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Experts answer Questions at Anmal Behavior Meeting


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ST. LOUIS, MO — Experts from around the world attended the Symposium of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (www.avsabonline.org) July 15 in conjunction with the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention. Some of the renowned attendees answer some of your questions:

Q: Our 3-year-old, 12-pound poodle always wants to hold one of our hands, or something, anything, in her mouth. She softly mouths but doesn’t bite. Is this a display of affection or a demand to be petted? — R.L., Las Vegas, NV
A: “We call this affiliative behavior,” says Dr. Sophia Yin, a San Francisco-based applied animal behaviorist and author of “Perfect Puppy in 7 Days” (CattleDog Publishing, Davis, CA, 2011; $9.99). “It’s about seeking attention. Also, of course, many dogs just like to carry things in their mouths. “It’s not because your dog means harm, but I am concerned,” says Yin. “Even if she doesn’t bite down, a senior citizen’s thin skin might be torn, or a child might be scared thinking that the dog will bite. These days, you could even set yourself up for a lawsuit. So, give the dog something else to put in her mouth, like a squeaky plush toy, that she can walk around with. Give her attention for carrying around something she would like. Don’t give her any attention for mouthing your hand, and attempt to not give her the opportunity to do that in the first place.” Yin’s ebook, and a free puppy socialization download, are here

Q: My 15-year-old cat has been grooming himself forever, pulling out his own hair and eating it. His fur has gotten so thin. The veterinarian calls this “barbering” but doesn’t know why the cat is doing it. Any ideas? — D.T., Gloucester, VA
A: “We conducted a study which demonstrated that for most cats who over-groom themselves, there’s a medical explanation, at least in great part,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg, of Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. “It may be a flea allergy, inhalant allergy, food allergy, or a combination. Other possibilities include a hyperthyroid or a response to intestinal pain.”
I will assume at this point that your cat has been examined for parasites and has had a thorough physical exam. Landsberg explains that cats with an allergy usually respond to steroids. However, placing a 15-year old cat on a steroid might be problematic. Another option is to begin a novel food trial, feeding your cat only a prescription hypoallergenic diet for several months.
If your cat’s “barbering” turns out to a behavioral problem, a sort of compulsion, ultimately it may make sense to see a veterinary behaviorist or AVSAB member veterinarian. For cats who lick themselves compulsively, an anti-anxiety drug may be recommended.
Increasing the indoor enrichment for your cat is one thing you can do that won’t cost a penny. Offer a varying array of toys. For example, one day provide an empty box. The next day, cut a mouse hole in the box so your cat can poke through for a treat. The day after that, sprinkle catnip in the box. Instead of tossing out wine corks or plastic bottle caps, turn them into cat toys! Consider feeding your cat at least a portion (or even all) of his meals from food puzzles or food-dispensing toys scattered around the house, so he has to “hunt” for his food. Learn more about enrichment for cats from Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine Indoor Pet Initiative.

Q: Can you modify a bird’s behavior? I’m a stay-at-home mom with a 4-year-old cockatiel I’ve had since he was weaned. He’s never liked women and won’t come anywhere near me. When the men in our house are at work or school, the bird becomes increasingly obnoxious; he paces on his perch and screeches, sometimes for hours at a time. My nerves are shot. He has toys to keep him occupied, but I’m ready to wring his neck. Any advice? — S.C., Richmond, VA
A: Yes, you can modify a bird’s behavior, particularly that of parrots. However, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lynne Seibert, of Atlanta, GA, wonders — for starters — if this is really a cockatiel. What you describe sounds more like the behavior of a larger parrot, such as a cockatoo.
When parrots scream at us, we have a tendency to scream back,” says Seibert. “For a parrot, that’s fun. It’s what they do; they scream back and forth at one another. So, don’t offer a screaming parrot attention — unless you want a screaming parrot.”
It’s understood, from your bird’s perspective, that you’re a part of the problem. Who knows what the issue is, but it may be fixable if you’re associated some treats (such as pine nuts) and verbal praise. Once you can get close enough, teaching your bird can help establish a relationship. A target stick is useful as a teaching tool. You can buy one, or simply use a chopstick. For more on how to specifically train and teach birds, there are various websites and books.
“In my experience, parrots often don’t get enough uninterrupted sleep; they need about 12 hours (per day),” Seibert adds. “Sleep deprivation can affect a parrot’s mood.”

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