face it, (we’ve all been there) yelling didn’t work either, it just increased everyone’s levels of frustration and made the dog bark more.

So why the ‘behaviour problems’?

Let’s step back for a moment and look at how cats and dogs found themselves living in our homes. In the ‘Domestication’ of animals, humans ended up controlling reproduction and care of a species, usually selecting for ‘tameness’ or sociability to humans. Controlling reproduction not only refers to the numbers of breeding, but which sets of genetics are passed onto the next generation.

Swimming in an unpatrolled gene pool

With the complex domestication of dogs[1], we’ve been able to interfere with their breeding so well, that you have teeny-tiny Chihuahuas living until they’re 16, squishy-faced, hypoxic French Bulldogs, hip-dysplastic, painful German Shepherds and miniature-horse-like Great Danes that are lucky to see double digits. And everything in between.

We have not only been selecting for extreme physical features of breeding (another blog for another time), but also behavioural features, or ‘traits’ such as herding, retrieving, guarding, companionship etc. The list goes on. And breeding in dogs (in many countries around the world, including Australia) goes completely un-checked, only controlled at a State Government level[2].

Did you know that any person may put a dog and a bitch in a yard for mating and call themselves a breeder? It doesn't take much to sell puppies for exorbitant amounts of money; while the true hard-working, breed-enhancing, multi-registered breeders watch as their beloved breeds become a genetic mess.

Any person breeding dogs may or may not consider the behavioural genetics of the dogs they are breeding. There may be desirable, or undesirable traits, that can be passed on to future generations, behaviours cultivated by environment and learning.

Let's take for example; the trait of companionship.

We want our dogs to love us. There are many breeds that have been bred for companionship such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (CKCS) and the Toy Poodle. Let’s rate them out of 5 for their companionship; '1' being very independent and ‘aloof’ to, '5' being, well, Stage 5 Clinger, a ‘velcro’ dog.

A '3' being the ideal balance of affection and independence. Both the purebred CKCS and Toy Poodle may be about a 3, but that does not guarantee their offspring will be.

Additionally, CKCS X Toy Poodles (commonly known as ‘cavoodles’) have become so popular that temperament can be completely ignored by amateur breeders taking advantage of pop-culture, breeding these cross-breeds together. Mating Stage 5 clinger, velcro dogs (who experience panic attacks) to each other further compounds genetic factors of behaviour. This means the puppies are highly likely to display challenging behaviour for the humans to deal with, but let's not forget that it's extremely distressing for the pet to go through.

Not factoring in that furry house mate

Urbanisation could be another factor of increasing behaviour problems, with the average Aussie backyard decreasing in size. We frequently see feline stress manifesting as ‘periuria’ (urinating outside of the litter) or spraying, stress caused by the cat living in an environment that is deficient in meeting their species-specific needs. Confining cats to properties helps reduce the spread of FIV and keeps cats safe from harm, but if not managed well, can cause other medical problems.

The good news however, is that, by putting a ‘thinking-cat’ on, the size of a cat’s space matters less if it is used well e.g. vertical spaces, sleeping vs resting space and location of resources. Despite 90% of Down Under’s population living in cities, Australia has some of the lowest population densities in the world[3]. It really may be a case of size doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it that does.

And finally, there’s anthropomorphism, assigning human attributes (like traits, emotions, or intentions) to non-human entities. Our animal friends are not out to plot your demise nor are they capable of trying to be difficult to upset you, so taking away the ‘human’ trait lets us focus on what the behaviour (without intent) is telling us.

On the contrary, an example of a helpful anthropomorphism is recognising fear-related body language and empathising with your pet, working to either remove the trigger or soothe their response where possible.

So. To answer the question - are there more behaviour problems in cats and dogs? Yamada et al. says ‘yes’. x2.

The prevalence of 17 different types of feline behaviour problems and 25 different type of canine behaviour problems approximates to nearly 80% of cats and dogs experiencing a behavioural problem in their lifetime.

That is not to say 80% of cats and dogs have behavioural problems right now, but in their life, cats and dogs have an 80% chance of experiencing fear, anxiety or stress (FAS) that will cause them to show maladaptive or problematic behaviour.

As humans our ability to recognise and minimise FAS provides a solid foundation for a happy home and loving relationship with your fur friend.

And as for those tools, you can learn more at how understanding your pet’s behaviour, body language and making small changes in the home could make a huge difference to your pet’s quality of life.

You can also enquire with us now for a bespoke, evidence-based and context-driven assessment and recommendation about your pet’s behaviours and whether they are part of that 80% experiencing FAS, and what methods are likely to work for your pet.



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