Ask a USask Expert: Pet questions

Dr. Jordan Woodsworth, Clinical Associate – Wellness and Remote Clinical Practice, at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine answers your pet questions.

My cat is adopted and was previously a stray, she doesn’t like to be confined and this is a problem when we try to take her to the vet. What should I do?

This is a common finding in cats generally, not only those starting out life as strays.  The approach to take to combat the struggle with kenneling and transportation to the vet focuses on reducing your cat’s anxiety and fear associated with the kennel.  We call this desensitizing and counter-conditioning, and it essentially means that we take an experience that causes a negative response, and teach the pet to associate that experience with something positive.  Typically we recommend starting by having the kennel out all the time, so it’s a normal part of her surroundings.  If the door swings closed on its own, remove it if possible so she can get in and out of the kennel on her own.  Offer her treats and food in there, but don’t force her to enter the kennel.  Keep things she likes in there (toys, a soft bed or blanket, other favourite items) and make sure the kennel is in an area of the house she normally spends time.  Once she starts entering the kennel voluntarily, you can try gently closing the door with her in it, giving her treats and praise while she is inside.  Let her out before she gets stressed or agitated.  Repeat this process until the kennel is a comfortable place for her.  If you need to get her to the vet inside a kennel prior to her being trained, talk to your veterinarian about medications that can help reduce her anxiety and fear prior to and during the visit. 

My dog is very attached and protective but since I’ve been working from home this has increased. She barks at anyone walking by and I’m not sure how to stop this, or at least keep her calm.

It sounds like your dog might be displaying protective and/or territorial aggression.  These behaviour problems are brought on by a dog interpreting the presence of unfamiliar people or animals as threatening to their family member(s) and/or their territory.  The problem is, each time the person or animal she is displaying aggression towards leaves, she interprets it as them retreating in response to her aggression, which further reinforces the aggressive response.  The primary goal in managing this behaviour is to prevent her from being able to see the stimulus.  If there’s a particular spot she likes to keep watch over the yard, put something up to block her view.  This might mean closing the blinds, putting furniture in front of the window so she can’t see out, or putting up paper on the bottom half of the window so she can’t see through.  If she also displays this behaviour in the yard, you’ll need to control that environment as well.  If you are able to provide a solid barrier along your fence line so she can’t see people or animals outside the yard, this will help.  For awhile, you may need to go out in the yard with her so you can control her if the environment can’t be controlled.  The main goal here is to not allow her to see the stimuli (people or animals), because each time she responds aggressively and they walk away, she has her aggressive responses reinforced.  At the same time, you should be training your dog to respond to commands such as sit, stay, leave it, come, down.  These should be reinforced with positive approaches (treats, praise, toys, whatever she responds to) and practiced consistently until she has them down.  Once the commands are engrained, you can slowly reintroduce her to the situations that cause the simulation, using the commands to control her when you can’t control the environment.  Keep in mind that some dogs require pharmaceutical support during this training.  Talk to your vet about medication options for your dog. 

My 7-year-old rescue dog was never been well socialized and is either aggressive or scared of new people or dogs.  How do I help him be more social, or is it too late given his age?

Contrary to the adage, you indeed CAN teach an old dog new tricks!  However, fear aggression, like many other behaviour problems in dogs and cats, can take a long time to successfully manage, and may never resolve completely.  With this in mind, you can start by creating a list of things that cause fearful or aggressive responses in your dog, and avoiding them as much as possible during your ‘training’ phase.  If your dog often exhibits fear on walks, try walking him in a controlled space (your back yard, your basement) with lots of positive reinforcement for calm behaviour for several weeks before trying to take him outside for walks again.  You can increase his confidence by structured training exercises that focus on specific, practical commands for reward.  For example, the ‘sit’ command gets taught and rewarded, and then the dog is asked to ‘sit’ before any reward, like meal times, or before giving attention or anything else the dog wants. 

The expectation is that the dog learns this positive behaviour, which can be used to re-direct their focus when they encounter a stimulus that would normally elicit a negative response.  In your case, if you are wanting to have your dog be friendly with new people and other dogs, you need to proceed slowly.  Teach him the commands that produce calm positive behaviour, and then introduce him to new things in controlled ways, with lots of positive reinforcement, never pushing him beyond his comfort level.  Once he starts displaying fear responses, discontinue the exercise and try again another day.  Only reward desired behaviour, never the negative or fear-based response.  Never punish your dog, and if you are using commands to re-direct his focus, say them in a positive, up-beat tone of voice so he doesn’t perceive threat.  Also keep in mind that you’ll only progress to the structured introduction once he is calm in every-day situations and you can control him with re-direction when his fear response is stimulated.  Pharmaceuticals can be helpful for really fearful dogs.  Speak with your vet to explore options. 

My dog gets fleas every fall, why does this keep happening and how should I treat the problem?

The unfortunate thing about fleas is that they are very persistent in the environment, and their eggs, larvae, and pupae can remain dormant for a very long time in floor cracks, on fabrics, and on/in furniture.  As soon as an animal comes close to these dormant immature fleas, the eggs or pupae sense the body heat, pressure and carbon dioxide from the animal, prompting their development into adult fleas, which can then climb onto an animal host, and start feeding on blood and laying more eggs.  Dogs can also get fleas from being in close contact with another animal that is infested, or the environment of an animal that is/was infested.  So, your dog is either getting re-infected from his environment, or from an in-contact animal (cat or dog most likely) that has recurring flea problems. 

The tenets of flea treatment and prevention are: treat the animal and treat the environment.  There are multiple flea products, for either oral or topical use, available for dogs.  Consult with your veterinarian about product selection, as some products can be toxic to cats that share the same household as treated dogs.  Environmental decontamination should include very thorough cleaning of soft surfaces (carpets should be vacuumed with a beater attachment or steam cleaned, furniture should be thoroughly vacuumed or washed where possible, and any bedding or pet beds should be washed in hot soapy water or replaced).  Hardwood floors or other hard surfaces that may have cracks for immature fleas to hide in should be vacuumed thoroughly and frequently.  If your dog is getting exposed to fleas by frequenting outdoor spaces where flea infested animals (domestic or wild) have been, flea preventive products should do the trick. 

My cat continues to chew and eat non-edible things. I take them away, but she always finds a new fixation and seems anxious. How do I help her?

It’s tricky to know exactly what’s causing this behaviour in your cat, and some of it depends on her age, breed and background.  However, it sounds like she might be exhibiting ‘pica’, which is  chewing/ingestion of non-food items based on an abnormal craving or appetite for these items.  If she is still a young cat, this could be a normal part of her exploring her environment.  However, if she is an adult, there are probably underlying issues.  The concern here is that she will eat something that will make her sick, or will cause an obstruction that could require surgery.  If you can prevent her having access to the things she’s most likely to chew on/eat, that would be a good first step.  You can also attend to the rest of her behavioural needs, as deprivation in these areas can lead to pica.  Does your cat have opportunities to engage in hunting-type behaviours?  If not, provide her with food puzzles or hide her food in different areas around the house so she can spend time searching for it.  Does she have places to perch and get away from the busy areas of the home, or from other pets?  Do you have alternative safe chew or oral stimulation products for her?  You can consider getting cat grass, or cat-safe chew toys, and redirecting her to these options if you find her chewing on inappropriate objects.  Best of luck!

Do I have to brush my dog’s teeth, or can I just give him a bone or a toy to chew?

Brushing is the best form of dental maintenance.  Ideally we should be brushing dogs’ teeth every day, and at minimum 3 times per week to prevent dental disease, using pet-safe tooth brushes and toothpaste.  Bones are problematic because of the risk of breaking teeth; bones are harder than tooth material, even in adult animals.  While there are no toys that have proven benefits to dental health for dogs, there are numerous treats, kibbles and oral care products that do.  At the pet store or vet clinic, look for products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval.  These are the products that have demonstrated benefit for the prevention of plaque, tartar, or both.  Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s oral health at their yearly checkup.  Staying on top of dental health improves the length and quality of life for our pets!

My dog is getting older and has a number of health problems. How do I know when it’s the right time to say goodbye?

This is never an easy question to answer, and is best discussed with your trusted family vet.  Many pet owners feel uncomfortable about bringing up the topic of end of life or euthanasia with their vets if the vets don’t bring it up first; clients fear they may be judged for even thinking about this.  However, rest assured that we won’t judge you for wanting to talk about it.  Our job is to help people through the decision making process around the end of their animal’s life, and proactive conversations are always easier than those that have to happen during a crisis. 

With that in mind, there are a few tools you can use to monitor your dog’s quality of life, such as this one from Lap of Love:  These can be helpful in monitoring your dog’s condition over time, and can provide a semi-objective view of what’s going on to help you with euthanasia decision making.  Keep in mind that your dog may have good days and bad days, and one or two bad days don’t mean you have to rush to the vet to euthanize your dog, unless he/she is in immediate medical distress.  Whenever you have questions, reach out to your family vet.  We’re trained and experienced in guiding you through these decisions.  I wish you the best in navigating your dog’s final life stage. 

My dog has difficulty being left alone and shreds something of mine into pieces. I do try to confine him to a room with toys but he always outsmarts me. How can I get him to behave while I’m away?

In dogs who get distressed when separated from their owners, there is usually a noticeably dependent relationship between dog and human that is one of the roots of the problem behaviours associated with separation.  The steps to modifying these behaviours require a change in the relationship between owner and dog.  To start, you can begin rewarding relaxed and independent behaviours, while removing rewards for attention-seeking or dependent behaviours.  This might mean giving your dog a treat, praise or attention when he is calmly lying on his bed or voluntarily spending time away from you.  If he tends to seek you out and whine, pant, paw at you, bark or display other such behaviours to get attention, ignore these so the reinforcement stops.  You can also strive for a structured and predictable routine at home, which may include feeding, walking and playtime at the same times of day. 

Concurrently, you should start interactive training sessions, where he performs commands for reward.  You are particularly looking to train him to perform calm behaviours (sit, lie down, stay, bed) for reward.  Since his anxiety is related to separation from you, you should also change his association with your departure cues so they no longer provoke anxiety.   This means that whatever you do before you leave (put on your jacket, pick up keys, put on shoes, etc), you should start doing these things randomly throughout the day without actually leaving so that he learns they no longer mean you’ll leave.  At the same time, you can reward him when he displays calm behaviour in response to those cues.  You should absolutely avoid punishment of a dog like this, as it erodes confidence and can exacerbate anxiety.  Instead, focus on giving him opportunities to perform desired behaviours, and reward those.  Finally, your dog may require medication to help him learn calm behaviour.  Speak to your family veterinarian about options for behaviour modification drugs that can help dogs with separation distress behaviours.  Best of luck!

My adopted rescue cat is extremely food motivated and will sniff anything out. He will get on the counter and eat whatever I’m preparing. I want him to realize that he’s safe and will always have food. How do I help him?

I would first want to rule out any underlying health concerns with your cat.  If he has been thoroughly checked out by a vet and is healthy, then we need to attend to his enrichment needs around food.  Cats are predators by nature, and one of their key behavioural needs is to display that predatory behaviour.  This can be achieved through appropriate play (feather on a stick laser pointer, mechanical mouse) – making sure to allow the cat to ‘catch’ the prey sometimes so as not to cause frustration.  Feeding enrichment is also important here.  Cats naturally prefer to eat several small meals a day, as opposed to eating one or two larger meals.  Feeding puzzles, hiding small volumes of food around the house so he has to go looking for them, or games at feeding time (like throwing the food on the floor or in the yard for him to catch/find) can all stimulate the natural hunting/predatory instincts and fulfill those needs.  Providing something as simple as an empty egg carton with bits of kibble inside can be enough to get his brain going and stimulate his hunting drive.  If you try these approaches and still have trouble with him stealing food constantly, talk to your veterinarian about other ways to enrich his environment and deter him from counter surfing.  Good luck!

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