Misbehavior or Miscommunication: Explanations and Remedies for Common Behavioral Conflicts between Dogs, Cats and their Human Companions
Tufts' Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference, 2011
Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB
Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC, Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital, Brooklyn, CT, USA

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible forever for what you have tamed." Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince

As a general rule, companion animal behavior problems are defined by the public as any behavior pet owners view as unacceptable. Unfortunately, normal, innate behaviors and activities displayed by dogs and cats are far too often misinterpreted by owners, leading to discord. Upon reflection, this hardly seems equitable. After all, owner responsibility extends beyond the provision of food, water and shelter. Being truly responsible for the animals in our care requires a commitment to behavioral wellness: incorporating mental and physical stimulation into daily routines with the goal of providing appropriate outlets for normal behaviors. Now more than ever, pets are filling an emotional void, yet are rarely adequately "employed" or provided suitable environmental or mental enrichment outlets. Additionally, far too many owners equate "food is love" with providing a happy, fulfilling life for their pets. This mindset forces many pets, particularly indoor cats, to "adopt" food as their entertainment at the price of developing obesity and related diseases. And, most people are unaware that cats can and do experience highly-publicized dog conditions such as thunderstorm phobia and separation anxiety. That's because cats tend to hide rather than engage in destructive behavior when anxious. In summary, while more pets become integrated into our lives, the communication gap between dogs, cats and their human companions still exists.

Historically, the application of scientific and medical principles from the fields of ethology, psychology, and psychiatry to the field of applied animal behavior has resulted in behavior "fads" that cause an unbalanced approach to behavioral wellness. While misinformation has always been available for the taking, the popularity of many "expert" animal behavior television shows and the state of information technology has provided the opportunity for "inappropriate or harmful advice" to go "viral" in a nanosecond. Much of our information on any topic is condensed to a "sound bite" that is more palatable to the general public. This holds true for focusing on bits and pieces of published peer-reviewed research instead of grasping its main point. Misinterpretation of key concepts - or incomplete information - leads to misunderstandings between owners and their pets.

For the past decade, ethological principles have fallen out of popular training favor and been replaced with an almost unilateral emphasis on learning theory from psychology, and pharmacological intervention based on psychiatry. Each field has its value but to focus primarily on one approach is a huge disservice to the animal and the owner. A balanced wellness program is a healthy approach and one that deserves more realistic implementation. If we can begin thinking about how to balance our dogs and cats' innate needs with our own, both sides will benefit greatly.

Canine Behavior: Owner-Directed Aggression; Fear Aggression; Separation Anxiety

In modern society, most dogs don't get to be dogs. We discourage their habit of sniffing people's crotches as a way of introduction. Hunting for their food is prevented. Even the foods we often present do not satiate their need to gnaw and tear. When an unfamiliar person knocks on our door late at night, we sure do want "Sir Licksalot" to appear fierce and protect us and the home turf. But when the UPS person makes a delivery or persons hired for renovations arrive and our same companion goes off the wall barking and lunging at the door, it constitutes a problem. How's a dog to know? We either prevent sexual behavior or "arrange matings" the latter possibly being preferable to no choice at all. Dogs are physically restricted with minimal, if any, opportunity to roam and exercise their bodies and minds. And last but not least, we completely control their intra- and inter-species social interactions for better or worse, with our decisions frequently determined by our convenience and not necessarily with their best emotional health in mind. This occurs not because owners don't care, but because they often don't understand. As examples, sometimes we shelter them from life experiences for too long and miss the sensitive socialization period. Sometimes we are overly zealous, from a variety of perspectives, in our attempts at socialization resulting in fearful young dogs who have been over-faced. We choose companions for ourselves and sometimes our dogs would prefer not to cohabitate with these new additions to the family. And sometimes, we are the only member of their social group. Now I understand that dog owners and animal professionals enforce "lifestyle limitations" for safety reasons and to prevent over-population. I'm just speaking for the dogs and suggesting that if we eliminate or control so many of their basic instinctual needs, then we need to provide a sound back-up plan with relevant outlets.

And then there is the "perception problem." Some owners have unrealistic views of their dogs that can be detrimental to the relationship - "he's just like a wolf when he does..", "he's my baby" etc. Treating a dog as if he was a wolf, which he is not, results in inappropriate communication and can be responsible for conflict, fear and even aggression, if the relationship deteriorates far enough. Similarly, treating the dog as a human child (actually grandchild is more along the line of what happens!) and spoiling without setting limits and expectations can have the same result. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how well intended owners unintentionally generate behavioral conflict between themselves and their dogs.

As a species, domestic dogs are the most amazingly flexible animals in terms of their ability and willingness to adapt to our anthropocentric environment. Recent canine cognition research suggesting a co-evolution of dogs and humans is fascinating and speaks to the wonders of genetics and artificial selection to create this brilliant relationship we have with our dogs. Finally, when we consider requirements for the behavioral health of our canine companions, remember that many of our dogs are members of highly specialized breed populations with exaggerated aspects of normal behaviors. This affects our plan to provide ethologically sound behavioral outlets.

By contrast, "wild type" canids (wild canid species, indigenous/aboriginal dog populations) are quite "balanced" in their physical and behavioral wellness needs. They have other issues which usually preclude recommending them as house pets, but when it works, they are low maintenance companions compared to dogs. This for me is a fascinating example of the power of behavior genetics and hence the introductory quote "You become responsible forever for what you have tamed."

Once we accept that most of the behaviors we view as problematic are really of our creation, we can then develop a truly humane resolution that enriches us all, dogs and humans alike.

Owner-Directed Aggression

Aggression Is Complex

Aggression is complex far from the unitary concept as it is often portrayed. Anyone - professional, TV entertainer, Internet blogger/expert, breeder, or owner (usually friends or family who "have had dogs" and just "saw" or "read"..) who attempts to tell you otherwise has not been around the proverbial experiential and educational block enough times. A number of factors are involved in canine aggression. Even the following summary of frequently touted "definitions" is too simplistic, but it is a start. Dominance and subordinance constitute the role the behavior plays in relationships between individuals. It is not the "be-all-end-all" explanation for all social interactions and it's a very fluid concept within relationships dependent upon a multitude of factors. I acknowledge that dominance and subordinance relationships exist. I am not an advocate of throwing dominance out with the baby and the bath water. I am an advocate of recognizing dominance as the opposite end of the continuum of subordinance, both equally important aspects of social relationships in any social species where cohabitation is required. From an ethological perspective, submissive behavior is far more important in social relationships than dominance. In natural species, deference and submissive communication are offered (not forced!) and defray, and thus control, all sorts of potential altercations. Really, dominance is far less prominent in communicative interactions in a stable social group, which is what we all hope to achieve with pets in our household. Confidence and fear reflect a continuum of the dog's emotional response that drives the underlying motivation for the aggressive behavior. Emotions are often easier for owners to identify, report and comprehend because we all share almost universal "gut" reactions to "life". I place less emphasis on owner assessment of their dog's "hierarchical status", as these reports are usually based on misinformation and misunderstanding. That said, I do take serious notice of owner perceptions of their animals' emotions. We all understand and recognize the difference between the extremes of fear and confidence. While subtleties throughout the continuum may be difficult for owners to discern, their gut response as to which end of the continuum is most prevalent is often spot on. Offensive and defensive behaviors define the actual behavioral response. Given a bit of guidance, often in the form of showing pictures of body language depicting the continuum from fearful defensive displays to confident offensive displays, owners often can accurately assign a fitting "modus operandi" for their dog's behavior. A combination of all of these factors, which vacillate on a continuum in response to social and environmental pressures, influences the dog's behavior towards the recipient.

Mythology Perpetuates Miscommunication between Dogs and Owners

Since the early to mid- twentieth century, any aggression a dog directed towards family members was assumed to be rooted in dominance. This assumption arose from the romantic notion espoused by European ethologists that dogs are essentially neotenous wolves. This misconception of domestic canine behavior has been a major contributor to the continued dissemination of misinformed and sometimes abusive training methodologies. It is a disservice to the owner and their dog/s to continue to promote a husbandry philosophy that is steeped in outdated and misguided notions that owners must be alpha with their "neotenized wolves" in order to maintain peace and harmony in the home. The truth is these techniques, often dramatically and incorrectly applied by well-meaning owners, are interpreted as aggressive behavior by conflicted dogs who come to find their owner's behavior completely unpredictable. The dog recognizes the difference between status and aggression; sadly the owner, often a victim of misinformation, does not.

Fortunately, within the last decade academic and veterinary behaviorists have championed a new approach to understanding and addressing miscommunication between owners and their canine family members. Based on re-evaluation of clinical data from behaviorists, veterinarians and trainers, it can cogently be argued that most owner-directed aggression is rooted in canine conflict due to inconsistencies in owner behavior. However, in part due to popular animal behavior television shows and older literature, dominance and alpha style leadership methods are being revived. Sadly, revisiting old-style coercive punishment based training methods is only creating more conflicted dogs.

Common Interactions Triggering Owner-Directed Aggression

Throughout the dog-owner relationship, unclear intent on the part of the human or dog can set the stage for misunderstanding that may result in owner-perceived misbehavior. If the situation persists, conflict deteriorating to an aggressive response can result. More often than not, owner directed aggression cases referred to animal behaviorists are usually young dogs just entering puberty-social maturity. Upon polite interrogation it quickly becomes apparent that the root of the problem is the owner's inability to convey concise, consistent communication with clear expectations and consequences. In the absence of sensible guidance, the immature dog is inadvertently put in the position of having to make decisions - often poor decisions from the owner's perspective. In the majority of cases, these young dogs aren't seeking to control their owners, but rather they are trying to establish some predictability within their environment and social interactions.

Situations and interactions that commonly are associated with owner-directed aggression include the following (In many cases, 1 to 3 of the following behavioral signs are shown if the dog has had an opportunity to learn that aggression provides some level of control. The more insecure the dog - the more it wants to control in order to feel secure.) Dogs may:

 Protect food, stolen objects, preferred family members, toys or their bed

 Bite if awoken suddenly or disturbed while resting

 Resist restraint, standing over, handling of the head or feet, grabbing the collar

 Resist discipline

 Not tolerate prolonged eye contact

 Demand petting and later resent handling

Treating Owner Directed Aggression

 Everything starts at home - The following management, training and behavior modification recommendations constitute the baseline remedial program for all dogs that present with behavior problems, aggression or otherwise. This protocol also is highly recommended as a "preventative protocol" for raising puppies to promote behavioral health and avoid behavior problems down the road. The key is to make rearing and training up-beat so the dog enjoys and benefits from his relationship with his owner. If the owner can be trained to be clear, concise, and consistent in their expectations, most dogs readily follow suit.

 Medical rule-outs - A complete physical examination may be recommended to rule out any underlying medical condition that may be contributing to the dog's aggressive behavior. If the dog receives a clean bill of health, a behavior specialist can provide a diagnosis and an appropriate treatment plan. In most cases of adolescent onset of owner-directed aggression medical issues are not relevant, but it's worth consideration as a primary rule-out.

 Do not unfairly discipline the dog - Inappropriate punishment does not build respect. It incites retaliation and learning stops once aggressive interactions begin. This does not mean that dogs should not be corrected and redirected to appropriate behavior but owners need to be educated regarding proper corrections and strongly discouraged from engaging in aggressive behaviors, often touted as "being alpha", such as prolonged staring, scruff-grasping, pinning and other forms of rough handling.

 Avoiding confrontations - Avoiding interactions that repeatedly allow the dog to learn that aggressive behavior is an effective control strategy is an essential component of the program and if not employed, will undermine all of the owner's other efforts. Dogs usually win confrontations because they either growl and the owners back down or they don't back down and the dog learns to bite in order to make his point. Constant aggressive interactions will cause the dog to always be on guard and ready for the next challenge. To begin, owners need to complete a list of circumstances that elicit aggression from their dog, including those situations that induce growling and lip lifts as well as snaps and bites. Once they have compiled their list, they need to devise ways to avoid these interactions. As benevolent as avoidance sounds, this really is not a lenient technique - it is a stop-gap measure to prevent further negative learning.

 Exercise - Sustained daily aerobic exercise is important therapy. Fly ball, Frisbee classes, swimming, fetch, runs in empty tennis court, with a jogger or on a treadmill are all excellent forms of exercise. Aerobic (running) exercise is also thought to increase serotonin levels and is recommended for all dogs, but especially aggressive and anxious dogs. "Mindful" exercise is also very valuable. By mindful, I mean exercise programs that also involve mental training such as agility, NoseWorks, Treibball, herding, cart pulling, earth trials, mushing and other breed-geared activities. Canine Freestyle is also fun for certain dogs and owners and takes communication and training to a whole new level. Programs should be chosen to stimulate the mind and relationship as well as the body.

 Training and enhanced communication - What drives the day to day interactions of a social group is clear, concise, consistent communication between individuals in the group. Training for as little as five to 10 minutes each day can produce amazing results. Training provides a mutually understood vocabulary which owners can use to communicate with their dog. Obviously dogs should be trained to sit, wait, stay, come, down and down-stay, but tricks, training activities and useful cues are what really drive the bonding process between dogs and their owners. Training provides the "vocabulary" and the more varied your training, the bigger your mutual vocabulary. Verbal cues can be strung into sentences that allow owners and dogs to have on-going dialogues throughout the day. Some owners resist training saying they don't want their dogs to become "robots". Once they understand the difference between training for communication and training solely to follow orders they become "vocabulary" junkies and their relationship with their dog blossoms and behavior problems seem to "disappear."

 Nothing in life is free - I recommend the NILF protocol not to impress upon the dog that the owner has priority access to preferred limited resources and thus in theory is the leader, but rather to strengthen communication between a dog and its owner. I encourage training tricks and useful/fun cues in addition to obedience commands to keep the spirit up-beat. From the vocabulary built during training sessions, owners can engage the dog in a dialogue throughout the day by expecting the dog to respond to a cue in a prompt and positive manner in order to receive anything he needs or wants. The dog can have anything he wants, food, attention, praise, toys, exercise and freedom, if he is prepared to listen and respectfully respond to the owner's request. If the dog does not respond, access to the resource is temporarily denied and the dog is ignored. Clear, concise, and consistent training produces desired results most quickly.

 Basket muzzle - All dogs, especially those with aggression issues, should be trained to wear a basket muzzle. The dog will be able to pant, take treats and drink water, but will not be able to bite.

 Head halter - Employ a head halter (Gentle Leader, Snoot Loop) to exert optimal physical control over the dog not only when walking but also in potential aggression inducing situations. Properly used, the head halter allows the owner to intervene and refocus the dog before the dog is in complete control. When wearing a head halter, many dogs appear more willing to look to the owner for direction thus giving the owner an edge with emotional control.

Canine Fear Aggression

The good majority of canine behavior cases I see involve some level of fear aggression directed either toward unfamiliar people or dogs, sometimes relegated to the owner's property, which could be construed as having some territorial elements in the assessment, and sometimes, the dog's fears have generalized such that the response occurs whether the dog is on familiar territory or not. A cornerstone of behavior modification for fear aggression is helping owners develop a mutually understood vocabulary that allows meaningful conversation to occur between the dog and the owner such that the owner can provide the necessary emotional support and training guidance that is necessary to help the dog overcome its fears be they innate, learned or a combination of both. Thus I always begin with a personalized variation of the relationship building program outlined in the previous section. Once dog and owner are on the same page, then and only then can we begin to develop a counterconditioning/countercommanding and systematic desensitization program to teach the dog, over time, that it can substitute more rational responses for its fears in the presence of situations and interactions that cause it extreme duress. When working with such cases, empowering the owner with confidence and training tools they can bring to the table makes all the difference in terms of the potential for a successful outcome from what is usually a protracted avoidance of confrontations and re-training period. Owners of fearful or fear aggressive dogs need to come to the table prepared to learn to "talk the talk" before we can teach them to "walk the walk" with their dogs. Once a foundation of trust and communication is established, then and only then, can owners proceed with specific behavior modification protocols. The "quick fixes" readily available on television and the Internet rarely apply to real-life situations and helping owners understand the difference is often the first step in terms of treatment with these cases.

Separation Anxiety

Dogs are social animals and form strong bonds with people so it can and has been argued that some dogs may experience anxiety when separated from their owners. While most dogs adapt well to the typical home alone schedule, others engage in behaviors that indicate that this experience is less than acceptable to them. The question is what truly is the dog's underlying motivation for the behaviors that owners report?

Dogs may engage in destruction of the home, house soiling, and distress vocalization. Ancillary behaviors may include reduced activity level, depression, loss of appetite, ritualized pacing, aggression when the owner leaves (mouthing, growling, nipping, or body blocking), excessive grooming, diarrhea, vomiting, panting and salivation. Interactions with the owner when the owner is home may include excessive following behavior, exuberant greetings, and anxious or controlling behaviors associated with signals that the owner is preparing to depart.

Physical destruction of the environment is typically evidenced by excessive chewing, digging and scratching in areas near doors and windows ("barrier frustration"). These areas may represent exit routes for the dog as it attempts to simply exit the building or perhaps reunite itself with the owner. If the dog is confined to a crate or its movements are restricted by a gate, destruction is usually focused on the crate door or the gate itself. The dog may seriously injure itself during these escape attempts. Attempts to free itself from barriers may result in broken nails or teeth, a bloody mouth or more extensive injuries from tearing through glass and wood. Dogs may also destroy property that carries the owner's scent such as bedding, furniture, clothing or shoes that are left lying in the open.

Barking, howling and/or whining also are common signs of the home alone syndrome. Distress vocalizations and active seeking behavior occur when many social animals are separated from their companions. Such distress vocalizations may represent the dog's attempt to reunite the social unit - but what is the underlying motivation for seeking reunion? Excessive vocalization may occur primarily at the time of the owner's departure or may continue throughout the duration of the owner's absence. Owners are often unaware that their dog is distressed by the departure and it is only when neighbors complain about the excessive vocalization that they become aware that their dog has a problem.

Dogs may become so distressed in their owner's absence that they urinate or defecate in the house. When this occurs only in the owner's absence, such "inappropriate" elimination is not indicative of a loss of house training, but rather a physiological response to the extreme distress the dog is experiencing from being alone. House soiling typically occurs within 30 minutes of the owner's departure, as the dog becomes more agitated.

The separation anxiety dog is classically distinguished by one or more of the behaviors described above succinctly identified as:

1.  Signs of distress primarily when left alone and

2.  Over-attachment when the owner is present

 But are these signs unquestionable indicators that this is an overly dependent dog that has developed a dysfunctionally strong attachment to its owners?

 Is it equally possible that these same behaviors could be attributed to dogs that are completely unemployed in our modern households and any observed anxiety/"inappropriate behavior" is really a symptom of insufficient and/or irrelevant mental and physical stimulation? Can we replace a rich lifestyle of "meaningful work" for which many breeds have been genetically selected with food-stuffed Kongs and other sundry puzzles, squeak toys and aerobic walks on leash to keep them amused in our absence? And what happens upon our return home? Do we routinely offer any activities that are remotely fulfilling providing meaningful enrichment for dogs and not just human convenient enrichment?

 Can we take this a step further and ask if some cases of destructive/disruptive behavior in owner absence and excessive following, manipulation at departure in the owner's presence, is a manifestation of a dog who seeks control of his environment but feels constantly undermined by his inability to control his inconsistent "absentee owners"?

 While there are certainly exceptions, can we ponder the possibility that a fair percentage of reported "separation anxiety" cases is a "human-made" problem that has nothing to do with any behavioral/emotional deficiencies in the dog?

 We love to "package" and "label" information, but is a universal label of "separation anxiety" always applicable to the "symptoms" listed above and if not, how does this affect our treatment recommendations?

Destruction to the owner's property without clear signs of over-attachment when the owner is present (or actual signs of minimal interest in the owner) suggests that the problem is more clearly derived from insufficient stimulation and not a dysfunctional bond. Both under-stimulation and separation anxiety may manifest as destruction to the owner's property and other behaviors that may be dangerous for the dog or annoying for people sharing the dog's environment, but the underlying motivations are different and respond to different actions on the part of the owner.

For dogs who are under-stimulated, providing accelerated mental, physical and environmental enrichment appropriate for the individual dog is the first step to resolving the problem. Of course those pesky learned behaviors that trashing the house is innately rewarding (chewing shredding etc) need to be addressed and this requires sensible management, retraining and redirection. These dogs usually like their owner well enough, but in the absence of regular and sufficient activities with which to amuse themselves they devise their own "entertainment" (for joy or out of frustration?) which typically includes destructive behaviors.

For dogs with true separation anxiety, it is important to realize that the dog is not doing these things to get even with the owner for leaving the dog, out of boredom or due to lack of obedience. These dogs are truly distressed at the prospect of being left behind. The dog must find an outlet for this anxiety, and its methods of doing so may cause considerable damage.

Treatment Outline for Under-Stimulated Dog Syndrome or Separation Anxiety

 Assess dog's behavior both in the presence and the absence of the owner in a variety of environments - not just the home front where the behaviors and emotions are already established. I recently was reminded of John Rogerson's approach to separation anxiety. The story goes something like this: He meets a client with a presumed separation anxiety dog somewhere out on the moors, and tells the client to turn their dog loose. They reply they cannot as the dog will run off and not return. As the story goes, his response is "Your dog doesn't have separation anxiety then, does it? This is not an "air tight" diagnostic, but it sure is food for thought!

 Healthy management - training, exercise, environmental enrichment that is meaningful to both owner and the dog; exercise not only before owner leaves for the day but development of a routine of activities so the dog is stimulated on a regular basis - then it will be happy for the owner to leave after a reasonable morning walk. It is unreasonable to ask owners to engage in a two-hour canine entertainment program before they leave for work. It is easier and healthier to establish a lifestyle that is based on enrichment that is not time or situation dependent.

 Break the cycle of boredom or anxiety - boredom see above - anxiety may need to engage help of daycare, dog walkers, take dog to work etc until owners are able to retrain the dog which involves reversing past negative learning and retraining positive learning.

 Change the dog's perception of owner departures and arrivals to address learned behavior and any actual distress.

 Independence training for those dogs that are overly attached, but recognize that over-attachment may stem from the fact that without the owner, the dog has absolutely nothing to do.

 Planned departures and random cues can be effective to help change the dog's perception of the owner's departure if the dog's true concern is being left alone. If the dog views the owner's departure as just another day in "anti-paradise" then the unwanted "activities" will begin as soon as the owner pulls out of the driveway regardless of how many times she has "pretended to leave" and rewarded quiet behavior on her "return" or how many times she's made dinner wearing her coat and jingling car keys. These behavior modification strategies won't matter to the under-stimulated dog - the "nose knows" and it can "smell" a forthcoming day with nothing to do.

 Pharmacological intervention can be very helpful for dogs that are experiencing true panic in their owners' absence. However, for those dogs who require a more enriched and purposeful lifestyle beyond being an evening couch companion to their humans, medication will have little to no effect on their home alone behavior.

Feline Behavior: Elimination Outside the Box and Inter-Cat Aggression

The typical behavior caseload for cat-owner conflicts includes an almost equal distribution of aggression cases and elimination outside the litter box. The majority of feline aggression cases involve aggression between feline housemates. When aggression is directed towards people, most often the owner is the recipient and the trigger is usually play or petting-induced aggression. Fears and phobias, compulsive behaviors, excessive vocalization, furniture scratching and overactive behavior all occur but constitute a comparatively small percentage of the caseload.

Despite their moniker as "domestic long or short hairs", our feline companions as we know them were never truly "domesticated" and their behaviors remain similar to their wild ancestors. Cat fanciers have not practiced selective breeding practices to enhance or diminish aspects of feline behavior. Cat breeds are more commonly defined by physical variations, such as coat characteristics and body shape, all genetically selected to please the human desire for the exotic. Unlike dog breeds that may have been selected for enhanced behavioral qualities such as territorial behavior or aspects of predatory behavior that can be problematic in the wrong home with the wrong owner, cat behavior concerns reported by owners usually stem from cats displaying normal behaviors that owners find unacceptable in the home environment. Sometimes the restrictions imposed by an indoor only lifestyle can create dysfunctional behaviors. The two most common feline behavior concerns reported by owners are elimination outside the litter box and intra-cat aggression. Below is a summary of these feline behavior concerns - both vestiges of normal cat behavior confounded by a lifestyle designed by and mostly for humans.

Elimination Outside the Litter Box

I purposely eliminate "inappropriate" from the behavioral "label" because from a feline ethological perspective there's nothing inappropriate about their preference for latrine or "pee mail" locations. There are four main reasons why cats eliminate outside their litter boxes. They are usually caused by owners and the causes are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

House-soiling is the term used to describe the situation in which a cat has developed an aversion to using its litter box and/or develops an alternate substrate preference (e.g., carpet, paper) after eliminating outside of the box. Litter box aversion is based on any number of litter box characteristics such as: type of box (too small, hooded, too deep for arthritic cats), location of the box(es), number of box(es), type of litter, depth of litter, cleanliness of the box (either too dirty or too clean, use of harsh smelling cleansers), plastic liners and track mats, odor, and competition between cats for access to limited or preferred litter boxes.

Anxiety-induced urine or more rarely, fecal marking, occurs when cats become stressed by aspects of their environment or social group and feel the need to redefine their territory with urine or feces. The most typical sources of stress for cats are: the addition of a new cat/person to the household, inter-cat aggression within the home, presence of outdoor cats near the home, person or cat with whom the cat was bonded moves out of the house, changes in owner's work schedule, or pain.

When urine marking, cats tend to do so from a standing position depositing a small amount of urine so vertical objects such as walls or curtains become typical targets. That said, there is no feline rule against marking from a squatting position and depositing a healthy amount of urine. The dead giveaway for marking behavior is that the sites "marked" typically have an emotive quality from a cat's perspective. These include: window sills, exterior walls, curtains, furniture (desk tops, beds, chairs etc), electrical equipment (computers, televisions, stereos), stove tops, refrigerators, heating registers, people's belongings (clothes, suitcases, gym bags, brushes, pillows, sometimes people themselves!), new things in the environment (esp. paper or plastic shopping bags).

Medical conditions can trigger a lapse in litter box usage. It is often reported that cats with urinary tract infections may forgo their litter box in favor of the cool porcelain sink or tub. However, if left unaddressed, what began as a discomfort induced temporary change in the cat's routine can become a dirty habit. Cats may also erroneously attribute pain from a medical condition, such as cystitis, other bladder conditions or declawing procedure, to the box and stop using it. Polydipsia and polyuria due to disease may lead to a box that is overly soggy and unclean and thus aversive to the cat. Intestinal parasites, especially worms, and constipation may cause cats to defecate outside the box. Confusion resulting from cognitive dysfunction or pain from arthritis also can trigger cats to find alternate elimination sites.

Hormonal causes for elimination outside the litter box are less common in pet households because the majority of pet cats are neutered or spayed. Still it bears mentioning, if nothing more than to give a nod to normal cat behaviour, that intact males urine mark to delineate their territory boundaries to other cats and to stimulate female estrus behavior. Some unneutered females will mark to communicate their receptivity to passing males.

Treatment Outline for House Soiling

 Ensure that there are enough litter boxes for the cat(s). The correct formula is N+1 where N = the number of cats in the house.

 Position boxes in a convenient but not high traffic area of the home. Make sure there is a litter box on each level of the home. Boxes can be positioned on or near previously soiled areas in case the cat has developed a location preference. Once accepted and used on a regular basis, the boxes can usually be gradually moved to a location more appealing to the owner.

 Remove hoods in case cat feels trapped in a closed box or the odor is unappealing

 Scoop boxes at least once daily. "Non-scoopable" litter should be replaced weekly.

 Clean boxes under warm running water only. Do not use harsh chemicals. A slight residual odor may help attract the cat to the box.

 Try removing plastic liners

 Change the type of litter. Most cats prefer scoopable (sand texture) litters.

 Fill litter boxes to at least two inches depth of litter

 Address any inter-cat competition and ensure that the pariah cat has plenty of safe and secluded litter box options

 Replace the litter box with a cookie sheet or a box with a low entry carved in the front/side for an elderly or injured cat who displays difficulty climbing into the litter box.

 Clean soiled areas promptly and properly because urine and feces contain pheromones that attract a cat to repeatedly soil the area. Odors should be eliminated at source using specific "odor neutralizers." Some of the products are bacterial, some enzymatic, some both. Make sure that the product is fresh because some are light and heat sensitive and will lose their potency over time. They should be used in accord with the manufacturer's directions and usually require several hours to be effective. During this time the treated area should remain damp. It may help to cover the treated area with a damp towel so it doesn't dry out too quickly. If it is difficult to locate all the urine spots around the house a "black light" can be used in a darkened room to identify the soiled areas which should fluoresce under this light.

Treatment Outline for Urine Marking

 If possible, eliminate or address stresses and stressors both inside and outside the home. Frequently, the source of stress cannot be identified with any certainty or if identified it is not always easy to eliminate. This is when anti-anxiety medication becomes a serious consideration for the emotional well being of the cat (and the owner!). Common stressors include:

 Inside the home

 Fighting between cats

 Anxiety related to the activities of people including owners and guests

 Home renovations

 Outside the home

 Unwelcome activity from outside cats and wildlife viewed from windows is the most commonly reported exterior stressor for house cats

 Thorough cleaning of urine-marked areas with an "odor neutralizer" is necessary for reasons outlined above.

 Anti-anxiety medication may help stabilize the cat's mood while management changes and behavior modification is instituted to address the issue over the long term.

Inter-Cat Aggression

Aggression is the number two feline behavior problem reported to behaviorists, second only to inappropriate elimination. Cats show several different types of aggression toward other cats including; fear aggression, territorial aggression, non-recognition aggression and redirected aggression, but inter-cat aggression is by far the most common.

Inter-cat aggression is a catch all term for various situations in which cats engage in occasional or relationship threatening altercations. It can arise when multiple cats, with incompatible personalities, develop conflicts within social relationships and hierarchies. In addition, cats may become afraid of other cats following an attack and may develop fearful behavior or fear aggression, which can contribute to conflicts in social relationships with other cats in the household. Some cats may be genetically fearful and others may have developed fearful reactions as a consequence of lack of appropriate socialization. Many inter-cat aggression cases were previously coined "territorial aggression," but we are learning that by the time cats are referred for a behavior evaluation, very few feline altercations have much of anything to do with territory. This is not to suggest that territorial aggression does not occur, but rather that it is probably less common than what is diagnosed. It may occur secondary to general inter-cat aggression or territorial aggression may be the primary instigating factor but quickly escalates into aggressive behavior with the intent to drive out the other cat. At this stage the aggressive behavior is so pervasive and complex that it requires little more than auditory or visual access to the other cat to trigger an outburst. There is no longer a clear, underlying trigger with a "logical label."

Territorial aggression is most common when a new cat is added to the household. If cats are introduced suddenly without the benefit of carefully planned and patient introductions, aggression is a predictable outcome. This can set the stage for on-going battles and does not bode well for the future. Feline social systems in free ranging populations are matrilineal, complex, and characterized by transition. Within the physically restrictive confines of a home, a cat that is aggressive to one housemate may not be aggressive to another. Given all of this occurs within the same household or territory, it is likely that more than turf wars are involved in triggering the conflict. It is important to keep in mind that when cats are confined indoors, they have little chance to avoid each other and aggression is all too frequently the end result since temperaments, territories and fears are all amplified.

In multiple cat households, inter-cat aggression is increasingly complex because some cats may form coalitions. When this happens, a cat who had previously accepted or at least tolerated another cat in the household may change his/her behavior depending on a behavior change in her preferred feline associate's behavior towards that cat. Feline relationships in multiple cat households are not necessarily absolute and coalitions can shift at any time in response to changes in age, health, and perceived perturbations in the social and/or physical environment. Feline relationships also can be affected by owners and by how they interact with their cats. Thus the causes for inter-cat aggression are multifaceted and complex. One cat's misinterpretation and over-reaction to another cat's body language can generate mistrust and aggression can escalate very quickly in response to this miscommunication.

Staring and posturing can be forms of passive aggressive communication and are more common between cats who are confident with themselves and more equal in their social relationships with each other. For these individuals covert aggression is sufficient to get their message across. These forms of signaling, which can be precursors to a more serious relationship meltdown, are complex but subtle and are often disregarded by owners. Many owners do not notice there is a problem (or figure it will work itself out) until the feline drama has hit a crescendo and by then the prognosis for reunion becomes poorer with each hostile signal and altercation. Active aggression such as hissing, swatting, pouncing, biting and even urine marking is more common in cats who perceive a challenge to their social role, territory, resources, personal safety - whatever aspect of their "comfort/survival package" seems challenged. If a cat is challenged by another cat in the household, either actively or passively, and it chooses to exit, the challenger should cease and desist. If it persists and continues to pursue, then we have all the makings of a serious relationship rift that may be irreparable. When one cat is insecure about its personal safety or "turf" and if its reaction is "over-the-top" or out-of-context, the breaking of normal social communication rules can result in a level of hysterical lack of communication that can forever damage the cats' delicate social relationship. Bear in mind that as a species, they are for all intents and purposes solitary hunters so they have not developed the complex and "forgiving" communication signals with which we are familiar in dogs.

Non-recognition aggression. In other instances, feline housemates have a good relationship until something occurs and they do not recognize one another. For example, non-recognition can be triggered when one cat in the family returns from the veterinarian's office or the groomer and smells and behaves differently. The cat that has been away may also release a scent from its anal sacs that signals fear and may cause the other cat to respond aggressively. If a fight ensues, it can sometimes irreparably damage the relationship. Prevention is the best medicine and owners should isolate cats who have been separated and reunite once both cats appear relaxed and their behavior back to normal.

Redirected aggression may occur when aggression intended for an outdoor intruder is redirected onto a feline housemate. The result can be a severely damaged social bond between cats that have previously cohabited in harmony. A typical scenario involves one cat resting by a window. A second cat sees an intruder cat outside the window and rushes to attack it. The first cat sees its housemate rushing toward it in an aggressive manner and becomes defensive. The second cat redirects its attack on its housemate. Theories as to why cats redirect fall into two main categories. One theory is that one cat adopts an offensive strategy but being unable to attack the unwelcome visitor who is on the other side of a window turns around and attacks the cat next to it instead. The second theory argues that one of the two cats becomes extremely frightened and assumes a defensive posture, pupils dilated, claws unsheathed, crouched body posture, ears flattened accompanied by hissing and perhaps swatting. The other cat observes this and believes it is about to be attacked and takes the offensive and a fight ensues. Another scenario is when two cats are resting in the same vicinity when a frightening incident occurs such as an unusual and particularly loud noise. Both cats are startled and assume a defensive posture. When they see each other in this stance, they assume the other is ready to launch an attack. Each cat responds defensively, a fight erupts, and they remain fearful and aggressive toward each other afterwards. In cases of redirected aggression, the cats should be separated immediately. If this is done and they are given several hours, if not overnight to cool off, they may be able to be reintroduced over a bowl of food.

Treatment Outline for Inter-Cat Aggression

 Safely separate feuding felines

 Outfit with bells so cats can predict approach

 Isolate aggressor when tension first is apparent or after an actual altercation (can take 24 to 48 hours for arousal levels to return to baseline)

 Once the cats are released together, watch carefully, and quietly deter any behaviors that suggest another altercation is imminent including any behaviors that are inappropriate or out of context (prolonged staring, tail swishing, body blocks, vocalizations, overt aggression etc)

 Always reward and show preference to the cat who is exhibiting appropriate social behaviors - this cat receives preferential treatment from owner

 In cases where fighting occurs daily, is on-going and impossible to interrupt for a significant time, it will be necessary to completely separate the cats and gradually and systematically reintroduce them in the presence of positive experiences. It may take several months to reintroduce the cats and depending upon the personalities involved, in cases of serious aggression and on-going social tension, re-homing one of the cats or maintaining them permanently separated in the home may be the only options.

 Pharmacological intervention is an option often paired with behavior modification and management changes for serious cases.

 Behavior modification and pharmacologic intervention always have an improved potential for success when instituted as early as possible in the treatment of deteriorating feline social relationships.

 All aspects of treatment for inter-cat aggression require the attention of a dedicated, compliant, patient owner who has an accurately objective knowledge of her cats' body language, individual temperament and social relationship with other cats in the household.


Speaker Information
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Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB
Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC
Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital
Brooklyn, CT, USA

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