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Dealing with pet owners' perplexing behaviour

by
01 September 2016, at 1:00am

Francesca Riccomini wonders why some pet owners are so oblivious to the effects of their often selfish actions on their animals, and what to do about it.

“HOW COULD SHE BE SO SILLY?” Unconditional positive regard being an integral part of any behaviour counsellor’s toolkit, I forbore to utter the words out loud. 

I couldn’t, however, stop them ringing around my head throughout a recent conversation with a neighbour. The “she”, her adult daughter, had decided that on their way back home from a few days’ cattery stay her two cats really wanted a brief visit to her mother’s house, an environment which means nothing to them.

These are pets used to life on a farm with a large territory fiercely contested against outsiders. Therefore, after enforced incarceration in the company of other felines, a speedy return to normality seemed altogether more desirable and this decision was especially puzzling because these women live less than five miles apart, see each other frequently and speak daily on the phone. 

The stopover it seemed was based entirely on the daughter’s urgent need to talk about her holiday. What was particularly disappointing, apart from the extra and unnecessary stress for the animals, was that this bright, educated owner is interested in feline behaviour and reads around the subject.

Additionally, the episode illustrates an issue not uncommonly encountered when dealing with problematic behaviour in companion animals. Even diligent, caring owners, despite being desperate to sort out their difficulties, can be surprisingly resistant when it comes to giving up things they find pleasurable and/or making requests that are socially sensitive.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the events in question upset the animals, even when, as a result, things spiral out of control. It is also often difficult for the outside observer to understand the encountered reluctance to relinquish such unnecessary events or actions. 

Sensitivities v. solutions

Here some highly aroused cats prone to indoor urine spraying, sometimes combined with uncharacteristic episodes of human-directed aggression, immediately spring to mind. Principally among them two Burmese, different households, different environments but much the same underlying motivations and remarkably similar precipitating factors.

Both these problem cases were well established and by the time of consultation were causing domestic dissension. Both had also reached the stage where almost anything, a magazine through the letterbox or the sight, sound or smell of another feline through the window for example, could set them off.

In addition, in the first instance, the arrival in the small house in a highly populated London suburb – stressful living for everyone – of the wife’s father with his terrier was a clearly identifiable and significant are factor.

When this chap went on holiday, quite often so no money worries there, his dog happily spent time in kennels. But, despite being at their wits’ end, it proved altogether too difficult to persuade this couple to issue a request that the canine intruder in their highly reactive cat’s territory be left at home or in doggy-day care, even when the father’s visit only lasted a few hours.

Worse still was the second case, where nearly all the furniture in the house as well as the wallpaper had been damaged by cats’ pee. The stakes were even higher because, if he didn’t mend his ways, this problem cat was rapidly heading “for the chop”.

Sadly, other felines in any form, in this area with a high cat population, were a clearly identifiable trigger responsible for precipitating numerous intense bouts of spraying. Other than cat-proofing the garden, obscuring

the view through windows where the Burmese regularly “observed and patrolled his territory” and keeping them closed, it was almost impossible to reduce his exposure to other cats.

Imagine then the counsellor’s frustration when it transpired that despite all the evidence, the adult daughter, now living away, brought her pet, another highly reactive Burmese, with her, even when visiting just for the evening!

Her mother, after a lifetime of caring for others, including a recently deceased housebound parent, understandably could no longer bear to clear up urine. Yet astonishingly, though the other family members readily agreed with the suggestion – one they had already made themselves – this woman would not be persuaded to put an end to these extraordinarily brief, utterly unnecessary and obviously disruptive feline social calls.

Even highlighting the welfare interests of the Burmese visitor, an obviously unwanted intruder in another cat’s well staked-out territory, proved fruitless.

Evidently, some interesting relationship dynamics were at play and sound practical advice plus patient reiteration of the facts of feline behaviour were not equal to the challenge of changing this aspect of interactions within this particular family group.

Our world is far from perfect

With every behaviour case there are going to be contributing factors, issues and situations over which owners have little or no control. These we try to work around. That’s simply part of the job and satisfaction comes from successfully finding acceptable solutions.

Anyone dealing with the public, often in situations of high emotion, is also aware that “there’s nowt so queer as folk” and any of us can sometimes “dig our heels in” for no very good reason. However, in circumstances such as these, it is especially upsetting that people can be so stubbornly misguided when it comes to putting their pets’ welfare interests before their own whims and desires.

There are also times when, if they are to successfully resolve their problems, caring owners, despite any social niceties, simply have to find the courage to stand up for their animal companions’ interests. Persuading them to do so, as these cases show, can sometimes pose a real challenge for any behaviour counsellor.

Then all we can do is remember that patience is a virtue, reiterate the facts, identify helpful and appropriate practical measures and keep silently telling ourselves “we are enablers, not magicians”.