What Do Behavior Changes Mean in Our Pets?  By Jennie K. Willis as printed in the Coloradoan April 2013

When we live with them day after day, we don’t always pay attention to small changes in our beloved companions.  Sometimes changes in behavior are the first indicators that there may be something medically wrong so we need to think about and troubleshoot any new differences before new habits become established.

Pay special attention to behaviors that signal distress or increases in reactivity:

  • Needy or attention seeking behavior from you
  • Increases in barking or whining
  • New or worsening aggression
  • Any type of confusion or disorientation

Here are some common reasons for behavior changes:

  • Change in medical status- Any change that causes pain or discomfort can result in behavior change.  Often doing a blood test can detect small changes in metabolism.
  • Change in owner’s routine -Going back to school or changes in work hours can affect our pet’s routine.
  • Environmental change- such as construction in your area, a recent storm or a seasonal change.
  • New people or pets in the home- Negotiating new relationships is stressful.  Increased stress brings out the worst in pets and can bring reactivity issues  to the forefront.  Observe your pet’s reaction to the newcomer.  Are they avoiding interaction?  Do they seem more irritable?   Are they always following the new individual or doing a lot of staring?
  • Traumatic experiences- Scary things that happen can affect how your pet feels about their home or environment.
  • Becoming an adult- At adulthood, pets begin to deal differently with the world.  They may be more assertive about the things that make them uncomfortable.
  • Age related changes- Pay special attention to behavior changes in older pets.  Increased vocalization, accidents in the house or outside the litterbox, changes in how they greet you and difficulty with nighttime routines can be important early signs of cognitive changes.

So your friendly, outgoing cat is now suddenly spending most days hiding.  Your six month old puppy growled at your child for the first time.  Your older dog seems unexplainably different, and just doesn’t seek out contact with you.  What should you do?

1)      Think about what was going on in their environment when the change began.  Be a detective, ask other family members, especially children, what they remember about when this behavior started.

2)      Is there anything that makes it worse or better?   Sometimes the presence of one person, or being in a safe spot in the house can make it better.

3)      Don’t wait to see your vet.  Your veterinarian can do a physical exam and run blood tests to tell what may be happening on the inside.    They also have a baseline set of observations and data in their record from last time, which is invaluable for you as you try to piece together what is changing for pet.

You don’t have to accept a new undesirable behavior.  If your pet is medically healthy, seek professional help to aid you in understanding and modifying behavior.

Dr. Jennie Willis is an instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University and owns a private consulting business, which provides counseling for problem pets and their people. For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit www.AnimalBehaviorInsights.com

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