Similar themes underlie different problem behaviours - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Similar themes underlie different problem behaviours

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI continues her series on small animal behaviour problems and ways of dealing with them

IT always seems fortunate when the
last case that rounds off a year
involves committed, caring owners
and lovely cats. It’s even more of a
bonus when their situation is
interesting and challenging.

At the end of 2009, however, mine
also illustrated a number of themes
that to a greater or lesser extent had
run through most of the other cases
seen last year. In addition, it
highlighted some significant issues that
we should all
constantly bear in
mind.

Experience does
not equal
knowledge

What was so special
about this retired
couple and their three
posh pedigree felines? Firstly, they had
owned cats for 30-odd years. Secondly,
they had always favoured a multi-cat
household and had plenty of lovely
photos depicting various combinations
of the creatures to prove how well
their pets got on together.

Well, if you didn’t look too hard
and don’t know much about feline
body language! But at least some of
them appeared to be having a good
time and they had been well loved.

Which just goes to show that it
never pays to assume longevity of
ownership, depth of affection and a
roll of honour of deceased pets
numbered in the twenties and above is
any indication of real understanding
of the chosen species. Tact may well
be required, especially when young
veterinarians are dealing with those
considerably older than they are. But
if we feel that clients need behavioural advice, we must be
willing and able to give
it without hesitation.

Another stumbling
block was the professional input
already received.
Despite the
involvement of a well-
respected, high-profile
behaviourist with the previous feline group 15 or so years ago, what the clients were doing now, particularly how they
were interpreting their cats’ behaviour,
was woefully out of date. My
goodness, has the field moved on
since then! The owners’ understanding
and management had not!

Observations too often confirm
misconceptions
Thus, through no fault of their own,
everything they observed of their pets’ behaviour
reinforced the view
that one cat was
“the boss” and
wanted to dominate.
The “play fights”
they frequently
observed were
simply interpreted as normal activity,
not the boiling over of severely
elevated feline stress levels, which
these aggressive encounters actually
represented.

The fact that at mealtimes the
three cats ate together, apparently
comfortably, all in a row from the
same small tray was taken as further
evidence of companionship and
harmony. Until that is we put down
some food and observed the so-called
“top cat” slink towards it, pressed up
against the interposed obstacles as far
away from the others as he could get,
and most significantly without once
engaging eye contact. A better example
of a cat being attracted to high-value
treats that could only be accessed by
braving close proximity to con-
specifics it would rather avoid would
have been hard to come by.

But these three unrelated adult cats
are sometimes found curled up
together in one basket, generally first
thing in the morning. Surely a sign
they all love each other? Well it may
be, but they are now corralled together
in one small room – not unreasonably
as the consultation was actually
arranged to address a severe house-
soiling problem.

They all have thin fur and an
inadequate number of beds for a
three-cat household, this winter is the
coldest we’ve had for a long time and
their one room, mainly composed of
glass, is the most exposed in the house.
Does the evidence not suggest,
therefore, that warmth rather than the
company of feline companions is the
main attraction on such occasions?

We take things away, when more
resources are desperately needed
Which illustrates two other commonly
encountered consequences of problem
behaviour.

Whatever the species, when
damage occurs, things are taken away
from animals, for example if toys are
pulled to pieces, most owners stop
providing playthings.

A better option is to simply
exchange expensive items that matter,
or may harm the pet, for low cost or
free toys, such as recycled cardboard
tubes, boxes and plain paper bags. This
usually needs pointing out!

When homes are the target of
inappropriate actions, whether
damaged by urine and faeces or claws
and teeth, animals are invariably
restricted to smaller and smaller areas.

When the problem behaviour has
at its core relationship difficulties with
other pets in the household, whether
they are of the same or a different
species, “banging them up” together in
one small area generally does nothing
to improve the situation. But such
solutions make perfect sense to
beleaguered owners.

Of course, we must help them take
steps to prevent further deterioration
of their property whilst specialist
advice is sought. But where groups of
cats are involved, it is essential to make
sure that resources, especially multiple
hiding places and elevated retreats, are
provided in the meantime – and
feeding stations should always be spilt
up. Otherwise things invariably get
worse and a difficult situation may
become irresolvable.

Owners usually respond to
behaviours that inconvenience
them
Don’t get me wrong, these are great
owners. They genuinely love their
pets and are anxious to make them
happy. They just didn’t have the
knowledge to make things work, and
like all of us they had made mistakes.

Not least the use of a smelly, old
cloth and ammonia-based cleaner to
“get rid of ” inappropriately
deposited urine – or in reality to
spread it around a bit and make
things worse! But their pre-
consultation questionnaire beautifully
illustrated another common fact.
There was no mention at all of the
significant level of aggression shown
by this multi-cat group. It was the
soiling that caused the owners to act.
Because it was the soiling that
affected them.

Tragically, the lot of many
troubled companion animals is to
carry on struggling because no one
actually realises they need our help.

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