Reference Library

Dr. Spiegel's Reference Library of Common Pet Behavioral Problems

Every case is truly unique. You have a genetically unique individual living within a unique environment, composed of unique individuals and their unique ways and schedules and interactions. And this dog or cat or horse or bird has had its own unique experiences over some extended period of time.

All of this and more is information that goes into genuinely understanding the problem, its sources, and all of the factors influencing the problem. When the problem can be fully understood at its greatest depths, the solutions and various treatments become clearly evident. There have been a number of clients who have commented to me, "Why didn't I think of that; it seems so obvious!?!" The reason was... they couldn't imagine an effective way to fix the problem because they had not yet really understood what the problem was and how it came to be.

To understand how a problem has come to be, and what best can be done to fix it, a good, detailed history needs to be obtained. If this can be accomplished where the animal and it's owner(s) live, a great deal of learning through observation can be achieved as well.

In phone consults and on-line consults, history must draw forth owners' observations. Where observations are not clear, I can guide owners as to what details they may need to watch for, so that objective data can be obtained.

Combining this information with an understanding of species-typical behaviors, psychological principles of learning, and the uses and effects of a variety of behavior modification tools and/or psychopharmacologic substances, comprehensive, easy-to-implement, treatment plans can be created and put into effect. For optimal resolution, treatment plans should address all significant factors influencing the problem.

Below is our Reference Library of Common Pet Behavioral Problems. We hope you find this useful. For additional information, call us locally at 610.541.0805 or toll free 1.888.258.2582.



There are a wide variety of types of aggression [Defensive aggression, fear-induced aggression, fear-modified aggression, predatory aggression, aggressive play, maternal aggression, pain (or anticipated-pain) aggression, dominance aggression, territorial aggression, protective aggression, possessive aggression, neurologic-related aggression].

Some are learned, others are inherited tendencies... most are some combination. The targets of the aggression can vary widely as well. Family members only, only specific family members, only strangers, only other male dogs, all dogs, other male cats, only Frankie the cat, only men in uniform or people of different skin color, or 7-9 year old boys, or very big men; get the picture.

Fear is often a factor in aggressive situations. It can operate as an influential force, or it can be the driving force. Seldom is fear not present as a factor. But when that is the case, the results are striking. This is an animal that is acting aggressively without any fear acting to inhibit the aggressive display. This is most evident in the form of predatory aggression... "the fearless hunter".

You see, fear in many situations acts to inhibit the aggressive urges.

The best advice anyone can give you without a true working understanding of the problem is avoiding getting into the situation(s) where you expect the animal will get aggressive.

There are certainly situations in which meeting aggression with aggression or increased aggression will help; there are plenty of other situations, however, in which you could die trying, teach the animal the wrong lesson, or create an overly fearful/submissive animal.

If you have an aggressive animal (if it growls, snarls, wrinkles its muzzle, lifts its lip, barks menacingly, snaps or bites), you are well advised to seek the assistance of a professional companion animal behaviorist.

Defensive aggression:

Typically produced when a dog is being attacked or when there is a threat of being attacked. This can actually occur even when there is no apparent threat. This may occur if there has been any significant past trauma, and when certain associated stimuli or circumstances are present that occurred at, or prior to, the time of trauma, the animal can anticipate a threat and act defensively at this time.

Often, but not always, defensive aggression manifests itself in situations where a dog is cornered, or its movement is restricted (e.g. by a leash or line). Usually these dogs will provide some subset of threat displays (e.g. lifting its lip, growling, snapping out at the air). Often their ears will be back, and the hair on some portion along their back may be up. Their tails are often tucked.

Other aggressive motivational states can occur simultaneously which can act to alter the visual displays produced (body language and behaviors).

These dogs should not be provoked or antagonized. They are acting primarily out of fear for their own safety, and adding further aggressiveness to this situation can be harmful on a number of levels.

Fear-induced aggression:

Different from fear-modified aggression, fear-induced aggression is subtly distinct from defensive aggression.

Unlike defensive aggression, in fear-induced aggression there need not be any threat of attack or anticipated threat of attack on behalf of the reacting animal. In fear-induced aggression, if a dog or cat gets sufficiently frightened (by potentially any number of things), it can go into a sympathetic response... that is fight or flight. Some fight, some flee. When an animal attempts to flee, but is unable and then opts to fight, it becomes more similar to a defensive aggression.

While fear-induced aggressions typically start as an inherited tendency, many dogs and cats soon learn that if they get aggressive in this midst of the frightening stimuli, that the frightening stimuli moves away (or the dog is removed from the frightening thing); and so by the process of association these animals learn (probably on a subconscious level) that acting aggressively around something they're afraid of makes that thing go away, and with its going so goes their fear. As such, this becomes a self-reinforcing behavior.

With proper guidance, behavior modification, and sometimes with the help of anxiolytic drugs, fear-induced aggressions can be ameliorated.

Until appropriate treatment can be taken, (as with most situations), it is best to avoid the fearful stimuli which cause the animal to react.

Fear-modified aggression:

Fear acts in many cases to modify animals displays/acts of aggression.

Take, for example, the dog (often little) which when greeting someone at the door has mixed motivations. If the dog is protective/territorial, but at the same time is scared, this dog may be keeping its distance (the result of fear) and even backing away as the person enters or approaches the dog. However, when the person turns their back on the dog (which makes this person a less threatening stimulus), the dogs fear declines, its courage goes up and the dog runs up and bites the person in the back of the leg or on their behind.

Lets take another situation in which a dog wants to attack someone at the door, and is not afraid of that person. Add to this picture an owner who has been consistent in effectively disciplining the dog each time it begins its acts of aggression. In the owners presence (where fear of not listening overrides the animals motivation to attack), the dog inhibits its actions. However, if those same circumstances arise when the owner is not present, that inhibitory fear will likely be lacking and the aggression may display itself fully without the fear of repercussion to modify the aggression.

Sorting out the presence of fear(s) in an animals actions is vital to making appropriate decisions in how to best approach/modify problems.

Predatory aggression:

Present in animals with very strong hunting instincts.

These animals often bolt after smaller animals (squirrels, rabbits, mice, birds, cats, small dogs) in attempts to catch and kill these prey items.

Dogs may have little regard for their owner who is getting dragged down the street. There have been many owners including children who have been injured as the result of being pulled over and dragged by some very powerful dogs.

Predatory aggression in dogs pose a particular threat in situations where new babies are born or introduced into families. Most noted for this problem are Huskies... where owners have noticed nothing and one day when turning their back or leaving the baby alone, the dog rushes over grabs and shakes the baby and that's the end of the baby, and usually the end of the dog.

Usually there are preliminary signs that owners can watch for, and specific measures that can be taken to greatly reduce the risk of such occurrences.

In Cats, predatory aggression is a concern to those owners who also enjoy birds. I have one client who has a nice amount of land and is in a good bit of personal conflict because although she feels a strong need to let her cats out, she can't allow herself to permit this cause they are catching and killing the very birds she is attracting into her yard with feeders.

More commonly, situations present with single cats that have grown up as the only cat in the household. Play in cats, as in all animals, functions as a potent tool for learning survival skills. Hunting is such a skill that in evolutionary terms has been of great significance to dogs and cats.

In cats, a scarcity of natural prey items often find substitutes in unsuspecting ankles walking past.

There are some very fuzzy lines here with regard to how much of this is predatory aggression and how much of it is overly aggressive play. Here the semantic distinction should not matter with regard to treatment which generally involves appropriate means of discipline, well structured and strategically timed interaction periods, and appropriate outlets for the energy being funneled into this drive.

Aggressive Play:

Play is one of my favorite subjects and I could go off in all directions with it in seemingly random ways. But that's the beauty of play.

The two favorite ways dogs love to play are chasing and mock-fighting. Developing hunting skills is the primary goal of the former, and the latter serves to develop social skills and to strenghten social ties between individuals. Through play, appropriate as well as inappropriate social behaviors are learned. It really depends on how the dogs play partners may or may not guide the interactions. Play allows animals to learn about other individuals and to sort out/advance the relationships they have with these other individuals.

For most dogs, the more physical the play is, the more they love it and the more wound up they get, or in some cases... the more they unwind. To some this can mean an out of control dog. For others, particularly those that have good relationships with play partners, the process, all in the context of play, can lead to profound levels of relaxation.

When animals get out of control in the midst of play or have not learned to inhibit the use of their mouths or claws to an appropriate degree, you have Play Aggression. If it hurts you then it is too rough, not inhibited enough, or too aggressive.

This is a readily treatable problem. The most effective solutions are inherently tied to the details surrounding the development of the problem, and information relating to the relationship(s) that have developed between the dog/cat and the individual target(s) of that aggression.

Maternal Aggression:

This is a highly specific form of protective aggression. That is the mother that will not allow others near her litter.

Less typically, it is sometimes used to describe the aggression of a mother towards her pups, which does not involve long dominance downs or shaking of the pups, or any prolonged harshness, beating, etc. Discipline is brief, sharp and scary. It usually involves a vocalization +/- a grab of the back of the neck and is directly associated with the maladaptive behavior of the pup.

Pain (or anticipated-pain) aggression:

Animals in pain or discomfort generally are more irritable and as a result are much closer to their threshold of aggression in terms of their level of tolerance.

Animals can also be quite stoic. It has developed as an evolutionary advantage to not show signs of illness or weakness. Sick and weak animals are more likely to become targets of the aggression of other animals which espouse drives to dominate and take advantage of such circumstances.

Animals that have suffered pains in a particular location (e.g. @ a vet hospital) or in the presence of a particular object/person/other animal, may become aggressive in anticipation of a painful event or when reintroduced to that location. Forcing a confrontation with such an animal is generally not a wise undertaking.

If an otherwise non-aggressive animal becomes aggressive when approached while resting, it should be checked by a veterinarian for any underlying medical/physiologic causes.

Re-Directed/Displaced aggression:

The classic case of this is the indoor cat who is highly aroused watching another cat come into his yard, and up to the window that is keeping him in. The indoor cat wants to attack but cannot. Owner walks past and the indoor cat attacks the owner. This is redirected aggression. The aggression needs an outlet, and finds it in the form of an accessible target.

Displaced aggression is more accidental. Here a 2nd indoor cat may walk up to the other cat at the window, which takes cat #1 by surprise and cat #1 strikes out at cat #2. This is a common scenario which can lead, if not addressed properly, to prolonged aggressive problems between cats in a household.

Dominance aggression:

The evolutionary social system of dogs developed around a dominance hierarchy which incorporated different threat displays and inhibited levels of aggression to maintain order and limit frequent/fatal aggressive interactions between pack members.

It is usually not an all or nothing thing where Dog A is top dog followed by dog B who resides above dog C.... If a generally more submissive animal is strongly motivated by food, for instance, and a generally more dominant animal is not, the more submissive animal may take a more dominant role by asserting itself aggressively.

Dominance aggression is most often directed towards human family members and other non-human members of a household. Some common presentations include aggressive reactions to being disturbed while resting or eating, attempts to take away bones or other possessions about which the dog is strongly motivated, aggressive responses to discipline (which needs to be distinguished from defensive aggression), and intrusions on their interactions with favored individuals.

The top of a dogs head and the back of its neck are areas related to dominance. This is why well intentioned children that hug a dominant-minded dog around the neck are often bitten in the face. From the dogs perspective, this is a strong display of dominance on the part of the child, and the dominant-minded dog responds accordingly. It is essentially a communication breakdown between species.

Dominance aggression is more common in male, as opposed to female, dogs and often does not begin until dogs reach behavioral maturity (10 months to 2 years, earlier in small breeds, later in larger breeds). It is largely driven by the presence of testosterone; and it is well advised to have all non-breeding animals neutered @ 6 months of age.

Dominance aggression is common, and costs a lot of dogs their lives. It is however a very treatable problem in most instances. It requires a substantial transfer of information from owners to myself, and then in turn from me to them.

Territorial aggression:

In dogs, this involves aggressive displays (any combination of menacing barking, lunging forward, growling, snapping, biting) to individuals entering an animals yard or home. It can also happen as an individual enters a room where the dog is.

Territorial aggression can usually be distinguished from protective aggression by determining whether the behavior occurs on walks away from the home area and/or in other locations (places not regularly visited by the dog). Occurrences in the car can be either, but are often territorial.

Territorial Aggression is often linked with other territorial behaviors such as urine marking.

Both dogs and cats may mark their territory. This is usually not a problem if the urine marking occurs outdoors on the property. But it becomes a major problem when animals begin doing it indoors.

This is a common complaint often associated with territorial disputes between cats in a given household.

Protective aggression:

Protective aggression represents the display of aggressive behaviors directed towards some person/animal that is perceived as a threat to a different individual(s) [usually some member of the protectors family].

When most of these cases present to me, this protectiveness is typically a very strong instinct in the dog (it occasionally presents as an obsessive/compulsive disorder). There are psychopharmacologic substances which can be of significant benefit in some of these cases. Most of these situations require substantial guidance in managing and modifying these behaviors.

Possessive aggression:

Possessive aggression is when animals react aggressively to individuals attempting to take something away from them. While this can be a part of dominance aggression, it frequently occurs in non-dominant dogs.

There are a number of very effective means of eliminating this problem; what is best for each individual animal will vary with specific details and circumstances.

Neurologic-related aggression:

Neurologic related forms of aggression are relatively rare. Most notable among these syndromes is Rabies, in which affected animals can become unpredictably aggressive. Their aggression is often triggered very easily by sudden noises or movements.

If you see a dog wandering the streets, appearing very alert and anxious and becoming aggressive with any individuals encountered, get inside and call the appropriate authorities. This is an emergency situation and warrants a call to 911.

Other potential neurologic causes of aggression include brain tumors and partial psychomotor seizures.

These can usually by ruled out with a good behavioral history. These disorders are completely unpredictable. That is they they have no reliable situational causes or triggers.

Elimination problems (urinating/defecating/marking behaviors):

When urine or feces is coming out of your animal in your home, this constitutes an elimination problem.

The first step in dealing with any elimination problem is ruling out any underlying medical/physiologic causes. This can be done in some cases solely w/a brief history.

If an animal is both urinating and defecating inappropriately, it is most likely a behavior problem. The most probable medical cause would be one of a loss of neurologic control of the anal and urinary sphincters. This is of greater potential in old animals and those that have suffered some significant physical trauma to the spinal cord.

If an animal has been well housebroken or litter-trained, and begins urinating in inappropriate places, a urine sample should be brought into your local veterinarian for Urinalysis. The specific gravity of the urine will determine if the kidneys are effectively concentrating the urine. Cytologic examination of the sediment (which is produced when the urine is spun down in a centrifuge) will reveal any cellular changes associated with infections. Withhold water for approximately 4 hours before getting a sample. Quietly, gracefully hold small plastic cup/container/ bag with top folded over to create a rim under the stream as your animal urinates. Refrigerate sample until it can be brought to vet that same day.

Specific types of elimination problems in Cats include aversion to litter/litter area, substrate preferences (e.g. carpeting), location preferences (e.g. dining room), fecal marking (rare), urine spraying (on vertical surfaces) which can be either urine marking (in territorial-minded cats) or simply urine voided through a spraying posture. The distinction is made based on volume of urine and whether urine is also being found sprayed on the inside walls of the litter box. All elimination problems in cats can be a direct sequela (result) of territorial disputes between cats.

Most cat elimination problems can be successfully treated if all influencing factors are treated simultaneously. Often people try one or a few of the multiple modifications necessary to effectively cure these problems, and these efforts often, unfortunately, fall short of fixing the problem.

In dogs, elimination problems include housebreaking problems (often with location and/or substrate preferences), urine marking, fecal marking (rare), submissive urination, excitement urination, coprophagia (eating of feces) [this is really an ingestive problem], anxiety/distress related, fear of going to appropriate location (which can be a sub-cause of housebreaking).


Fears of all sorts abound throughout the animal kingdom. As do attractions. They can be primal, as the cats reaction to the sudden, unexpected hiss of a snake. Shocked by the surprise, and the fear felt within its survival center, the cat recoils and almost simultaneously displays its own aggressive posture which is loaded with signs of fear. A confident cat that is acting aggressively will not hiss and make a point of showing you all his weapons. The one who is scared wants to make a strong display to get out of the situation without potentially getting beat up, and so they make scary sounds and make themselves look much larger by arching their back and puffing up their fur. The effort is to significantly scare the other individual to get that individual to back off or at least create a standoff, that both can eventually retreat from and at the same time save face. Like a snake (an interesting evolution of communication), cats hiss when they are significantly scared, and they may show you their fangs with an open mouth display.

In dogs prominent fears include thunderstorms/fireworks, other dogs/people (which can be subcategorized in numerous ways), vacuum cleaners, vets office, discipline.

In cats prominent fears include people, other cats, being handled/picked up, sudden noises/movements, birds (usually following an attack on the cat by the bird(s)), the outdoors, car rides, and of course, the vets office.

A phobia is simply an intense fear that is significantly disproportionate in intensity relative to the actual threat inherent in the fear-invoking stimulus.

Fears/phobias can be very specific to an individual being or object, or location, or set of circumstances... or they can become more generalized to other similar sounds/sights.

Most often treated with counter-conditioning/desensitization procedures and/or anti-anxiety medications, fear-related problems are usually pretty easy to treat. Medication can be very useful in providing windows of opportunity through which significant progress can be made with behavior modification programs. If setbacks can be avoided (by controlling for exposures to the fear-inducing stimuli -or- controlling the animals reactivity w/ anxiolytics) through the period when the animal is being put through a well-crafted behavior modification program, then the fearful stimuli can be reintroduced in such a way that the animal is remaining relaxed up through and beyond experiencing the fearful stimuli in its normally presenting form (w/out reacting fearfully). When this is done you have fixed the problem.

Separation-related disorders and overdependent behaviors:

These problems are fairly common in dogs, and can occasionally be found in cats.

Dogs are highly social creatures and evolutionarily have stayed with their mother and/or siblings continually. In our family, or individual household settings, we bond with our dog(s) and they with us. Sometimes they bond so strongly that they follow us from room to room wherever we go. And there are times when they get depressed and/or anxious when they are left alone. Most dogs habituate to these departures, but often circumstances and/or inherent tendencies drive their reactions in a negative direction.

When we are home with them for extended periods of time (summer vacation, illness, unemployed, etc.) and then return to work, suddenly leaving them alone, they can become significantly distressed. This can also happen if they experience some significant fear when left alone (e.g. bad thunderstorm), and now they are fearful of being left alone in that location.

Reactions range from the mild to the severe. They can include, but are not necessarily limited to, any combination of the following: Distress vocalizations (barking/whining/howling), hypervigilance (e.g. looking out windows for owner), destructiveness (chewing/scratching/digging), attempts to escape (jumping out windows), elimination (excessive or inappropriate urination/defecation), agitation/restlessness/pacing, vomiting, self-trauma (licking/chewing @ their feet/legs), aggression to owners @ the door as they are trying to leave, and intense/prolonged greetings upon owners return.

These problems can be solved most often w/ a combination of anti-anxiety medication, change in structure/content of owner/animal interactions, and behavior modification exercises which desensitize the animal to its fear of owners departures.

Overdependent behaviors can be present unaccompanied by separation anxiety. When a dog is always underfoot, and you find yourself stepping on it or tripping over it; or if you just wish you could get a quiet moment alone; or if your dog just doesn't seem like it can get comfortable until it can get under your skin, then your dog is overdependent. This, too, is treatable.

An animal analog of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):

Despite some still commonly held beliefs, animals have memories (whether conscious or subconscious). And these memories can have lasting impressions particularly when the animal has suffered some trauma (e.g. intense fear) as a result.

Often they become most reactive (their reactions are usually some combination of fear and aggression) to the particular individual (man or beast) that inflicted the trauma, and they often generalize to similar types/subgroupings of that individual. They may be most reactive in the location where the trauma occurred and less reactive in different environments. For instance, a pup [PTSD can occur in any age animal] that only suffered abuse related to housebreaking may be a nervous wreck in the house, and perfectly relaxed and comfortable outdoors, where all its interactions with people have been centered around play and positive feelings.

These dogs often do great on certain psychotropic meds. They also are usually very responsive to specific behavior mod. plans.

Cats are also very susceptible to these very strong and lasting impressions .


Destructiveness (chewing/scratching/digging) can occur for a variety of reasons:

boredom, separation anxiety, puppy chewing, continuation of bad habits established during puppy chewing, insufficient exercise, attention seeking behavior, or intended desire to destroy some specific object(s)... believe it or not!, etc.

In Cats, destructiveness can take several forms. Inappropriate scratching/clawing at anything but the scratching post is most common; but there are also a good number of cats that have fixations for chewing on soft materials like cloth. Some are so particular, they actively seek out wool cloth. Siamese cats are most noted for this behavior.

Most destructive situations can be handled with a 40 min. initial consult.

Excessive/inappropriate Vocalizing:

There are lots of reasons dogs bark. It is very often an attention seeking behavior; however, it can just as easily be associated with territorial or protective behavior, play, overexcitement/hyperactivity, boredom, aberrant learned behavior, separation anxiety, geriatric changes, etc.

Once the cause is determined, the most appropriate treatments can be selected to address the particular details of your dogs situation.

Cats can also drive owners up the wall with their own vocalization problems, especially when they do it at 4 a.m..

Attention Seeking Disorders:

This can come in all shapes and sizes. Barking, licking, jumping, whining, stealing objects, meowing, knocking things off your shelves/desktop, etc... Most are learned through inadvertent random reinforcement.

Most are readily fixed, though the solution isn't as simple as you might think. Many would offer that you're not giving the dog enough attention and they need to be given more. This is often not the case. Many of these animals get lots of attention but can't quite seem to get enough or are always wanting more. There are certainly those cases where more activity is in order, but it needs to be provided in very specific ways to meet the needs of both the owner and the animals in the situation. Owners need not have to change their whole lives to accommodate the needs of the animal to resolve attention seeking disorders.

Obsessive/Compulsive Disorders:

Not too common, but when they present, these are very neat cases. More commonly found in hi energy dogs, these problems can take different forms... licking self/other individual/objects, chewing self, excessive grooming, watching/attacking shadows on wall, protecting a new baby, flank sucking, eating/drinking, vocalizing, circling/pacing, digging, snapping at air as though catching flies, etc.

Often observed in situations where an animal is experiencing an increased level of arousal, OCD animals are frequently in some state of conflict.

With appropriate medications (there are a number of substances that work well in OCDs in animals) and/or a variety of applicable behavior modification techniques, these problems can be controlled, if not eliminated.

Geriatric Changes:

Common geriatric changes include vision and hearing loss, diminished housebreaking, changes in activity/sleep patterns, decrease in social interactions, being generally unsettled (unable to get comfortable), a general decrease in the quality of life for the animal, and some levels of cognitive dysfunction (e.g. getting lost in the house or yard, wandering off, walking into walls/corners and not being able to get un-stuck, memory loss, acting confused).

Although these are signs that the end may be near, this need not be the case. There are medications used in the treatment of certain human geriatric disorders which have proven to be quite effective in clinical trials in dogs as well. A number of environmental/interactional changes can benefit these situations also.


In its true form, hyperactivity is quite rare. These are animals that cannot stay still. They are difficult to train, are unresponsive to tranquilization and struggle against restraint. There are, however numerous animals that come pretty close. More appropriately termed overactive/uncontrollable, these animals are a handful, but effective means exist for turning these dogs around.

Hyperactivity in cats can often be related to hyperthyroidism.

Aberrant learned behaviors:

Any behavior that is reinforceable (w/ praise, laughter, petting, attention, play, food, etc.) can develop and potentially rise to problematic levels. There are lots of animals with their own idiosyncratic behaviors. Some are relatively benign. Others can pose problems. Does your pet have some strange behavior? Let us know. Its most likely correctable; at the very least, its certainly entertaining.

Ingestive problems: (coprophagia/pica).

The most common ingestive problem is coprophagia (the ingestion of feces). Dogs often like to eat their own, or the stools of other dogs. They have a particular taste for cat feces (which are higher in fat content).

Pica refers to the eating of non-food objects, usually stones.

The primary ingestive problem in cats is wool sucking/eating.