The old expression, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world”, has never seemed more true than today. Hopefully you are reading this month’s edition of “York County Magazine” to decompress, become more informed, and to restore some sense of balance and order. We have all recently seen images and print describing world events that are tragic on both a global and personal scale. Some of these events have been natural such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, while others have been wholly man-made. The term Meltdown has never been so appropriate for what we have lately seen all around us.
Our pets also become embroiled in conflicts and catastrophes out of their control. This month we’ll look at several examples of “Animal Anarchy,” and see how we can guard against or at least minimize the consequences of such conflict.
If you think that anarchy is only experienced by humans, consider the following:
You come home from work to find that the dogs have played tug-of-war with your grandmother’s antique rug ….. Anarchy!
After 6 years, your cat suddenly begins to urinate on the bathmat….Anarchy!
Your new puppy loves to cuddle with you, but your 10-year-old Basset Hound won’t let him near you or the sofa…..Anarchy!
The normal behaviors of pets are a common cause of animal anarchy. Just like us, pets often fight over who is the boss. This pack order is a universal trait of animals in the natural world and affects our pets at home as well. If you have more than one pet, one will typically be the leader and the others will respect its position as top dog.
Many factors help determine who is the leader and who is the follower: age, size, seniority, and personality all play a role, and the ultimate “winner” may be a surprise. A smaller cat that has been in the household longer can sometimes be dominant over a larger, younger dog. An assertive younger dog may be the boss over a laid back senior pet. Each pet situation is different, but eventually, most pets work it out and the end result is usually peaceful.
Anarchy can reign, however, if the pets’ situations change. For instance, the established dominance order is often upset when a new puppy comes into the home. The battles for superiority then starts all over again as the pets try to figure out where the puppy fits in. Sometimes the change is in the pets themselves. If a dominant pet becomes ill or older and is no longer respected by the younger pets, they may begin to fight to see who will be the next leader. A puppy who respected its elders when it was small may grow up and realize that it can bully its way into the leadership position, and conflicts occur until they settle the issue.
These conflicts over leadership can show in many different ways. Dogs are often most straightforward and obvious in revealing their conflicts; they fight and growl and show their teeth to each other and sometimes overt battles can occur. These battles are most severe and most prolonged when the animals are similar in size and temperament. When one pet has an obviously dominant personality and another is smaller, it doesn’t take long for them to figure out who is the boss.
Cats are usually more subtle in the manner in which they show conflict. Yes, they can hiss and growl and fight, and even after the issue seems settled they will sometimes still take a swipe at one another from time to time. But they often show their conflicts through their instinctive behaviors which are not nearly as obvious. Many times the only sign of stress or conflict between cats may be poor appetite or diarrhea or inappropriate urination. Instead of fighting, they may desperately try to establish their place in the household by marking their territory with urine or feces, or by “staring down” the other pet with dominant eye contact. If they feel intimidated by the other pet they may hide under furniture or run away when the other pet is in the room. Some pets will even avoid eating from the same bowl or use the litter box when they feel threatened by the dominant cat.
Just as humans don’t need grand issues to generate conflict, pets may also fight over what we consider minor matters. Even if there is plenty of food to go around, pets will often fight over who gets to the bowl first, or who gets to sit on their favorite chair, or even who gets petted first. It is not unusual for pets to push other two-legged family members out of the way if they get between them and their master. (All this reminds me of my sister and me years ago “discussing” who got the last piece of Mom’s lemon meringue pie!)
Many of these pet conflicts arise from their own instincts and behaviors, but others are caused by us, either by our ignorance or by our neglect. It has always been important for pet owners to understand what makes their pets tick. If we ignore the underlying behaviors which influence our pets we risk causing them to act in ways that are not good for them or us.
One of the most common causes for animal anarchy is the inconsistent discipline of their owners. Just as with two-legged children, proper discipline is not punishment, it is teaching, and the best discipline is often simply common sense. Puppies can’t understand the difference between tennis shoes and dress heels, so don’t allow them to chew on one and then expect them to not chew on your Sunday shoes. The same general rule applies to blue jeans vs. dresses, an old sofa in the basement vs. the living room couch, etc. Offering food from the table when it suits us and then punishing them when they beg in front of guests doesn’t work either. One of the most common examples of inconsistent and ineffective discipline is when we come home to find a pet accident on the floor and then punish the pet. They don’t know that they’re being punished for the accident; they think they’re being punished for waiting quietly for us to come home, because that’s what they were doing when they were punished. We set our pets up for frustration when we are not consistent in our discipline.
We often create eventual chaos and anarchy in our pets when we encourage behaviors we think are cute when our pet is small, but would not want them to do when they grow up. For instance, teasing your puppy to chew on your fingers might seem harmless, but when the dog is an adult that same chewing can really be harmful. The same thing can be said about encouraging barking, jumping, or any other behavior that eventually you may not tolerate.
We sometimes unintentionally create chaos when we don’t “pet-proof” our homes. Our pet’s don’t mean anything by it, but they don’t care how old or expensive the rug or vase or book are; they just know they’re fun to play with.
One of the worst ways to incite anarchy in your pets is to try to intervene too much as they work out their own decisions. As mentioned earlier, both cats and dogs settle into their own social order, sometimes with some physical or behavioral back and forth. It is certainly appropriate to supervise the introduction of new pets into the household, and to be sure to give them enough space to retreat if things get too tense. But it is not a good idea to micromanage their interaction or to force one to accept the other. It is very uncommon for one to really hurt the other, and interrupting too much only serves to postpone and intensify their eventual “discussions.” Pets are very aware of each other’s body language. When we intervene, even out of good intentions, we can inadvertently get in the way of their natural instincts and slow down their ability to work out their relationships.
Even if we can’t predict earthquakes or control tsunamis, we can help prevent some of the anarchy that involves our pets. Here are a few closing suggestions:
Do learn as much as you can about normal pet behavior. Helpful resources include the internet, pet care books, and professional trainers, but of course please feel free to bounce your questions by your pets’ veterinarian.
Always try to be consistent in your discipline and training. Make sure you set realistic expectations and easily-understood commands for your pet.
Give your pets time and space as you introduce new members into your household. Don’t force the issue as they get to know each other.
Don’t decide for your pets who will be the boss between them. They have to work it out themselves. Do supervise them to be sure things don’t get out of hand, but remember they generally know when to back down.
Don’t be alarmed if there is occasionally chaos or animal anarchy among your pets. Just like us, they are sometimes simply in a bad mood, and there are few behaviors that are irreversible. In my opinion, the only ultimate anarchy involves rebellion against the human family members, and biting problems should always be considered seriously.