Behavior tips every practitioner should know (Proceedings)


Behavior tips every practitioner should know (Proceedings)

Food Socialization in Kittens

Frustrated by that cat with chronic progressive renal disease that won't eat anything but its old diet? What about the cat that exhibits enduring anorexia after being ill even though you can't find any persisting medical reason? While there often are no simple answers for fixing these cases, there are simple ways to prevent your new kitten patients from developing into a future finicky eater.

Kitten food preferences develop based on influences of genetics, the queen's diet, and the kitten's dietary experiences when young. Kittens can form strong taste and texture preferences by as early as six months of age. As obligate carnivores, cats' food sources are restrained by local available prey. (This compares to dogs which are omnivorous scavengers and show less food neophobia.) Cats are more likely to develop parsimonious food choices. This can present major challenges in the future if the cat requires a diet change or the cat develops an illness-induced food aversion to the only diet the cat habitually eats!

The answer: food socialization in kittens. Encourage owners to offer young kittens a wide variety of commercial and non-commercial foodstuffs in small amounts to accustom the kittens to diversity of tastes, odors and textures. Kittens and cats should be exposed to these variable and novel sources at least 2-3 times per week for the duration of the cat's life in order to maintain receptivity.

This simple process will mitigate the headache of future diet changes as well as increase options for training and behavior modification in the event that such are needed or desired.

Mouthing and Bite Inhibition in Puppies

Mouthing and oral exploration are normal developmental phases in puppies (and many other species). Mouthing serves a few important functions including: environmental exploration, communication, and development of proper bite inhibition (control of mouth pressure during biting).

Owners are often inclined (or told!) to begin reprimanding young puppies for play biting immediately. Some of these interventions are quite detrimental to the owner-puppy bond and may actually increase the likelihood of the puppy becoming truly aggressive.

When puppies with sharp deciduous teeth play with each other, they "shape" each other over time to develop a high degree of control over the direction and force of their "bites." If one puppy bites too hard on another, the victim generally yelps or cries out and then withdraws for a short period of time (this may only be a few seconds) from the game. This short "time out" is an effective punisher for excessive mouth pressure as playing is highly reinforcing for most puppies.

Mouthing often becomes a big issue in older puppies (12-20 weeks of age) because people make a big issue of it! While we don't encourage puppies to mouth, they can be allowed to gently and calmly mouth on humans hands for short periods. If the puppy begins to mouth forcefully or in an excited manner, owners should merely withdrawal their hands and withhold attention from the puppy for a few seconds. "Natural" reactions are more effective reprimands — i.e. if the puppy bites down suddenly, most people are going to cry out and yank their hand away (just like another puppy). What the owner should NOT do is then retaliate against the puppy (see below). If one puppy attacked another puppy after being mouthed too hard, then every instance of this during play would lead to a fight and defeat the purpose of bite inhibition.

Things owners can do to discourage excessive mouthing:
     1. Provide adequate toys and encourage the puppy to direct biting to those. If the puppy becomes too mouthy, give the puppy a short time out (ignore for a few seconds) and then redirect the puppy to a toy.
     2. Provide adequate mental stimulation in the form of enrichment games and training.
     3. Teach puppies to "sit" on cue early (using positive reinforcement) so the owner has a desirable behavioral outlet to provide the puppy's need for attention and reinforcement.
     4. Use confinement as needed to aid training. Train puppies on leash or on tethers so the owner can step just far enough away from the puppy that he/she does not inadvertently reinforce the puppy for biting (e.g. by pushing at the puppy with his/her hands).
     5. Keep play sessions within an acceptable level of excitement – i.e. the puppy can calm down quickly if the owner stops playing. Also the puppy should be able to stay focused on the initial toy or game. If the puppy's excitement starts uncontrollably "bleeding out" to other nearby things (household items, the owner's body or clothes), then the owner should stop the play session.
     6. Enroll the puppy in a good puppy class prior to 14 weeks age so that owners can learn appropriate intervention techniques.