How Pet Parents Can Cope with Behavioral Problems in Pets

By Wailani Sung, DVM, DACVB

The human-animal bond can bring great joy. However, behavioral disorders and problems can greatly fray this bond. When pets exhibit undesirable behaviors, owners can express a wide gamut of emotions, ranging from frustration, embarrassment, anxiety, and concern to sadness, depression, and even anger. These are normal responses. The question is, how will you address it?

Behavioral Problem vs. Behavioral Disorder

The first thing to understand is that there is a big difference between a behavioral problem and a behavioral disorder. Pets who exhibit severe fears, anxiety, or aggressive behaviors have a behavioral disorder. These pets may injure themselves trying to dig out of the crate or house when left alone by their owners. They may shake uncontrollably, salivate excessively, and try to find a place to hide when they hear fireworks or thunder. They may even exhibit aggressive behavior, such as barking, growling, snarling, snapping, lunging, and potentially biting another dog or person. Some pets may experience behavioral disorders that have a behavioral pathology comprised of the animal’s emotional response, mental health, genetic predisposition, and learned experiences.

It is normal to experience some fear and anxiety in life. This is a natural response that aids in survival. Think of a how a person responds when they see a spider or snake. Most people will scream and move away. What’s most important is learning how to cope with the fear and anxiety and being able to recover. When a pet take a long time to recover or cannot recover after exposure to a stressful person, animal, or situation, then that is an indication the pet has a behavioral disorder.

If your pet is exhibiting aggressive behavior, seek professional help immediately. These issues are more difficult to manage and require the help of qualified individuals, such as a board certified veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist. These individuals have advanced graduate-level education in learning theories, animal behavior, psychology, and neurology. Veterinary behaviorists have more extensive knowledge and experience in psychopharmacology (studying the effects of drugs on the mind and behavior). They can also prescribe psychoactive medications to be used along with a comprehensive behavioral treatment plan. If there are no specialists in your area, there are often many talented and highly skilled trainers that can be of assistance.  

Behavior problems, on the other hand, include things such as jumping on people or pulling on the leash. They can be resolved with the help of experienced trainers using positive reinforcement techniques. Depending on the severity of the problem, it is possible to do your own research and try these techniques at home. However, there is a lot of learning and timing involved with discouraging inappropriate behaviors and reinforcing behaviors that are more appropriate. Most often the easier and quicker solution is to seek the help of a certified trainer.

What Should I Look for in a Professional?

When looking for professional assistance, here are a few questions you may want to ask:

  1. What is involved with a behavior consultation and treatment plan?
  2. What training methods and tools will be used?
  3. Will I receive written instructions/recommendations?
  4. Do you have a guarantee?
  5. What is the time commitment involved?

Be wary of so-called professionals who offer a guarantee that they can “cure” a pet’s behavioral disorder. Think of all the human mental health specialists in the world. If there was a cure for mental health disorders, then everyone in the world would be happy. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), etc., would not exist. Instead, expect to be asked to work with your pet several times a week and keep up with a treatment program that can range from months to years. This is a commitment, but hopefully one that will improve the bond between you and your pet.

Pets with behavioral disorders should receive positive reinforcement training. There should be no harsh punishments involved, such as pinning the animal down, spraying the animal in the face with vinegar solution, or using choke, pinch, or shock collars. These methods work to suppress behavior and can increase fear and anxiety. Furthermore, studies have shown that they can even cause the animal to exhibit more aggressive behavior toward their owners and adopted family.

A comprehensive behavioral treatment plan involves teaching you how to appropriately manage the pet while ensuring everyone’s safety. Along with plan, the specialist(s) will review some basic skills with you and your pet. Do not think of training as the solution to the problem. Instead, training helps enhance communication between you and your pet, and provides an appropriate mental outlet for the animal. You need to be able to direct the pet toward more appropriate behaviors and help him or her develop and strengthen their coping mechanisms. 

Before beginning a comprehensive behavioral treatment plan, pets should be examined by a veterinarian to ensure an underlying health problem is not the root cause or contributing factor to the behavioral issue.

Don’t Despair

Owners of “special needs” pets may feel isolated and judged by family members, friends, and even total strangers on the street. They may offer you unsolicited advice or even cruel comments. Unfortunately, people with well-adjusted pets may never truly understand the needs of a pet with a behavioral disorder. It is not like the animal wants to feel scared and worried all the time. But a combination of genetics, learned experiences, and heightened emotional states have led to the display of inappropriate behaviors. 

You can politely tell well-meaning family and friends that your pet is not misbehaving because it is “bad.” Just like some people with generalized anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and OCD disorders are not acting out because they just feel like it.

Like people with mental health disorders, sometimes the best outcome for a pet with a behavioral disorder is that he or she becomes easier to manage after treatment. If you cannot manage life with a challenging pet and resent the animal, then the quality of life may become unbearable for you and your pet. In those situations, you may wish to consider reaching out to local shelters or rescue organizations that may be able to place the animal with someone who is better suited to handle him or her.

There are also support groups available for people with behaviorally-challenged pets, either locally or online such as through Facebook. Remember, you are not alone. There are people out there who understand what you’re going through and are experiencing the same thing with their pets. Use their knowledge and experience, as well as that of your professional expert, to help improve the bond between you and your pet.

Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB


Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB


Dr. Wailani Sung has a passion for helping owners prevent or effectively manage behavior problems in companion animals, enabling them to...

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