Do you have a parrot who’s plucked out all of her feathers? A dog whose fear of thunderstorms is so intense he crashes through sliding glass doors? A cat who won’t stop pulling the fur from her tail or chewing the electrical cords? Or an anxious rescue dog whose compulsive licking is giving himself oozy spots that smell like old lunch meat?
Whenever I talk to people about my work, a story like this comes up. If you are one of the many people who find themselves living with an animal whose behavior is troubling, you may need to consult a veterinary behaviorist, an avian vet, or someone else who will help you and your animal companion. This is not me. First you need to make sure that whatever is bothering your animal friend is not an allergic reaction, symptomatic of an illness or caused by an irritant in their environment. If you have ruled these things out (via the help of a veterinarian) you may need to see someone who specializes in emotional and behavioral issues. Board-certified Applied Animal Behaviorists or Associate Applied Animal Behaviorists (a bit like the psychiatrists of the nonhuman animal world) are a good place to start. I also recommend the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic in Massachusetts, the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell Veterinary College and the Behavior Service at UC Davis Veterinary Hospital.
If you cannot find a behaviorist in your area, or you want to learn more about the best ways of addressing behavioral issues in dogs, cats, horses, birds and more…UC Davis has an excellent website with case studies, fact sheets and other information. As well as pdfs of various training programs. Your local veterinarian, even if she or he is not a behaviorist, should also be able to provide some advice. In general, more exercise, less time alone, and more challenging (and interesting) things to occupy an animals’ time can alleviate a host of behavioral issues. Recently there has been an increasing focus on behavioral drugs (like Prozac) to treat “problem” behaviors in dogs. As with people, medications are most effective when the root of the problem is addressed. Drugs should, in my opinion, only be used in conjunction with other things to keep the dog/cat/parrot/gorilla/horse engaged (such as activities they find interesting).
Sometimes we see disturbing behaviors in animals who are not anyone’s pets– at circuses, zoos and elsewhere. To report abuse or neglect of an animal who is not in your care, you can consult the ASPCA database to find the right organization to contact in your area.