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Behavior Lessons from Katrina

Patricia Thomblison, DVM, MS


|September 2008

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Although the stress encountered by animals during a national disaster or relinquishment to a shelter may be more dramatic, it's important to recognize that our companion animals also encounter stress in everyday situations.

Lesson 1: Learn to recognize a stressed animal.
Animals have a limited number of ways they can react. Reactions are generally a variation of fight, flight, freeze, or fidget. Signs in dogs include licking lips, lowering tail and body, dilated pupils (even in a brightly lit room), growling, and lunging. Cats may lower their bodies and lie in a protected body posture, hiss, spit, and growl.

Lesson 2: Change your behavior to change the pet's behavior.
Studies show that animals that know what to do in an adverse situation fare better than those that don't. There is a 4-pronged approach to stressed animals that includes safety, environmental changes, behavior modification, and medications. For example, a dog that is known to be stressed or aggressive during office visits should be given the first appointment of the day so it doesn't have to wait. Cats should be moved into an exam room with a functioning pheromone analog diffuser (Feliway, as soon as possible.

Lesson 3: Give them tools.
Rather than petting or trying to comfort an animal, teach it other incompatible behaviors to perform. "Sit," hand targeting, and "watch" are commands that are valuable at the veterinary office. Dogs that are aggressive should be taught to wear a basket muzzle at home so they can be managed more easily at the office.

Lesson 4: Change their world.
Teach owners how to minimize their pet's stress. Environmental enrichment that mimics an animal's natural behavior can reduce stress for dogs and cats. Cats' predatory behavior can be stimulated by hiding treats or using food toys and motorized toys. Dogs that have access to yards still need to be taken on leash walks to increase visual and aromatic stimuli. They can also eat part of their daily meals from food toys.

COMMENTARY: Companion animals encounter both acute and chronic stressors routinely. Reducing stress requires gentle handling, environmental enrichment, and proper behavior modification. Although these lessons are not new, the experiences of Katrina brought them to the forefront.

Managing the behavior of animals in stressful situations: Lessons from Katrina. Rodosta L. AVMA PROC, 2008.

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