When is “bad pet behaviour” actually a problem?

Our pets are more than companions; they're beloved whānau. But when we come home to a favourite shoe turned into a chew toy, noise complaints from a neighbour, or your couch looking like it just lost a fight with a claw machine it's easy to feel a tad on edge.

Cat's hunting, dogs barking, toileting mishaps, aggressive behaviour – these things are often chalked up to poor behaviour. But our pets can't communicate with words like we do. Sometimes what we brush off as 'bad behaviour' might be our pets trying to tell us something or natural behaviours that simply need to be redirected.

So, let's take a closer look at some common pet behaviours that could be seen as problematic and how to address them, with insightful commentary from Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc). 

Common 'bad behaviour' traits

Many instances of ‘bad behaviour’ in both dogs and cats are typically natural behaviours that have been amplified, redirected inappropriately, or just not managed well enough. 

"Aggression is the most obvious problematic behaviour shown by dogs." Dr Holland weighs in "it is normal for dogs to use some signs of aggression to communicate their mental state - for example, a small growl to let us know they are uncomfortable". However, aggression that impacts their relationships with humans and other animals negatively affects their overall well-being.

Other dog behaviours that might become problematic include:

  • Excessive barking
  • Wandering
  • Chewing
  • Resource guarding
  • Excessive digging  

As for cats, Dr Holland explains that they “can be hard to manage as most of their ‘bad’ behaviours are normal cat activities." However, many cats' problem behaviours can be attributed to roaming outdoors.  

Feline toileting can make a mess of your neighbour's prized garden and spread toxoplasmosis, which is a common infection that typically occurs by eating infected meat or by exposure to the faeces of infected cats.

Undesexed cats can become aggressive and engage in fighting, which can lead to injury or serious illnesses such as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). Cats also impact the ecosystem around them, "one of the biggest issues with cats is their normal hunting behaviour which has significant negative impacts on native and non-native birds and reptiles." Dr Holland explains.  

The impact on your pet’s quality of life

Some of these behaviours, while potentially problematic for pet owners and those around them, can also have a significant impact on the animal's quality of life. 

  • Aggression may damage the human animal bond or even lead to relinquish the human bond.
  • Excessive barking. 
  • Wandering can result in injuries or accidents.
  • Chewing and digging can cause damage to property and objects in the home, leading to frustration 
  • Resource guarding can cause tension and discomfort in relationships with humans and other animals.

On the other hand, cats' problem behaviours can also negatively impact their quality of life. Outdoor cats are at risk of being hit by cars, getting lost, and contracting diseases from other animals.    

But it's not as simple as scolding them. SPCA endorses keeping our whiskered companions safe and happy at home, ensuring they receive enough play, exercise and fun they need. Outdoor enclosures like catios, cat-proof gardens, and stimulating indoor environments are the way to go. Keep those hunter instincts catered for at home with creative toys and puzzles.

As Dr Holland points out, redirecting kittens to toys can prevent a future of clawed hands and feet. As for adult cats, swap out the narratives that glorify unsafe roaming and hunting with safe and responsible pet ownership.  

Whether it's due to lack of exercise, boredom, or stress, these behaviours can be a symptom of physical and mental health issues for pets. By addressing and managing these behaviours through proper training, environmental enrichment, and providing outlets for natural instincts, we can improve our pets' quality of life and strengthen our bond with them and reducing problem behaviours.

How to improve your dog’s behaviour   

Before you try every trick under the sun to correct your dog's behaviour, it's important to understand why they may be acting out. Dr Holland emphasises this in her advice, "To improve a problem behaviour the first step is working out why it is happening, is it due to fear, boredom, or is it a normal behaviour we just don’t find acceptable?"   It is important to understand these behaviours first and foremost before labelling them as bad or unacceptable.

Training options    

One of the best ways to improve your dog’s behaviour is through positive reinforcement training. This means rewarding good behaviours with treats, praise, and affection. Not only does this approach promote good behaviour, but it also strengthens the bond between you and your pet. Seeking professional help from an accredited behaviour consultant is also highly recommended for more severe behavioural issues.

Importance of exercise

A bored dog is an architect of chaos. When dogs don't get enough physical and mental stimulation, they can resort to destructive behaviours. Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation for their age and breed. This includes daily walks, playtime, and activities such as puzzles or training sessions.

Creating a safe and secure home

Creating a pet-friendly environment can prevent many 'bad behaviours.’ Cultivating a space where they feel safe and entertained is like giving them their own little kingdom to reign over. A dog that feels secure is less likely to show behaviours such as resource guarding or excessive barking.  

When to see a vet

It's not just about what your pet does, but why. An abrupt shift in behaviour could be a red flag signalling something is medically wrong. Oftentimes, physical issues can manifest behaviourally. For example, inappropriate urination could be a sign of a urinary illness.   

When in doubt, consulting your vet should always be your go-to for any sudden changes in behaviour. Don't hesitate to make that appointment; we’d do the same for any family member.

Taking care of a pet requires patience, love, and understanding. By using positive reinforcement training, providing enough exercise and a comfortable living environment, and keeping an eye out for any changes in behaviour, you can ensure that your pets are happy and well-behaved.

And remember, when in doubt, always turn to the pros for advice—like our very own Dr Holland!

Ensure your pet is protected by considering SPCA Pet Insurance who offer comprehensive coverage for your dog or cat during times of need.