Published on July 26, 2010
by Emily Udel
Veterinarian Amy Hellard offers animal behavior counseling along with medical care at her Cincinnati-area practice.
Photo courtesy of Amy Hellard
When Becky Smith adopted a dachshund named Ginger from a Cincinnati-area rescue group, she knew the dog had been returned by previous owners due to her separation anxiety. But she didn't know how bad it was.
"When I got her, she was essentially glued to my leg all the time," Smith says.
The first vet she consulted put Ginger on anti-anxiety medication, but the dog continued to cry and have accidents when left alone. Smith tried a second vet with a pet behavior specialization who used medication along with a program designed to build up the dog's confidence.
"She's not anxious anymore," says Smith, who has weaned her dog off the medication. "It's made a huge difference."
'A great deal of commitment'
Up to 8 million pets are abandoned in U.S. shelters each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Many owners dump their pets because they can't cope with behavior problems. For those looking for less drastic solutions, there are many professionals who can help.
Veterinarians can determine whether a medical issue is at the root of your pet's bad behavior. For non-medical problems, some vets are emphasizing their own behavior specialties, while others are bringing behaviorists on staff.
You can also turn to independent behaviorists, animal trainers or consultants for issues ranging from aggression to anxiety to undesirable bathroom behavior.
The veterinarian who treated Ginger says it's best to attack problems early on.
Animal behavior consultant Sam Kabbel of Pet Behavior Solutions near Phoenix works with dogs Tink and Kijai on impulse control.
Photo by Byron Medina
"Don't wait until you're at the end of your rope," says Dr. Amy Hellard, who earned a degree in applied animal behavior and animal welfare at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and now owns the highly rated West Chester Veterinary Care in West Chester, Ohio. "Changing behaviors takes time and a great deal of commitment."
Rule out medical causes first
It's also a good idea to seek help early on because a medical problem might be at the root of the inappropriate behavior.
Member Cathy McKinney of Kansas City, Mo., thought it unusual when her cat, Pippen, started urinating outside the litter box and acting agitated. She took him to the vet, who found he had painful crystals in his urine.
"If I'd let it go for even a day, it could have caused permanent kidney damage," McKinney says.
After receiving treatment and a new diet plan, Pippen's litter box behavior returned to normal.
But going outside the box can also be a sign of psychological distress. Member Joy Mullett of Houston was at her wit's end when her 2-year-old cat, Taikonaut — named after the Chinese word for astronaut — started urinating on the floor. Taikonaut's behavior seemed to be triggered by another cat who'd recently joined the household.
"I thought, 'What am I going to do? My house is going to smell horrible!'" Mullett says.
She took Taikonaut to the highly rated Cat Veterinary Clinic, where they ruled out kidney, liver and bladder problems. Her vet then recommended a spray that mimics feline pheromones and can help soothe a distressed cat.
"It immediately calmed him," she says.
Getting to the root of the problem
Many animal behavior experts say what they do is help owners understand what's motivating the behavior they want to change. Behaviorist Rich Gingery, co-owner of Whispering Pines Pet Clinic in Magalia, Calif., says a bird may consider a ringing telephone an alarm bell, sending it into a paroxysm of warning squawks.
Gingery consults with owners on how environmental factors like noises and other issues might contribute to unwanted behaviors like excessive vocalization, feather plucking and biting.
"Birds are looking for predictability," he says.
Behaviorists like Gingery often do consultations inside the home and work with owners to change their own behavior along with their pets.
"Being there in person allows you to see the dynamics, the family dynamics and the dynamics between the pet and their owners," says Yody Blass, a behaviorist whose Companion Animal Behavior serves cat, dog and rabbit owners in metropolitan Washington, D.C. She says prices can range from $200 to $900, depending on the problem.
"That should include a lot of follow-up. Anything less than that, you might not be getting the quality you need," says Blass, who has training in animal behavior as well as degrees in human psychology.
'It's all about the people'
While veterinarians go through a multi-year training course to earn board certification in animal behavior, the backgrounds of behaviorists and animal consultants vary. Sam Kabbel of the highly rated Pet Behavior Solutions near Phoenix uses her training that includes psychology, ethology and family counseling to help people live harmoniously with their pets.
"I have a lot of people say to me, 'I love animals, I want to do what you do,'" Kabbel says. "I tell them: 'You better love people — it's all about the people. If I can get the dog to walk perfectly with me and not lunge at another dog, that's of no use to the owner."
Kabbel says she must train the owners so they get the same results.
But some behavior problems can be successfully handled by a trainer outside the home. Pam and David Fisher's Labrador retriever, Del, was a feral puppy when she was brought to a Charlotte, N.C.-area shelter. She was so afraid of people she would cower in the corner of her kennel and urinate on herself.
"We knew she needed a professional," Pam says.
The couple sent Del for two weeks of training with highly rated The Dog Wizard and she returned an affectionate dog who plays fetch and obeys commands off leash.
"To go from that extreme to what she is now, I could have never ever imagined it," Pam says.
Non-traditional help for pets
Mary Marshall offers phone consultations from her Indiana farm.
Photo courtesy of Mary Marshall
Some pet owners turn to animal communicators who say they can talk to animals psychically to find the root of a pet's performance or behavior problem.
"You have to have some open-mindedness about it," says Mary Marshall, a highly rated animal communicator in Fountaintown, Ind.
Marshall says she does most of her work over the phone, targeting the source of a pet's problem by talking to its owner and communicating with the animal through mental images.
"Not all things can be gleaned from traditional methods," she says.
Jason Stivers has used Marshall's services to deal with compulsive behavior his 5-month-old border collie, Vox, developed after playing with a laser pointer.
"A month later, he was still looking for the dot," the Cincinnati-area resident says. Marshall says Vox conveyed his desire to have more challenging tasks so she recommended activities such as hiding food and toys around the house.
"I respect her opinion," Stivers says of his various sessions with Marshall.
If you haven't yet met your pet, experts say research can help you prevent and prepare for possible behavior problems.
"People sometimes purchase or adopt animals on impulse and don't think of all of the needs or potential challenges," says Adam Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Humane Society. "I'd encourage people to take an honest look at their lifestyle and ask themselves if this animal is really going to be a good fit for them."