By Christine Calder, DVM, DACVB
Did you know that behavior problems are the number one reason dogs and cats are surrendered to shelters every year? Many shelter animals are younger than three years old and few receive veterinary care prior to their surrender. Some are sick or injured while others are strays that were dumped, lost, or escaped from their yard or house. Many of these animals are untrained and have not been previously spayed or neutered.
Photo courtesy of Christine Calder, DVM, DACVB
In dogs, the most common behavior reasons for surrender are house soiling, destructive behavior, barking, and unruly behaviors, followed by fearfulness and past bite history. Cats are frequently surrendered for house soiling or destructive behavior such as scratching and aggression.
The shelter can be a stressful place for many animals. They are suddenly in a place that is unfamiliar far away from all they have known. There are strange people, dogs, cats, and unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. It is no wonder these animals are fearful, anxious, and in distress making it hard to accurately assess what their behavior may be in a home environment and what behavior problems existed before they were surrendered to the shelter in the first place.
In addition to the behaviors these animals bring with them into the shelter environment, other problem behaviors can develop especially during long shelter stays. For dogs, barrier related barking and aggression are common making it difficult to imagine such a dog in the home. Many dogs will regress in their house training since they may not have access to the outdoors forcing them to eliminate in their enclosure. Some dogs will become overly excited and out of control around other dogs or people while others may start to guard their food, space, and toys.
In cats, it is even more difficult to predict behavior in a home environment due to their high level of distress in the shelter. Cats are very sensitive to strange noises, smells, and environmental changes. Many cats are so terrified that they appear feral. Some may even show aggression towards their caretakers or other cats. Cats may work to control the olfactory (smell) of their environment by urinating outside the litterbox or spraying which leads to them leaving their scent on items around the room or in their enclosure.
Adopting a shelter pet can be rewarding, but it can also be challenging. A dog or cat’s past history including their likes and dislikes may be unknown. What was their behavior as a young puppy or kitten? Did they explore or were they afraid of the world? How much socialization and life experiences did they have when they were younger? Did they live in the home with children or other pets? Are they comfortable on a leash? Did they live in the city or a more rural area of the country? What was their parent’s behavior like? Do they have siblings? Sometimes we don’t even know what breed they are and have to guess.
When you bring your new dog or cat home from the shelter, it is important to give each their own space or “safe haven.” Make sure their basic needs are met in the form of soft bedding, warm space, and soft lighting. This safe haven area can be a crate or room with an actual door or gate. Cats need safe spaces as well and it is important that people and other pets do not invade this sacred space. Over time, as you get to know each other, there will be opportunities for your new pet to explore and gain confidence in their new home as they learn the routine and rules.
After adoption, it can take several weeks to months for your new pet to settle in. Some behaviors that were initially suppressed may start to reveal themselves. Common behaviors you may see develop include separation related problems, house soiling, excessive fear, or barking. Some will become withdrawn or hide, especially cats. Leash reactivity and other aggressive behaviors directed towards people and dogs are not uncommon.
As with all behavior problems, it is important to seek help sooner rather than later if you notice changes or unexpected behaviors in your new pet. Some pets may need medications to help them cope in their new environment and some may need intervention from a certified trainer or other pet professional.
Management and early intervention are important. Provide adequate physical exercise and enrichment. Food dispensing and puzzle toys can enhance problem-solving skills and allow for more normal species-specific behavior such as hunting in cats. Vertical spaces and hiding spaces help cats feel more secure along with appropriate scratching areas to sharpen their claws and stretch. Adequate resources like beds, feeding stations, litterboxes, and watering stations will help your pet feel less anxious around other animals in the home and give them something familiar and all their own.
Tools such as harnesses and head collars can help manage your dog on walks and improve safety. Teaching your dog how to walk nicely on a leash and not pull, teaching your dog and cat basic behaviors such as come, relaxation on a mat, eye contact, and hand targeting will improve communication between you and your new pet. A qualified trainer can help with this if needed. Planning ahead to create a safe haven, taking the time to understand why your new pet is showing certain behaviors, and investing in the proper training and tools will set you and your new pet up for a successful forever home.