Saturday, August 16, 2008

When It's Not Always a Behavior Problem

One of my areas of special interest is animal behavior. So many behavior problems can be fixed with some professional help, either from a Veterinary Behaviorist, an Applied Animal Behaviorist or a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant. Not everything that's assumed to be a behavior problem is one.

The first thing my colleagues and I do, as Certified Animal Behavior Consultants, is send the client to their veterinarian for a complete work-up and, in the case of a dog, a complete Thyroid Panel. It's imperative to know if the problem is organic in nature and the behavior is the result of an underlying physical problem.

Some cases can be more confusing than others, especially for the layperson. Here's a case in point, and a little food for thought. I'm deliberately omitting the names and the place. It could have happened to any rescue person anywhere in the world.

A cat was brought into rescue and placed in a foster home. She was, naturally, a bit frightened at first and supposedly had some problems in her previous foster home. The new foster was prepared to give the cat a fresh start.

The cat was sweet and loving most of the time but for what seemed like no reason at all and from out of nowhere, the cat would growl and bite, going from Angel Kitty to Cujo Cat in mere seconds. After some time with the new foster, the rescue groups board decided that the cat should be put down, that there was a safety issue. That can be a very wise choice in many cases. In this case, the foster refused to do that and would have spent his own money on veterinary care if necessary even though, like so many people, he has precious little to spare these days. The cat was too loving most of the time and he was convinced that this cat was worth saving. He simply didn't have the experience with rescue cats to make a final evaluation.

The cat was subsequently sent to another foster who has a great deal of experience with rescue cats (and dogs). She found the same to be true in her house. The cat was mostly sweet and loving, a purring little angel who appreciated any display of affection and was happy to cuddle, and yet she would suddenly turn. This woman was convinced that there was something more to it and began to observe the cat very carefully.

She finally noticed that the cat's almost reflexive reaction came when anyone petted her back end, especially if they got near her tail. Ah hah! Also, if another cat came up to her and she had to flick her tail it would set her off. The movement seemed to be causing her pain. A broken tail, perhaps?

Off to the veterinarian they went this past week. Upon examination, the veterinarian found the cat to be very sweet, trusting and affectionate. Until he began to examine her hind quarters. Ooops. Out came Cujo Cat. He thought she didn't need an x-ray. If the tail were broken it had happened a long time ago and had healed but she was, he thought, exhibiting signs of inflammation causing excruciating pain. His decision was to give her a steroid injection to reduce the swelling and pain. She may need to be on the injections for the rest of her life if this is what ends the pain for her. Time will tell.

If she is to be rehomed it is with the express understanding that the new owners never touch her hind quarters, certainly never touch her tail. She may very well spend the rest of her life in her current foster home, content, happy and with the understanding that she has a physical problem that may require lifelong treatment.

This was not a behavior problem but a physical problem that manifested itself in what looked like a behavior problem. She will not be put down. She will have another chance and a loving home.

The take-away message here is never assume that you are looking at a behavior problem in a rescue animal or one of your own pets. Go to a veterinarian as soon as possible for a complete work-up and then decide upon the next step when you know if you are dealing with an organic problem or a true behavior problem.

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