Strange Behaviour and Your Pets – Our Vet Can Help!

A Q&A with Dr. Olivia Schmidtz

Q: What is your background in animal behaviour?

A: My behaviour experience started at the Calgary Humane Society where I was fortunate to work on the behaviour team. I saw a large spectrum of behaviours that I learned to manage and train. I became familiar with severe anxiety, aggression, reactivity and fear in dogs which can be challenging to manage but ultimately very rewarding. During this time, I became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Professional (KPA-CTP, clicker training) and took courses in Tellington T-Touch and canine reactivity.

I love being a dog trainer because I see the potential in all dogs (and their humans) to learn and grow. As a vet, I find training very useful to implement a fear-free experience for my patients, including training pets to calmly accept and actively participate in diagnostic tests including blood draws and dental exams).

Q: What pet training method do you prefer and why?

A: Positive reinforcement (treat-based/clicker training) is a kind, effective and fun method for training our pets. The reward system in the brain is useful for training new behaviours and stimulates a positive overall emotional response. This philosophy is supported by countless peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Q: How can you help with behavioural issues?

A: When a client comes to me with a behavioural concern for their pet, I start with a physical exam, thorough history and bloodwork. Behavioural disorders are typically only diagnosed when all other conditions are ruled out.

If other conditions can be ruled out, we can treat behaviour concerns with a combination of quality diet, excellent enrichment, pheromones, nutraceutical supplements, training, and, if indicated, medication. Each patient and condition is unique and requires time and financial commitment to address. I work with my clients to look at the whole picture to address their pet’s welfare.

Q: Is it more expensive to see your vet for a behavioural consultation?

A: Yes, because behaviour consultations require thorough history taking and consultation (sometimes over several days), the fees are higher than for a regular appointment. Managing behaviour cases also require that the veterinarian has additional training and skill not normally taught in veterinary school.

Q: How long do you usually work with a pet and owner to address behavioural issues?

A: The process for dealing with minor behavioural issues like jumping up, barking, or scratching furniture have the potential to be solved within a few days to a week.

Severe issues like anxiety, aggression, inappropriate elimination and reactivity typically take months to resolve due to the training, lifestyle management and medication considerations. Patience, commitment to the cause, and time are key.

Q: What are some of the top behaviour issues you see?

A: The top behaviours I see and work with owners and trainers to treat are inappropriate elimination (urinating or defecating indoors), aggression, reactivity, and anxiety. These behaviours are very important to share with your veterinarian because they can be a signal of an underlying health concern. Here are some examples of health conditions that may show up as a behaviour change:

Aggression -> pain
Reactivity -> allergies
Urinating out of litterbox -> urinary tract infection
Anxiety -> hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland) in cats

Your veterinarian can help you rule out disease before diagnosing a true behavioural disorder to ensure the best care for your pet. This usually involves bloodwork and urinalysis, at the minimum. These diagnostics also help your vet decide whether behaviour medications are appropriate and safe for your pet.

Q: What body language should dog owners be aware of?

Dogs give us very clear signals if you know what to look for! While they can’t speak our language, their body language is powerful. Here are some signals that dogs give us and what they mean:

Lip licking, turning away, looking out of the corner of their eye, ears back -> Give me space!
Lip lift, growl, freezing -> I might bite!
Pacing, panting (when it isn’t hot outside), not eating -> I feel fearful or anxious!
Low tail wag, almond shaped eyes, relaxed mouth -> I’m a happy camper!

Q: What body language should cat owners be aware of?

A: Cats are typically quicker to react than dogs. Have you ever been petting a cat and suddenly, you’ve been swatted or the cat starts hissing with apparently no warning? This quick reaction is due to early signs of body language being missed. Cats are very expressive but because they are so beautiful and small, body language can be easy to miss. Here’s an example:

Human pets sleeping cat -> cat startles awake -> petting continues -> cat’s ears go back -> cat’s muscles tense -> cat’s cheeks puff out -> cat low growls -> petting continues -> cat swats at hand

The best way to handle your cat is to let them come to you, especially with cats that are new to you. Try getting on the floor with them and extend your hand with a pointed finger so they can smell and rub against you first before moving on to petting.

Q: Can cats be trained?

A: Of course! All creatures in the animal kingdom learn new skills and behaviours via the same punishment and reward system in the brain. One of the most powerful ways for any animal to be trained is through positive reinforcement. This means that you reward a desired behaviour to increase the likelihood that it will occur again. An example would be giving your cat a treat if they come when called. The more they are rewarded for this behaviour, the more likely they are to come running to you because they associate the action with a good feeling (eating tasty treats).

Pairing treats with all sorts of desired behaviours including fitting a harness, going in a crate, teeth brushing, using the litter box, jumping through a hoop, doing a high five, etc. will improve the cat’s emotional state and make these actions fun. Some interesting behaviours cats can learn are using a human toilet instead of a litterbox and going on leashed walks including hikes!

If you are concerned about strange behaviours your pet is exhibiting, please call our clinic at 403-615-8016 to book an appointment with Dr. Schmidtz!