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when behavior problems...aren't

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

Things aren’t always as they seem. Sometimes what appears to be a serious behavioral problem may actually be a symptom of an underlying medical issue. When pets lose weight, limp, or vomit excessively, most pet lovers recognize these for what they are: health related symptoms worthy of a trip to the vet. This is likely because similar symptoms are recognizable within our own species and often indicate similar underlying issues. In short, it's more obvious what's going on because we can relate. However, pets also exhibit other behaviors that humans typically do not. These behaviors are often perceived as annoying or unwanted. As a result, such behaviors are often not perceived as familiar or "normal," so humans often attribute what they are seeing to the "bad behavior" category. For example, peeing in the sink. Eat the dirt from house plants. When we see such behavior, it looks a whole heck of a lot like a behavior problem. Unfortunately, we also blame such behaviors on jealousy, vindictiveness, and so on. More on that in another blog.

But......before jumping to any conclusions one way or the other, I strongly urge you to take a moment to consider that perhaps you are seeing is not what it seems.

The following is general, basic advice. I am not attempting to nor am I qualified to diagnose medical conditions. Only a veterinarian can do that. If you suspect anything you are seeing might be a health problem, please contact your vet right away.

Red flags

The following can be signs that you may have a health issue on your hands:

- Sudden onset or behaviors that occur "out of the blue," especially when significant

- Rapid worsening over a short period of time

- Lethargy, irritability, changes in personality (even small changes)

- Behaviors that appear to "come and go" unpredictably

- Hair loss, itching, chronic skin or digestive problems

- Changes in appetite or water intake

Common culprits

There are certain unwanted behaviors that are more likely to be medical in nature, rather than purely behavioral. Of course, these can be purely behavior in nature and have nothing medically related, but if you see any of the following, it is best to have your vet take a look.

- Inappropriate elimination (urine or feces)

- Anxiety, stress

- Aggression or reactivity

- Sensitivity to touch, restraint, or handling

Let's take a closer look at a few more common behavior complaints.

Inappropriate urination and defecation Many pets have “accidents” in the house because of medical issues. In fact, if you reach out to me about this, I will very likely send you to the vet before meeting to ensure health isn't playing a role. A behavior approach will simply waste time, allow the issue to get worse, and will not have an impact on. If your pet is peeing inappropriately, consider urinary tract infections, crystals or stones, kidney or bladder issues, thyroid issues, etc.. A thorough urine culture, urinalysis, blood work, or other test will most likely be needed. If your pet is defecating inappropriately, consider parasites, anal gland issues, food sensitivities, etc. With older - especially declawed cats - be sure to consider pain as the culprit. There are wide variety of health conditions that may be to blame, including incontinence, tumors taking up space, pain, and more.

Aggression “My pet bit out of the blue!” is a phase I hear quite a bit. I cannot stress how rarely this is actually true. If your otherwise well behaved pet is suddenly showing aggression, get to a vet. Thyroid, medication side effects, neurology, visual or auditory issues, and pain are just a few culprits associated with aggression. Blood work, imaging, and specialized exams may be necessary.

Fear or timidity  Some pets respond with aggression, while others respond with hesitation, avoidance, or timidness. While the issues mentioned above can certainly contribute to aggression in some pets, other pets may respond by withdrawing, hiding, or avoiding.

So what should you do? Most behavior problems are simply that: behavior problems. However, there is the occasional case where it’s not so simple. A veterinarian is the only person who can determine if a medical condition is contributing to the behaviors your pet is displaying.

Trust your veterinarian – they are the most valuable tool you have! Of course, if you feel you need a second opinion, get one. Sometimes additional eyes can spot something otherwise missed. Remember to be open to options and be patient – medical and behavioral problems usually take some time to address.

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