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Adopting a "Problem Pet": Behavior FAQs Answered

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Pet behavior issues can be frustrating, but they aren't uncommon. We reached out to our strategic partner, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®), to get answers to top questions about pet adoption problems related to behavior.

What are some common pet behavioral issues?

Common adopted dog behavior issues include:

  • Vocalizing, such as barking, howling, or whining
  • Destructive chewing
  • Mouthing/nipping
  • Aggression
  • Inappropriate urination or marking
  • Noise phobias
  • Separation anxiety

Some typical rescue cat behavior issues are going outside of the litter box, urine marking, destructive scratching, nocturnal activity, fear of unfamiliar people, and excessive vocalizing, such as meowing or yowling.

Behavioral issues in adopted pets can arise at any time. They may come up right after your pet's "gotcha" date as they adjust to their new home. Or they may occur later in response to changes in their health or environment.

What causes behavioral issues?

If your pet has a behavioral issue, the first step you should take is to visit your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions. For instance, a normally house-trained pet who starts having accidents could have an infection or kidney disease. A typically quiet pet who suddenly becomes very vocal could be trying to tell you that they're in pain.

If a medical condition is not causing the issue, it could be due to fear, anxiety, or stress. One example of this is separation anxiety where a pet is afraid to be left alone or away from their primary person. Other common reasons include boredom, excess energy, or frustration. Pets who don't get enough physical or mental stimulation may feel "cooped up" and engage in unwanted behaviors.

To understand the cause of a behavioral issue, consider your pet's age and individual needs. If you have a puppy, you can expect them to chew on everything in sight. It's their way of exploring the world and soothing sore gums as their adult teeth come in. Luckily, they'll grow out of this phase. In the meantime, you should put valued objects out of mouth's reach.

Destructive chewing in adult dogs can be caused by a change in routine. Maybe your work schedule has shifted, and your dog is alone for longer periods of time. Or it could be that your pooch isn't getting enough exercise to burn off excess energy.

Keep in mind that some seemingly problematic behaviors are quite natural. Cats scratch to mark their scent, stretch their muscles, and keep their nails healthy. If they don't have appropriate outlets for this behavior, they may start scratching at the furniture. By providing your cat with various scratching posts, you can help avoid the cost and aggravation of a ruined couch.

scared Labrador mix dog being held by pet parent

Are behavioral issues more common in rescue pets?

There's little evidence to support the common misperception that rescue pets are more likely to have behavioral issues than pets who are bred on purpose. It's true that some animals are relinquished to shelters because of unwanted behaviors. However, these cases are often the result of a mismatch between the pet and the adopting family's lifestyle or expectations.

You also can't assume that all rescue pets have experienced the kind of trauma that can lead to behavioral issues while purpose-bred pets have not. In fact, studies show that dogs from puppy mills can have life-long behavioral effects from an inadequate early environment. Animals sold in pet stores frequently come from sub-standard breeding operations.

There are many factors that contribute to a pet's behavior that may be more important than whether or not they are a rescue animal. For instance, early experiences, training, socialization, nutrition, exercise, and living environment all play a role in how a pet behaves.

Are certain breeds more likely to have behavioral issues than others?

Breeds were developed for a wide range of jobs, including protecting property, retrieving game during a hunt, helping with livestock, or simply sitting on people's laps. Sometimes the behavioral traits that were useful for those jobs are less desirable in a companion pet.

For example, Shetland Sheepdogs were bred to help keep birds and sheep out of gardens, so they tend to bark a lot. If you live in a small apartment, you and your neighbors may find their constant yapping problematic. Similarly, Border Collies were developed to herd sheep. Families with young children may not enjoy it when their Collie circles around and herds up the kids.

There are also some behavioral issues that are more common in certain breeds. One example is canine compulsive disorder. Border Collies are prone to fixating on shadows, and German Shepherds are famous for chasing their tails.

Should you consider breed when adopting a pet?

It's helpful to understand the general characteristics of a breed before you adopt a pet. For instance, working breeds tend to be high energy and mentally busy. They'll likely flourish in a home with avid runners, but they may go stir crazy with a family who can only take them out for a couple of short walks a day.

Think realistically about how much time and energy you'll be able to devote to a pet. This can help avoid disappointment and frustration later on. Also, keep in mind that breed is only one factor that can impact a pet's behavior and personality.

Is there any way to know if a pet has a behavioral issue before adoption?

You can get plenty of information about a pet by talking with the staff at the shelter. Ask questions about how the pet has behaved since they arrived. Do they seem to bond well with people? Are they friendly with other pets? Do they enjoy being touched? Are they playful? Are they afraid when handled by medical staff?

If the pet was relinquished to the shelter by another family, find out why. Perhaps the previous pet parents weren't able to spend enough time with the pet. Or maybe they had other animals in the home that weren't happy with the new addition. The shelter should have a report about the pet's behavior, which can tell you a lot about them.

And, of course, spend some time with your prospective adoptee before taking them home. Hang out with them at the shelter. Bring along a tasty treat or fun toy. Take them for a walk. See how you connect. That's the best way to get to know a pet.

What are possible treatments for behavioral issues?

After you rule out an underlying health condition, you'll want to figure out what's at the root of the problem. Is your pet getting enough exercise for their age and size? Has something changed in your household, like a visiting family member or a shift in schedule? If you identify the reason, you may be able to address the behavioral issue with some simple adjustments.

For instance, if your pet has a new routine, you may need to give them time to get used to it. If your dog likes to bark by the window, you can close the blinds so they can't see the squirrels scampering around. If your cat is going outside the litter box, you should make sure it's clean and in a semi-private location they can access easily. Enriching your cat or dog's environment with music, toys, and games can also be helpful.

If the behavior issue is more severe, you should ask your veterinarian for a recommendation. They may refer you to a trained professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a Veterinary Behaviorist (ACVB), or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) who can design an effective behavior modification plan. Typically, treatment plans consist of a combination of environmental management, reward-based training, systematic desensitization, and counterconditioning.

tabby cat with green collar and tag on a table surrounded by scattered flowers

Is it OK to return a pet to a shelter because of a behavioral issue?

Bringing a pet into your home is a big change for the pet and your family. You're both learning about one another and getting used to new rules and routines. It's important to give everyone time to settle in. If you're having serious challenges, consult with your veterinarian.

That said, sometimes it's clear that a new pet isn't adjusting well or isn't a good match for your family or lifestyle. In that case, returning the pet to the shelter may be the best option. Keep these pointers in mind:

  • Contact the shelter ahead of time and tell them about what's going on. They may have access to resources that can help with the situation.
  • If you decide to relinquish the pet, don't drop them off unexpectedly. Give the shelter a heads up so they'll be ready to take them in.
  • Provide the shelter with as much information as you can about the pet's behavior. Most shelters will have a questionnaire for you to fill out, but you should add any details you think are important.

The bright side of this situation is that the shelter will have more information about the pet than before. This can help them find a home that's a better fit for them.

Are there other options aside from returning the pet to a shelter?

Rather than relinquishing the pet to a shelter, you may want to find them a new home yourself. This can help reduce feelings of guilt about giving up the pet and anxiety about where they'll end up. Plus, it can make for a smoother and less stressful transition for the pet.

You may want to work with a certified animal behaviorist or trainer during the process. They can determine the best environment for the pet given their behavior history. They can also be a great resource for the new pet parents once the pet is rehomed.

To find a home for the pet, you can start by contacting your local shelters. They often have courtesy listings for pets that need homes but haven't been surrendered to the shelter. You can also spread the word using your social media accounts or neighborhood message boards.

It's important that you're transparent and honest about the pet's behavior. Talk through all of their quirks, the training you've done, and the pet's positive attributes so that the new pet parent understands what they're taking on. This can help make sure you've found the pet their perfect forever home.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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