Thursday, August 24, 2017

Understanding scratching behavior in cats can keep your furniture—and the human-animal bond—intact

Nearly every time I walk into a client's home to care for their cat, the pet will greet me and within a few minutes of my arrival, if they're amenable to coming out and interacting, they'll begin giving their scratching post or cat tree a good bit of attention by rubbing up on it and scratching. This isn't at all surprising to me; cats express themselves in all sorts of ways and by them coming out and engaging in normal, healthy activity when their people are away, tells me they're doing well. There are benefits of scratching—some of them include being that it allows them to get in a good stretch, it's used an olfactory marker and an emotional release—so any I say, scratch away, friends. But only if its done it in an appropriate place, of course. 

Inappropriate scratching is a bone of contention in many households with cats, and it's understandable. The activity can produce mighty destructive results; I've seen many a piece of furniture destroyed, and some cat's penchant for wood trim is unmistakable. It seems important to say that this issue is one of the most-cited for relinquishment to shelters, attempts at rehoming—or even declawing, a topic that I assure you is a hotbed of well-deserved controversy in pet care professional and advocacy circles. 

Oft-misunderstood, I need to reiterate that scratching is a completely normal behavior, much like a good chew party is for dogs and it's something that felines do even into old age. Equally important to state is that by providing appropriate objects to scratch on, you'll not only be saving your stuff from being destroyed along with your important human-animal bond—it's also a terrific form of feline enrichment.

So, your cat needs something enjoyable and appropriate to scratch on. What to choose? There are tons of products on the market, right? It's easy to pick up the most convenient or newest thing on the market, but really, as a 2015 study illustrated, it all comes down to a cat's preferences; the substrate used, the structure itself and where said appropriate scratching product is placed. 

Disposable fun

Scratching boards made from cardboard are a common sight in pet stores, and are an economical option. Kitties can give them a pretty good workout and I find that because these are low to the ground and typically horizontal, they're a good choice for senior and geriatric cats. They can be flat, inclined and come in different sizes. Some scratching boards are made from sisal/rope. 

More permanent options 

Carpeted scratching posts are an option that some cats like, and can be obtained easily. Carpet isn't as effective as you might think at offering a nice, solid scratch for the younger crowd, though senior and geriatric cats seem to prefer them. You can purchase one, or if you're feeling ambitious, go the DIY route.

Sisal, or rope posts are, according to the vast majority of my charges, the cream of the crop when it comes to working those claws. They're favored by clients as well, and in my experience, can tolerate the most vigorous feline punishment. This substrate holds up incredibly well and offers the kind of contact that younger cats appreciate, and plus, it's derived from a renewable resource. (DIY fans click here.)

Cat trees/condos are popular, as they not only provide a variety of satisfying substrates on which to flex those claws, but offer happy places to perch themselves. According to the aforementioned study, there's more to cat trees than meets the untrained eye. Height and composition are just two components that seem to matter to cats of all ages. For young cats, cat trees that are a minimum of three feet in height and crafted from sisal or rope are pretty boss. Height is important here, as it's thought because of this age group's optimal agility and mobility comes into play, so a cat tree with two or more levels is tops. (This is where the enhanced enrichment comes in.) I'll note that when cats are climbing up a cat tree, it's easy for them to get their claws caught in the loops of carpet substrate, so on a second or higher level, look for sisal/rope to minimize that prospect. I find that cat trees with a base of at least 2-3 ft wide are best, since young cats especially have a tendency to run and jump up on cat trees, and a wider base helps to keep them from toppling over. 

If you lead, they will follow...

Getting your cat to use a scratching post or cat tree instead of the antique chair that once belonged to your favorite aunt isn't always as simple as plopping the item down and letting them have a go at it. After all, some cats are particularly sensitive to new pieces of furniture in the house (which essentially is what this is), so getting some pets comfortable with this seemingly weird thing might take a little nudging. Feliway is always helpful (I think it should be in every home with felines), but really good catnip as an attractant and positive reinforcement along with food rewards are integral to getting cats to focus their energies on clawing on an appropriate surface. Cats are trainable (!!), and Julie Hecht of Dog Spies offered up a terrifically helpful and funny article on how she trained her cat, Josh, in preparation for the arrival of a new couch. Click here to read that

Location, location, location

Where the scratching post or cat tree is placed can make a difference in how open a cat is to using it, so being mindful of what locations in the house your furry friend prefers to scratch is key. One idea to keep in mind is that cats often like to scratch after a snooze, so keeping a cat tree or scratching post close to their favorite napping spot, because convenience is king, is a good strategy. 

A final word: well-trimmed nails are helpful in keeping the peace and promoting healthy claws. So, it's important that a cat is used to getting his claws trimmed, so ideally, we want to create positive associations with that while they're young. If you've an older cat that is less open to the idea of nail trims, don't fret—there's hope. Click here for strategies on helping young cats develop a good association with the notion, and for older, resistant cats, get more comfortable with the idea. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Unethical pet products and training methods designed to correct problem behavior put pet care professionals, families at risk

If you look at the shelves of any pet store, the programming on some television channels or browse your social media streams, it’s clear that we find living with dogs to be rather difficult, at least part of the time. Difficult enough to look for a solution outside of our collective wheelhouses or levels of patience. It seems like every time I walk into a pet store, there are more new products promising to correct behavior that we find objectionable, lined up next to the bark collars or spray, every conceivable walking contraption, products to stop coprophagia, prong collars, books and magazine articles whose information is antiquated or is written by charismatic-but-unqualified authors, shock collars intended to correct any number of behaviors and finally, the crates that promise that your frantic dog won’t be able to escape from it. Let’s not forget the television shows touting to teach you to be a pack leader (dogs don't need pack leaders, by the way), Facebook pages emphatic that they have the secrets to dog training and dog trainers (or those that promote themselves as such) who employ punitive, confrontational tactics to try and produce behavior that pet owners desire.

I’m cringing as I type this. Why? Because all of this is a symptom of a bigger problem: ‘solutions’ that don’t really work to begin with, and only exacerbate behaviors.

They also put families, veterinary staff, groomers, pet sitters and other caregivers -- and the public-at-large at risk of unwanted and even dangerous interactions with dogs.

We all want what’s best for pets. We want them to be able to handle themselves with a manageable level of self-control, to be happy and safe. So we interact in ways that communicate when they need to exercise certain levels of that self-control -- but those interactions need to be devoid of fear and pain. While I’m a firm believer that families ought to be asking pointed questions about how their pet sitters, dog daycare and boarding staff handle addressing unwanted behaviors and what training philosophies (by this, I mean ‘how do they communicate with the dog?’), these professionals need to be inquiring the same of their potential clients.

On more than one consultation, I’ve needed to advocate for myself, which in turn does the same for the pet and and the others. I’ve gotten really good at asking questions about a pet’s behavior, including anything that’s concerning or troublesome -- and how the family addresses it. Resource guarding is common, as are fear-based behaviors. On one occasion, a family member noted that the former was something that they had been working on with their giant breed dog, as they have the youngest relatives of their family visit often and didn’t want to put them at risk of being bitten by the dog should they get too close to a toy or a bone. I was not surprised to hear the strategy:

“I take hold of him, pin him to the ground by the scruff of the neck and sternly tell him no.”

I politely responded with, “You alpha roll him.” They gave an affirmative reply.

Just visualize that. Then think about the likely outcome.

A 120 lb dog, handled in a manner that’s at its core, is incompatible with getting the true result that a family wants. And when one does this, they end up getting way more than they bargain for by way of more complicated behavior issues. Essentially, using a strategy to correct behavior that is based on fear begets a fear response. At first glance, that might seem benign, but as that fear response increases and that pet’s fear threshold lowers, a dog will do what it needs to protect them self (think fight or flight). This is not a decision that a dog chooses necessarily; the unmistakable displays of fear, which in their early manifestations go unnoticed by many humans, the growling, snapping, biting is not. They are a physiologic response. They are all signals to convey, ‘please stop right there, I’m not comfortable with this’.

I replied by saying that I understood and appreciated the notion that resource guarding can be problematic, I needed to be very clear that I hope that they understood that I would not be able to interact with their dog in that way, and that in doing so would violate my ethos in many ways. And though yes, this was their home, the dog belongs to them and that there are no laws dictating that they can’t employ training methods like this, the outcome from doing so certainly has implications that affects others. And they can be unexpectedly exponential. I explained to the family why alpha rolling their dog wouldn’t accomplish what they were aiming for (the cessation of resource guarding), it would likely magnify the behavior, and in all likelihood in the midst of the children they were trying to keep safe. Those children, being less-sophisticated than their adult counterparts in picking up on this lovable dog’s body language, wouldn’t notice how, their attempts to pet or cuddle him or innocently reaching for a random item near him might be taken as ‘Wait, the last time a human made a move around me like that (association with the alpha roll), it made me really uneasy… oh no”.

And then there would be the matter with my physically interacting with him, which inherently would be happening a lot; reaching to put a harness and leash on him, petting him, feeding him, playing with him, checking him for ticks.

Could they see my point? Yes, they said, wide-eyed.

Though I’m masterful at consistently reading a pet’s body language, it goes without saying that the level of contact that I have with my charges does in itself raise the inherent risk of being snapped at or bitten. (Because of my training and policies -- not luck -- that’s never happened.) But with a dog who has been subjected to strategies that rely on fear, pain and lack of autonomy to communicate with them or address unwanted behavior, well, that unnecessarily places me and depending on where we are, other pets and humans at an even higher risk. From a legal and ethical standpoint, I’m not keen on that, and other professionals and caregivers shouldn’t be, either. That said, I politely decline on taking on clients who adhere to methods of training or behavior modification that put myself and others at risk.

It goes without saying that I commend families for recognizing the need for adequate training and communication when it comes to themselves with their pets -- and when there is a sticky wicket of an animal behavior issue that needs attention. I do implore, however, to allow the ever-increasing amount of products and books and celebrity-status personalities (oh, yes, and your cousin’s neighbor) who lack science-backed education but are nonetheless advising the best way to fix these situations to inform: they’re not effective. If they were, there wouldn’t be a need for more options every week, and thus, fewer pets would need re-homing. Instead, please, consult an animal behavior professional, one who has accreditation from and affiliations with reputable organizations that espouse responsible strategies, for example, positive reinforcement and relationship building with dogs and cats. They can help with so much, including barking issues, separation anxiety, fearfulness, leash reactivity, house training, redirected aggression, resource guarding and recall. In doing so, you’ll be advocating for your pet, yourselves and everyone in your midst while promoting a safe and happy environment for all, including your pet sitter and veterinary staff.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter