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Medical or Behavioral-What’s the Real Problem?

May 28, 2012

It’s a sad fact that too many pets end up in animal shelters or humane societies. Many are turned over due to what the owner reports as “behavior issues”. These can range from a cat that isn’t using its litter box to a dog that sometimes seems to snap for no reason. An even sadder fact is that many of these animals are not truly suffering from behavioral problems, but instead have medical issues.

There are many medical problems that can appear to be behavioral in nature. Take the example of the cat that is not using the litter box.  Cats are clean by nature and most learn to use a litter box at a young age without any problem. Why then would an adult cat that’s been using its litter box for years without problems  suddenly start urinating outside of the box? While this could be a behavioral issue, it could also be caused by a medical problem-a bladder infection. If a cat has a bladder infection, it is very painful for it to urinate. Cats often associate this pain with the litter box and avoid using it, trying to find someplace where it can urinate without pain. Also, if it’s an older cat, there’s the chance it may have developed diabetes, which can cause it to drink and urinate more. Until the underlying medical issue is addressed, the cat will likely not want to use its box.

What about the dog who is suddenly snapping for no reason? If a dog who has been friendly all of its life seems to have a change in personality, it could be something as simple as a very bad ear infection. The dog’s ears are very painful and when the owners are trying to pet him, they are inadvertently causing the dog severe pain. Sometimes older dogs can develop arthritis, which can be painful, or start to lose their hearing or sight, thus making them easier to startle. Different neurological issues can also be associated with aggression. While a dog who is biting is serious and needs to be addressed, if a medical condition is the root cause of the issue, it needs to be treated.

While pets can and do develop behavior issues, it’s a good idea to first take your pet to the veterinarian for an exam to rule out any underlying medical cause.

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