Cat Play the Right Way: 7 Mistakes to Avoid

Nature designed cats to be efficient little predators and to hunt even when they’re not hungry (because who knows when the next meal will scamper by?). Play is the indoor cat’s version of hunting. It’s an expression of a host of hardwired feline behaviors. Cats who do not use their minds and bodies in natural ways become fat, bored, stressed, and may eventually show behavior problems.

So what’s going on if your cat isn’t playing? It’s possible the play you’re offering is not enough like real hunting. Here are some common play mistakes cat caretakers make.

The toy is not what the cat likes to hunt. Individual cats have individual prey preferences, often learned from their mothers. Some cats hunt at night because their preferred prey is nocturnal. Scratching, rustling sounds excite these cats. Cats who hunt critters active in the daytime are more stimulated by movement.

Other cats may prefer a toy that flies through the air, wiggles on the ground, hides and disappears, or moves in plain sight; a toy that is light, feathery, small and furry, long and snaky, easy to carry in the mouth, easy to bat with paws, fun to chew, or several of the above. What your cat likes to play with is what you should give him.

The motion of the toy is unrealistic. Real prey is unpredictable enough to make the hunt interesting. They run at different speeds. They change direction. They scurry under the couch or behind the curtains. They play dead and then suddenly jump up and make a break for it. Automatic, wind-up, hang-on-the-door, and motion-detector toys don’t act like prey. Most follow a simple pattern when they move that cats can quickly figure out. Sometimes inattentive humans do the same thing when they wave a toy around. Cats need interactive play with toys that move in unpredictable ways.

Often, knowing which toy is a favorite will tell you how the cat likes to play. Bugs (and bug toys) fly in circles close to the ground or in erratic patterns and land on low surfaces.

Mice alternate walking and running. A mouselike toy moves fast, stops for a bit, then inches along, then runs again. Mice like to hide behind and under things. Going beneath a door or behind a couch leg is what a mouse would do.

Snakes crawl slowly. They often stay still or move only slightly.

Birds fly around and land on chairs and tables, then stand still for long periods before taking flight to land someplace else.

The cat has killed that toy too many times. When you’ve killed the same little mousie 100 times, it’s truly dead. For some cats, when you’ve killed the same toy twice, it’s dead. Cats need new toys from time to time—how often depends on how quickly your cat stops playing with the toys he has. Some cats need different toys during a single play session and will play a lot longer if you just switch to a different toy.

You don’t need to buy a basketful of toys; simply rotate the toys you have. Put a few in a drawer for a month or two while others come out after a long absence and are suddenly new again. Try mixing up toy types, too. But if your cat only likes fuzzy things that dangle from a string, then stick with that—just offer different string fuzzies every week or two.

The toy disappears in the middle of the hunt. Cat stalk their prey before pouncing. They don’t have the stamina to do a lot of chasing, so they have to make every pounce count. That means watching and planning are part of the hunt. A cat who is not moving but is visually locked onto a toy is still engaged in the game. The cat may even run away from the toy to stalk from across the room or crouch behind a piece of furniture for a better pounce.

If the cat isn’t pouncing right away, we tend to assume he’s not playing and put the toy away—often when the cat was in the middle of a hunting sequence. Now he’s learned that you can’t be trusted to keep up the game, and he’s more likely to ignore you when you pull out the toy again.

The toy appears to be suicidal. Prey moves away, not toward the cat. Prey may try to hide under or behind something. It keeps making small movements and small sounds. Understanding this gives you clues about how to make a toy enticing to your cat. Make the toy move away, cleverly changing direction, dashing for cover, and popping out again.

If the cat doesn’t show interest, you’re not likely to get a response by touching the cat with the toy. That’s not what prey would do. You get a better response by slowly moving the toy under a piece of furniture or a towel on the floor. Or move a toy behind you and out of sight. Your cat will soon follow to see where it went.

The toy is too hard to catch. While some cats like to leap into the air, grabbing for a toy, many do not. From the cat’s point of view, leaping is a last-ditch attempt at a catch. If your cat is jumping for the toy, he’s not actually hunting. See what your cat prefers, but for many (especially older cats), prey should remain on the floor.

Make sure your cat catches the prey many times during a play session. In a 10-minute play session, the cat should catch the prey at least 10 times. A toy that can be bitten or even torn limb from limb is most satisfying. (The toys your cat destroys are the best toys! Keep buying or making more of those.) Let your cat catch the toy and then make it struggle a bit. That makes the cat feel like a successful hunter.

The game ends too abruptly. Take a few minutes to wind down the play session, so you don’t leave your cat more keyed up than when you started. When caught, prey struggles a bit, then stops struggling. Think about a wounded animal: It will start to move more slowly and erratically. It may be still for long periods of time and then move just a little. It will be easier and easier to catch. Let the cat catch the toy more and more often as you wind it down.

Eventually, let the cat catch the toy a final time. Drop the toy on the floor. The cat may bop it a few more times, along with a few more bites and shakes, to be sure it’s really dead. Don’t put the toy away until the cat has walked away; if you pick it up while the cat is still interested, the prey has been resurrected.

End every play/hunting session with a small treat. This cues the end of play and ends it in a natural way: The cat has stalked the prey, pounced on it, bitten it, killed it, and finally, symbolically eaten it, with the treat substituting as the prey. Very satisfying! 

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Anxiety Often Accompanies Cognitive Dysfunction

If your pet has cognitive dysfunction—canine or feline dementia—you may have noticed that he seems to be more anxious than in the past. That’s a common side effect of the condition, but there are ways to manage it.

Aging dogs and cats have problems similar to those of elderly humans, and not just physical ones: changes in the brain can lead to something very much like human dementia. A pet with what’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome can have signs such as disorientation, sleep disturbance, forgetting housetraining, and changes in how they interact with family members. They may get lost in their own home or go out in the backyard and seem to forget why they’re there; they may become more aloof or more needy than when they were younger.

Along with all these changes can come increased anxiety, not only for affected animals but also for their humans, because this change in life can be upsetting to watch. The good news is that you don’t have to stand helplessly by–there are things you can do to help.

Rule Out Other Causes

Your vet will diagnose CDS by ruling out possible physical explanations for the signs, some of which can be caused by other age-related conditions. Behaviorally, make sure you’re addressing other issues common to older pets. For instance, if your dog isn’t responding to cues that you’re sure he knows, he could be losing sight or hearing.

You can teach new hand signals to a dog who’s losing hearing or even use tactile cues, says Debbie Martin, Fear Free certified veterinary technician specialist in behavior. “A touch on the shoulder can be a cue for them to do something or a touch on the collar means move toward me and you get a treat.”

Appearing not to understand a known cue may also be a sign of pain. One of Martin’s old dogs who has orthopedic problems stopped responding to “sit.”

“She looks at me like ‘I heard what you said,’ but you see the hesitation, and her sit looks different now,” she says. “So I just don’t ask for that anymore–we do things that look more comfortable.” Undiagnosed pain is also common in older cats and may be a reason for litter box problems, so make sure the box is easy for them to get into.

Dealing with Disorientation

For pets who get lost in the house, you may want to restrict wandering by using baby gates or closing doors to rooms where they tend to get stuck. Make sure this doesn’t increase their anxiety—often indicated by whining and pacing at that door—and give them comfortable alternatives such as more beds in rooms where they have access. For cats, provide more litter boxes so they don’t have to search as hard if they seem to be forgetting where the box is.

Sleep disturbance can be disruptive for both pet and owner—everyone is more stressed when they don’t get enough sleep. This can also be a result of pain, but once that’s addressed there’s more you can do. One thing for any older pet is to provide a warm area to sleep. “They tend to be more sensitive to temperature just like people are when they get older,” says Martin. Electric bed warming pads designed for pets and microwavable warmers can help.

Brain Games

Making sure their minds are stimulated during the day will also help with sleep, and with cognition in general. Your dog still needs to get tired to sleep well, so now that he’s not physically up to a lot of exercise, that means getting him mentally tired. Veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta, DVM, says there’s good research proving that mental enrichment works to improve cognition, and there’s plenty you can do even if your older dog has physical limitations. One of her clients has a large pit bull who can’t go for walks anymore. “He puts him in a wagon and pulls him down the street,” she says. “He’s out, he sees the birds, he smells different smells. Every sense that is stimulated is enrichment.”

Scent enrichment is an especially low-impact idea that we often don’t think of because we’re less oriented to smell than our dogs. Martin brings back handfuls of mulch, an idea she got from a friend with a senior dog: “Anything that her other dog spent a lot of time sniffing, she’d take some of the grass or whatever it was and put it in a baggie and bring it back to the dog who can’t walk.”

It’s also important for them to keep learning. You can teach old dogs new tricks, even if they have cognitive dysfunction. Be patient, and be positive, says Martin, “Be okay with the fact that if the dog doesn’t respond it’s not the end of the world.”

Radosta suggests teaching your dog one new behavior each month. Keep training sessions short, just five minutes a couple times a day. You may also want to consider a fun, not too physically demanding class such as tricks or nosework. “Your dog just needs to learn something; it could be super simple,” she says. “Don’t get on his case if he can’t learn it fast; it’s just that you’re stimulating him to think.”

Medical Management

Along with these management and training ideas, your vet may be able to help with medication. Radosta says it’s important to make sure your pet first has a thorough exam, including bloodwork, thyroid test, and blood pressure measurement, to make sure any medications used for anxiety are safe for her. A drug called selegiline (Anipryl) can be prescribed for pets with CDS (it’s used off label in cats). It isn’t effective for all animals, but a significant percentage of those who take it experience improvement. Be aware that it can take up to 12 weeks to see results, and alert your veterinarian to any medications or supplements your pet takes to avoid undesirable drug interactions.

Radosta also says certain supplements have good research behind them showing effectiveness in improving cognitive function. They include a product called Senilife, and Denamarin and Denosyl, which contain a substance called SAM-e. Purina and Hill’s make diets for cognitive health whose benefit has been shown in clinical trials. She also says you should consider these products for all older dogs, even if they’re not exhibiting signs, since studies show that subtle signs of cognitive dysfunction can be found in dogs as young as 8: “If your pet dog is 10 or older, you should be supporting his brain health.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

How to be the Perfect Pet-Sitting Client

What information does your pet sitter need to efficiently care for your home and pets? After 25 years as a pet sitter, I find it falls into two categories: pet care and “all that other stuff.” Here’s how to ensure that your pet sitter knows the most important details about your animal’s care.

Meals, Meds, and More

  • Food: Include notes about feeding times, amounts of food, and where pets usually eat. Do they eat in crates? Are they separated? Different brands of food? Can they have treats? Any diet restrictions? What brand of food do they eat in case I run out?
  • Medication: Provide a list of medications, including dose and frequency. Where should I refill it in case they run out?
  • Dog Behavior: Does he chew, bark, or bite intruders? If I am walking the dog, how will he react when he meets strangers, children, or other dogs? People in uniform or wearing hats? Does he react to some breeds or types of dogs but not others?
  • Logistics: Where does the pet sleep? Where is he when no one is home? Where are the leashes, collars, and poop bags? Is he crate-trained? Where is the cat carrier in case I have to transport?
  • Cat behavior: Does the cat hide? Where? Does he bite or scratch? Does he go outside? Does he try to escape? What are his favorite toys or types of play?
  • Vet info: Provide a phone number and signed release allowing your pet sitter to seek treatment for your pet. If I will be walking your dog or taking him to a dog park, leave a copy of his current shot records.
  • Clean-up instructions: Where is the pooper scooper? The litter scoop? Where is fresh cat litter? Where do you dispose of waste?

The Other Stuff

  • Logistics: Let me know where you will be, especially if you are out of the country, and the day and approximate time you will return.
  • Codes and passwords: Every security gate and house alarm system works just a bit differently. Leave instructions and the phone number of the alarm company.
  • Phone numbers: Provide your cell number and that of a local contact person. If I have to evacuate animals, I’ll need help and maybe a place to take them. During the 2003 California fires, I ended up with eleven birds, six dogs, a cat, and two horses at my house. They don’t all fit into one car.
  • House info: Where are water and gas shutoffs? I once arrived at a house and water was pouring down the stairs into the living room. The shutoff valve was in the garage behind a metal shelving unit. The neighbor had to help me find it.

What a Veterinarian Will Want to Know

If I have to take your pet to the veterinarian, ideally I would take him to your vet. But that’s not always possible. In either situation, the vet will still ask certain questions:

  • Have I talked to the owner about the situation? The owner might think the current symptoms are perfectly normal.
  • How long has the owner been gone? What are the symptoms of the problem? Has the animal been eating, drinking, and eliminating normally? Did it start as soon as the owner left or later?
  • What kind of follow-up care can the pet sitter provide? Will the animal need extra visits?
  • On the practical side, how will the vet be paid? Will you call in a credit card number, pay when you return home, or does the pet sitter have to front the money? Is there a dollar limit on the amount you will approve? Cell phones have made it much easier to get in touch with you while you travel, but even then, it may take time to get in touch. In an emergency, I may need to make on-the-spot decisions.
  • If the vet visit is the result of an accident, what happened? Will the pet sitter cover the cost? For instance, I have liability insurance that covers most situations if I am at fault.

There’s a lot to think about when you are getting ready to travel. Plan ahead for your pet sitter so you can be confident your pets are safe and happy while you are gone.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Does Your Dog Want to be a Therapy Dog?

Making therapy visits can be great enrichment for the right dog and make you feel good about giving back to the community. But it’s important that therapy pets love their work, and for some dogs it may be too stressful. If you’re considering getting into this, make sure your dog will be an enthusiastic partner.

“We have to be prudent about not putting our own emotions on our dogs,” says Lynn Powell, board chair for The Dog Alliance in Cedar Park, Texas, and a therapy dog handler for six years. “It’s good work, it makes me feel awesome when I go on a visit, it serves a lot of people. But you have to look at your dog and not just go off your own emotions.”

What to Consider

How can you know if your dog might be well suited?

Ask yourself some questions, says Amy McCullough, American Humane’s senior research advisor. She’s lead author of a research study that evaluated how therapy dogs feel about their work and has been a therapy dog handler since 2001.

The first? “What does my dog do when he or she meets a new person outside the home?”

For therapy work, you want a dog who enjoys meeting new people. To judge this, look at actual behavior, not wished-for behavior. Does your dog walk toward strangers happily or does he need to be persuaded? Notice if he reacts differently to different people; maybe an adult approaching calmly is fine but a rowdy toddler is a different story.

How is your dog around other dogs? Can she be calm and not distracted in their presence? There will often be other dogs in the therapy setting, and it’s not enough to be non-aggressive; your dog needs to understand that seeing another dog isn’t an opportunity to play.

Does your dog know basic obedience cues? You won’t be disqualified if you have to say “sit” twice, but the dog needs to be under control. “If the dog is in a sit-stay beside the owner and someone approaches, they can’t just go barreling up to say hi,” says Powell.

Practice Tips

If all of that checks out, start testing your dog in situations that will help you see how he might react to various therapy visit experiences. When doing this, be aware of your dog’s stress signals. “Every dog’s signals are a little bit different,” McCullough says. These signs can be subtle: lip licking, yawning, looking away, looking toward the door can all be signs of stress. If that’s news to you, do some research–there are lots of good resources with illustrations–and start learning how to read your dog.

Therapy visits take place in unfamiliar and potentially busy settings, so visit a variety of dog-friendly public places. “If you go to Home Depot and are being realistic at watching your dog, you may see some things that make you realize it won’t work,” Powell says.

Practice at home. A therapy dog evaluation may test how your dog reacts to something startling such as a loud noise. Does your dog startle then recover quickly or cower and want to leave the room?

Your dog needs to take unusual movements and objects in stride. “In a nursing home, people may walk with an unsteady gait or make odd vocalizations,” says Powell. “That trips up a lot of dogs.” Try to accustom your dog to these things by pairing them with treats to make them a positive experience. McCullough sometimes rents crutches or a wheelchair so those won’t be completely new to the dog.

Handler Hints

People will want to pet your dog. Pay attention to how your dog prefers to be touched. You can work with the dog on areas where he’s hesitant, for instance by touching a paw and treating, but your job as a handler is to facilitate interactions so they are positive for everyone. You’ll need to be able to point out that your dog prefers to be petted in a certain way.

If your dog is uncomfortable with any of these experiences, it’s worth working on it with a trusted professional positive reinforcement trainer, but be conscious of the line between helping him get comfortable with an unfamiliar experience and pushing him to do something. “I’ve seen lots of dogs work on things and are fine,” Powell says. “Others have been tested three or four times and it’s obvious to everyone except the owner that the dog is not liking it. It’s not for everybody.”

Training and Qualifications

Powell’s group offers classes for aspiring therapy dog teams, but if something like this isn’t available where you live, classes for the Canine Good Citizen test are common and cover many of the important skills.

Tests for therapy dogs are not standardized and most groups are local and independent, so make sure you’re comfortable with the group you’re thinking of working with. “I think an important thing to look for is how much they want you to advocate for your animal and wants you to make sure your dog is happy and comfortable and safe,” says McCullough. “Maybe a kid doesn’t want your dog to leave, but you can tell that your dog is ready to end the visit. A group should empower you to say, ‘My dog is uncomfortable.’”

Once you’ve passed the test and are ready to start working, determine what kinds of settings your dog prefers to work in. A low-energy or older dog might like to lie around while a child reads aloud; a young, active dog might have different preferences. Individual facilities have different challenges. Powell’s group certifies dogs at three different levels depending on whether they can handle more complex and unpredictable environments.

Follow your dog’s lead. If you have a passion for a certain kind of facility, don’t let that blind you. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I putting the dog first; am I choosing a setting because I like it or because my dog really likes it?’” says McCullough.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Should You Ignore Your Dog When Leaving the House?

A new study casts doubt on a mainstay of teaching dogs to stay home alone. Here’s what it found.

Everyone’s heard the advice: ignore your dog when leaving the house and returning. The claim is that long goodbyes and excited reunions might cause separation anxiety, but if you don’t make a fuss, the dog will learn that your comings and goings are no big deal.

Personally, I don’t ignore the dog; I ignore this advice. I’ve always given my dogs a treat when I leave the house, and it seems to make them happy to see me go. In fact, they’re so happy that it’s almost insulting. But that’s better than them being upset about it, so I am willing to endure this minor blow to my self-esteem.

A new study suggests that in fact ignoring the dog is probably not the ideal way to say goodbye.

Petting Has Positive Results

In the experiment, each owner brought their dog into a field at a training center and left him with a stranger for three minutes. Each dog was tested twice: one time the owner ignored the dog before leaving, another time, the owner petted the dog for one minute before leaving. The dogs were not extremely distressed by the separation, as shown by measurements of cortisol (a hormone used to test for stress) and behavior, but they spent a lot of the time looking where the owner had gone, so they did seem to be actively waiting for their owner’s return.

The results showed that petting had a positive effect: When the dogs had been petted, they showed more calm behaviors during the separation and their heart rate was lower afterward, compared to when they had been ignored.

This is only a small pilot study, but it’s interesting because it suggests that conventional wisdom has it exactly backward. It turns out that this is less surprising than it might be, because there’s actually no research supporting it.

“So many owners have heard the old advice to ignore your dog when you leave and when you come home, but there’s really not any evidence for it,” says Zazie Todd, PhD, author of the website Companion Animal Psychology and the Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures.

Despite how often it’s repeated, Todd says I’m not the only one who disregards this advice.

“I think it’s counterintuitive to what people want to do, especially when they come home and a happy, wiggly dog is waiting for them–it feels wrong,” she says. And they don’t ignore dogs when they leave any more than they’d go out without saying goodbye to a spouse or child: “We think of dogs like family members, so it’s just a bit weird to do that.”

Many Farewell Rituals

When Todd wrote a blog post about this study, she got a lot of comments from people describing their routines for saying goodbye to their dogs–and like me with my “goodbye cookie,” not a single one said they ignored them. “I think it’s really common that people have these rituals,” she says. “They have a routine, so the dog knows you’re going to go out but you’re going to come back as well.”

It’s important to note that the dogs in this study did not have separation anxiety–treating a dog with separation anxiety takes quite a bit more effort than a minute of petting. But there’s also no research behind the claim that how you take leave of your dog will cause separation anxiety. So if ignoring him doesn’t feel right, don’t worry about it, says Todd. “It seems that it’s perfectly okay to pet your dog before you go out if that’s what you want to do.”

If you suspect your dog might suffer from separation anxiety, talk to your veterinarian.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Better Together? A Kitten Combo is Fun and Smart

Thinking about a kitten? Consider adopting two. Acquiring a pair of kittens is good for their physical and emotional health and fun for their humans. Here’s what to know.

Anne is a curious caramel tiger kitten, who chirps sweetly to herself as she goes about her day, jumping in and out of laps, proudly carrying her toys. With splotches of gray on his white coat, Ron is a big-footed snuggle fiend who will purr and knead his paws when he sees you in the morning. They love wrestling, watching squirrels, and getting chin scratches. They bathe each other, nap together, and will melt your heart over and over again.

A Special Bond

Ron and Anne, fostered by Katharine Miessau with Branford Compassion Club, were from a litter of five kittens, all very close. But the bond between Ron and Anne was apparent only after Ron was taken to an adoption event. Miessau said he was frightened and hid under the blanket the whole time. “When we got home,” she says, “Ron beelined to his sister Anne and smooshed his little body against hers as tightly as he could. Anne gave him a thorough bath and he dozed to sleep.”

In the days following the adoption event, Miessau says Anne and Ron were together and engaged in play more often than they played alone. They slept in the same bed, ate out of the same bowl, even when Miessau put down separate bowls for each, and explored the house as a dynamic duo.

“I started looking back through photos of their litter and saw that again and again, even when they were teeny and surrounded by their siblings, they were side by side,” Miessau says.

Obviously, there’s nothing cuter than a litter of kittens playing together, but often, as with Anne and Ron, there are two who just have a special bond. Call it anthropomorphizing, but separating them sounds heartbreaking, which is why experienced shelter workers or those who foster take that into consideration when placing their charges. Even older cats can develop close relationships.

Kittens With Benefits

There are few downsides to adopting a pair of kittens. Two is seldom more work than one and can make a world of difference in their everyday wellbeing.

A pair of kittens is good company for each other if they’re alone during the day. Let’s face it, working at home is not an option for most people, and it could be scary for a lone kitten to be wandering around the house all day. A buddy provides security and companionship.

Kittens learn from each other, continuing the socialization process. The importance of socialization cannot be overstated. The more kittens interact with each other, the more they learn about the boundaries they can cross with each other – or not: You get smacked if you bite your buddy too hard and you learn not to do it. (It goes without saying that humans and kittens should never interact this way. Physical reprimands from humans can create fear, not something you want in your relationship.)

Kittens are curious and need stimulation. Rather than sleeping all day, they can explore the world together.

They expend their energy on each other rather than your ankles. With their boundless energy, kittens may target anything that’s moving, including vulnerable ankles. Chances are good that with a buddy, that energy will be deflected to playing with him.

A pair takes the pressure off an older cat. When looking to add to their feline family, people may worry about the reaction of a senior resident, who may be a bit frail or used to being alone. Two kitten buddies are less likely to stress out the oldster, making the adjustment for all go more smoothly.

There’s less chance of boredom for inside cats. Boredom can lead to unwanted behavior – scratching in forbidden locations, overgrooming, food obsessions, and perhaps even litter box avoidance. Despite the perception that cats are solitary creatures, when you see kittens playing together, it’s clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

Feline Friendship

A pair of kittens is not a substitute for the human interaction that’s essential for happy, healthy cats. You are their world, and just because they have each other doesn’t mean you don’t have to train and play with them and offer environmental enrichment, but the presence of a feline companion and playmate, one he’s known from birth, can only enhance a cat’s life in your home.

Because of their bond, Ron stayed with Miessau for an extra month, until Anne was spayed. Miessau’s tender loving fostering and Branford Compassion Club’s publicity worked – Ron and Anne were adopted together just before Christmas by an adoring family overflowing with love. They were renamed, appropriately, Peace and Love.

Miessau observes, “As a foster auntie, I could not be happier, and I’m so grateful that they showed me their kinship and love in time to help me ensure that they would be together forever.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

When Your Dog Is Afraid of Men: What To Do

Does your dog wag her tail and act happy when women and children come close, but crouch down, roll over on her back, and pee whenever a dude greets her?

Does she tuck her tail between her legs, pace around the room, or bark, growl, and snarl when a man shows up? If so, perhaps she’s afraid of men. Here’s how to help a dog feel safe and relaxed when a gentleman comes calling.

Not Uncommon

Your dog’s fear of the male sex isn’t rare. Many people report this common behavior and attribute their dogs’ jitters to abuse by males early in life or in a previous home. While it’s possible traumatic experiences may have caused the heebie-jeebies, it’s likely not the only reason. Social and physical factors contribute to the fear puzzle.

“There are several explanations,” says Ellen M. Lindell, VMD, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. “Many puppies are raised by women, rather than by men, so pups grow up feeling more connected to women.”

Place some blame, too, on the canine nose. Dogs possess a keen sense of smell and can detect the difference in male and female scents caused by hormones and personal care products. If raised by a female breeder, puppies have known her scent since birth. Men, not so much.

Fearful dogs are sensitive to human behaviors and appearances and may react negatively to some of them. These include a larger body, a loud, booming tone of voice, facial hair, or a hat shading the face. Dogs can interpret abrupt movements, roughhousing, or hovering over them for petting as confusing and intimidating.

Often these traits and actions are not always separated along gender lines. “If a dog was never exposed to people who look or act this way as a puppy, she can feel threatened and will tend to shy away from them,” says Dr. Lindell.

Spending time early in life with only one person rather than several limits a dog’s comfort level as well.

Changing the Story

Whatever the reason your dog acts uncomfortably nervous around anyone with a large and too-noisy presence, you can take steps to ease her anxiety. You’ll need patience, planning, and training, but the results will pay off. A dog that has a fear of people may never develop an outgoing, happy-go-lucky personality when it comes to meeting men, but she can learn to relax more in their presence.

Begin by identifying details that trigger your dog’s fearful response. This will help you narrow the type of exposure and training your dog will need to reduce her fright.

Observe how your dog reacts when she sees a large person wearing a hat or sporting a beard or mustache. Notice if she shies away from someone who leans over her, rushes toward her, or has a loud, boisterous personality.

Self-Esteem Setups

Slowly build your dog’s confidence by setting up opportunities for her to approach the type of people she’s afraid of. Ask a series of friends to wear a hat or a fake beard and meet you separately at different locations. Let your dog decide how close she wants to approach them.

To help eliminate your dog’s underlying reason for feeling afraid of men, psychologists recommend following a desensitizing and counterconditioning plan. This structured method involves patient training over several weeks or months and should avoid retriggering the fear. Here’s where a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist, or a certified professional dog trainer or behavior consultant can assist.

Start by showing or exposing your dog to a large, noisy, or otherwise frightening man standing still at a distance. Make sure your dog notices him, but doesn’t feel scared. Give your dog a pre-approved high-value treat she really loves.

The idea is for your dog to associate the fearful person with receiving something good. When the person is out of sight, stop giving the treat. Repeat this process at least 10 times.

Over several days or weeks, gradually repeat this training. Shorten your distance from where the man is standing, but ask him not to look directly at, and not to reach toward your dog. Give your dog several tasty treats and then move away again. This creates a positive reaction.

Practice, Treat, Repeat

Repeat this process multiple times and follow it immediately with delicious treats. Avoid frightening your dog. If she shows any fear, move further away from the man and next time do not approach as close. Vary the location and the time of day of these sessions until your dog is comfortable with the person standing closer. Your dog does not have to meet or be touched by the person. She might not be ready for that and it is not necessary for people on walks to touch your dog.

Never push your dog beyond her comfort zone. Forcing your dog to accept petting from someone she’s afraid of will only strengthen her fear.

It also helps to engage your dog in other fun actives such as play or practicing known behaviors. Keep your dog moving instead of stationary. Stopping and asking her to ignore something she perceives as a threat is not setting her up for success. Instead have her do some of her favorite behaviors such as spin or touch (nose touch to your hand) and follow them up with a treat. You can also play with her with one of her favorite toys.  If your dog can’t respond to known cues, take treats, or play with you, she might be too nervous, indicating you need to increase your distance from the man.

Throughout your training, remain patient and positive. Your dog will pick up on your energy and emotions and reflect your feelings. If your dog continues to act fearful around men and behaves aggressively, contact a board-certified veterinary behaviorist for assistance. Some fears can worsen if not treated promptly and appropriately.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Get The Most From Vet Visits: What Questions To Ask And How

Ever get home from a vet visit and realize you aren’t really sure when to start that medication or what exactly the next step is for your pet’s treatment? Happens all the time. Here’s how to get the information you need.

When I worked as a veterinary technician many years ago, pet parents asked questions all the time, but rarely to the veterinarian. Folks often acted embarrassed, or waited to telephone from home hours or days after the appointment. Perhaps they felt intimidated by the doctor or feared their questions were dumb. Maybe the busy schedule of the clinic offered little opportunity to ask.

Whatever the reason might be, remember that there are no stupid questions when it comes to your beloved cat and dog. As your pet’s top advocate, it’s up to you to arm yourself with expert advice and information to provide the best care possible. Here are some tips to be fear free when asking your vet questions.

Why You Should Ask Your Vet

My career as a veterinary technician began long before “Dr. Google” or “Alexa” answers. Today, some pet parents rely too much on the Internet to answer questions or only seek the opinions of friends. Even though I am not a vet, I often am asked pet health or care questions. Here’s what I say when ask about pet health or care concerns.

While some online resources like vet schools are terrific, they can offer only very general information and nothing specific about your pets. Your veterinarian has personally examined your dog and cat, possibly run additional tests, knows what treatments have already been tried, and has the most specific and detailed information available.

When To Ask Your Vet

The veterinarian may have a busy schedule, so plan ahead for your questions. The best time to ask questions is at the beginning of the exam. Ask follow-up questions at the end of the visit before the doctor leaves the room.

If you’ve researched from the Internet or friends, you may think you know what’s needed, but ask anyway. Your pet is unique and could have very different needs than Aunt Freda’s dog’s. Once the doctor has examined your pet and explained any treatment, be sure to ask for any necessary clarification before you leave the clinic.

How To Ask Your Vet

Very often it’s not what you ask, but how you ask that gets the most out of your veterinary visit. The staff may become frustrated by pet parents who base questions solely on “Dr. Google” research that may not be applicable or that could be dangerously wrong.

That said, veterinarians want pet parents to be invested in caring for their cats and dogs. Recognize that the doctor and many of the staff studied for many years to attain the expertise to offer medical advice and care. You know when something’s “off” about your pet—but the vet has the tools and ability to figure out the cause and what to do about it.

By all means, explain to the doctor your concerns, and what research you may have done. Here’s how to ask:

“I found out (XYZ) from (what source). Could that have any bearing on what’s happening with my pet?”

What To Ask Your Vet

Specific questions vary depending on why your pet needs veterinary care. Whether the exam is routine or you have a health concern or emergency, consider asking some or all of the following questions, depending on the situation:

Is my pet a healthy weight?

Should I change my pet’s food? How and why?

What can I do to help him/her maintain dental health?

Which preventive flea/tick products do you recommend, and why?

How often should he/she receive vaccinations or titers for which diseases?

Why does my pet (fill in the behavior), and is that normal? What can I do about it?

Can you recommend a trainer/behaviorist/groomer/boarding facility?

When should I be concerned about (behavior, activity, appearance/demeanor) change?

What are the testing or treatment options? Will they cure, manage, or delay the problem?

How much will the test/treatment cost? Can you please explain the bill to me?

If this was your pet, what would you do?

When a pet suffers an emergency or a serious diagnosis, even when you ask questions and receive answers, it can be hard to remember everything. Many doctors provide written reports but they may be written in technical language harder to understand. Most folks these days have the ability to record conversations. So before your veterinarian starts explaining, ask:

May I record our conversation to refer to later? When would it be convenient for me to call back with any questions?

Your veterinarian will appreciate your concern for your pet and your zeal to understand more about his health or condition. And your pet will be the winner because you will be better able to make good decisions about care.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Is Natural Better? What To Know About Nutraceuticals And Supplements

 

Everyone hopes to find a “natural” way to manage a pet’s fear, anxiety, or stress, but there’s more to consider than you might think. Here are the pros and cons of nutraceuticals and supplements.

The word “nutraceutical” was coined as a combination of “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical” quite recently–in 1989–and arguments about its precise definition have been going on ever since. Informally, nutraceuticals are products derived from food, but essentially used to treat or affect health. For practical purposes this category also encompasses what are usually called supplements, such as those derived from herbs. They are all products that aren’t quite drugs but are used for similar purposes, and some are claimed to be useful for treating fear, anxiety, and stress in pets.

How do supplements and nutraceuticals work? There’s no simple answer to that, any more than there’s a simple answer to “how do drugs work”–it differs case by case. But in general they often work similarly to medications prescribed for the same condition. For example, some studies have shown that alpha-casozepine, derived from milk protein, can help to reduce anxiety. Alpha-casozepine works by affecting neurotransmitters in a similar way to benzodiazepines, the class of drugs including Valium and Xanax, so it’s no surprise it has a similar effect.

Natural: Looking Beneath The Surface

The appeal of supplements and nutraceuticals for most people is the idea that they’re more natural than drugs. The word “natural” gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling, but lots of things that are natural are dangerous to ingest: some of the plants in your yard and many natural foods such as raisins could make your pets very ill. “Natural” also doesn’t guarantee “no side effects”: logically, anything active enough in the body to have an effect that you want is also active enough to have some effect you don’t want.

It’s also important to remember that since these products are not drugs, they’re essentially unregulated. If you follow the news, you know that some supplement products for humans have been found to be tainted. There’s also no guarantee that they contain what they say or do what they claim, so investigation is crucial.

Due Diligence

Only a limited number of drugs have been approved to treat fear, anxiety, and stress in pets, and a considerable body of research shows that some of these supplements can help. So they’re worth considering, but you need to do your research and involve your veterinarian in the decision.

“Don’t just grab the thing on the shelf that looks like it would work,” says board-certified veterinary behaviorist Jill Orlando, DVM. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t effective and is just going to waste your money and prolong the animal’s enduring fear, anxiety, and stress.”

While these products don’t require a prescription, they require just as much caution and consideration to use. They can have side effects and drug interactions, and you can’t just believe what the seller tells you about their effectiveness.

Lisa Radosta, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, says, “If you want to go natural, accept number one: that safe options are limited; number two, that you must go to your veterinarian; and number three, your vet may not know anything, and that’s okay.” Vets aren’t taught this research in school, so your vet may need time to do some reading about what substances and products are suitable. But you need to involve your vet to make sure you have a correct diagnosis of your pet’s problem. Dr. Radosta says, “If your vet doesn’t know what to do, she can call a veterinary behaviorist who does know what to do.”

If you find a product you want to try, have appropriate expectations about efficacy. “In my experience, you will get about half of the positive effect from a supplement as you will get from an appropriately chosen medication,” Dr. Radosta says. Typically, she counts it as a success to see a 25 percent change in behavior, compared to a drug, where she’d expect a 50 percent change to consider it effective.

Effectiveness Quotient

Because nutraceuticals and supplements are less effective, Dr. Radosta says that if you want to achieve the same results with a supplement as with a medication, your pet will probably need to be on more than one supplement. This may not seem like a big deal, but it may be more complicated than you think. Dr. Radosta has one patient, a Belgian Malinois with a serious storm phobia, who was having side effects from medications, so they decided to go natural: “She gets 11 capsules a day, because I had to combine four supplements to get the same positive effect.”

And if you think your dog will be okay with getting 11 pills a day, there’s also cost to consider: these products tend to be more expensive than the equivalent drugs.

Dr. Radosta isn’t against using these kinds of products for pets–she uses them herself–but she advises clients to have realistic expectations. “I take valerian root at night to help me sleep,” she says. “Probably if I took Ambien it would be more reliable, but I don’t want to, so I accept the limitations: valerian tastes like dirt, the pills are gigantic, and it doesn’t keep me asleep all night.”

Finally, accept that it’s rare to non-existent that a behavior problem is completely solved by a pill, whether that pill is drug, a supplement, or a nutraceutical. Ideally, these treatments are combined with appropriate behavioral modification. The job of the medication is to temper fear and anxiety to the point that animals are calm enough to learn.

Dr. Orlando says it’s similar to the case with humans; while medications are important for depression and anxiety, it’s more effective to combine them with therapy. The same is true for our pets.

“They have to learn coping skills,” she says. “That’s what behavioral modification does, teach them coping skills.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Socialization: When “Fine” Isn’t

Socialization can go wrong when people don’t recognize a puppy’s signs of fear. Here’s what to look for and how to avoid problems.

“We don’t understand where this aggression came from,” the woman said, tears in her eyes. “We took her everywhere as a puppy like you’re supposed to do. She went with us to stores, to our kids’ practices, to friends’ houses. She was fine! But now she growls at people and other dogs, even ones she’s met before.”

The Shepherd mix, Chloe, was now 1 year old, and barking at me from across the room. She would approach, then retreat, growl, and flinch every time I moved.

“Tell me about those early socialization visits,” I said.

“We started right when we got her at 9 weeks,” she replied. “She was fine! She was so quiet. Everyone would compliment her on being so well behaved.”

I asked, “When you introduced her to new people, did she run right up to them, all wiggly? Trying to kiss them? When she met other dogs, was she the same? All curvy and bouncy?”

“Oh no,” she said, “She was a quiet puppy. We would just put her in laps and she’d fall asleep half the time. She wasn’t interested in other dogs. They’d approach her, and she’d just look away like they weren’t even there. But she never growled at them until recently.”

Bingo. With further questions, I learned that Chloe rarely initiated contact with people or other dogs as a puppy. This puppy hadn’t been fine. She had been shutting down. She wasn’t well-behaved. She was too frightened to move. Now that Chloe was an adolescent, she was more willing to protect herself by barking and trying to scare away the people and dogs who frightened her.

Socialization Is More Than Exposure

My client was not a bad dog owner. She knew that socialization was important. She just didn’t realize that done improperly, socialization can backfire. Proper socialization is ensuring that a puppy has a variety of experiences, all wonderful ones. The puppy gets to decide if the experience is wonderful or not. In Chloe’s case, she wasn’t given the chance to go up to people of her own accord, at her own pace. She was placed in people’s laps – in essence, put in the laps of monsters. They were probably all very nice people, but Chloe didn’t think so. Her association with people became worse. When other dogs approached her, she signaled she didn’t want any interaction by turning away. Chloe’s mom didn’t understand that Chloe was uncomfortable, so she didn’t intervene. Now Chloe thought dogs were scary, too.

I’ve seen enough of these cases over the years that I’ve started to call them “Sleepy Puppy Syndrome.”

There are degrees of sociability in dogs, but a normal, healthy, confident puppy will want to explore. She’ll be curvy and wiggly. She may jump up to try and reach faces, trying to kiss chins. She’ll sniff and explore her surroundings.

Signs Of Fear And Stress

A puppy can whine, cower, and try to hide when she is afraid, but sometimes she will act sleepy.

Yawning is a sign of stress. Avoidance is, too. When a puppy is faced with something obvious, like another dog in her face or a looming stranger, and she starts sniffing the ground nearby, scratching behind an ear and ignoring the situation completely, this is a puppy practicing denial.

Understanding these signals can help prevent fear from blossoming into aggression as the puppy gets older. Always bring treats with you when you take your puppy anywhere. Pair each new experience with yummy cookies. If your puppy will not take the treats, it can also be a sign that she is too afraid.

It took three lessons before Chloe would let me pet her. I waited patiently for Chloe to approach at her own pace, rewarding each brave step with a liver treat. With a behavior modification plan and a dedicated pet parent who now understood how to work with Chloe’s fear, Chloe gradually learned the world was not full of monsters. In time, she learned to be truly fine after all.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.