Skip to content

Managing behaviours in dogs and cats

Pets are fascinating and the ways they behave can be endearing and amusing, but sometimes a bit frustrating. Understanding their behaviour takes knowledge and practice, but making the effort is worthwhile because it often helps us to address any unmet needs to ensure our pets are healthy and happy. Dogs and cats may at times express what we consider to be challenging behavioural issues, so it’s important to identify and know how to manage these.

Firstly, all dog and cat behaviour must be considered in context. Some veterinarians advise that what some owners consider to be behavioural issues may not bother other owners, and distinguishes between ‘behavioural issues’ (the behaviour is an issue for the owner but may actually be normal behaviour) and ‘behavioural problems’ (abnormal behaviours).

If your dog or cat expresses one or more behaviours that concern you, the best approach will depend on the actual behaviour and the context it occurs in. In general, most can be accommodated by limit setting, training or redirected by offering alternative behaviours through exercise and environmental enrichment.

The most important thing to remember about concerning behaviours is that, whilst they are usually normal behaviours for dogs and cats that owners can manage with the right advice, the same behaviours can sometimes be a sign of underlying medical or behavioural issues. For example, dogs who bark frantically at thunderstorms may be in a state of panic and may need medication to help them cope.

Behavioural issues such as anxiety may not improve without specific treatment, interventions and strategies. This is why it can be important to discuss any concerning behaviours with your veterinarian, who can conduct an assessment, provide advice on behavioural management, refer you to a trainer or veterinary behaviourist if needed.

Common behaviours in dogs to keep an eye on

Dogs need daily exercise, sufficient food (preferably two meals a day), company, play time and mental stimulation such as training, food puzzles and games. Ensuring your dog is receiving the enrichment they need is a good way to help prevent behavioural issues from developing.

The following are some of the common behaviours in dogs that owners need to understand and be prepared to manage if necessary. Often, when dogs behave this way, they may be telling us they are hungry, bored, lonely, frustrated or anxious when left alone.

Destructive chewing: Dogs love to chew, and need opportunities to express this natural behaviour, such as through safe chew toys and inedible chew bones. Puppies investigate the world by chewing and it also helps them with teething. One way to manage this behaviour is to provide plenty of safe objects to chew and ‘dog proof’ your home to prevent access to anything that you don’t want them to chew or could be dangerous for them to chew.

Veterinary assessment and advice can be important for dogs who chew excessively due to anxiety, leading to injuring themselves or damaging property.

Excessive barking: Barking is how dogs communicate, and can be another normal behaviour. You may be familiar with the different vocalisations your dog makes and it’s important to learn and understand what these may mean, such as when they bark with excitement, at greetings, for attention, to alert you about some potential threat, to guard their territory, in response to other dogs or to indicate they are feeling anxious, bored, frustrated or even unwell. Excessive barking can become a concern, so the key to managing this is firstly to identify the triggers for your dog’s barking and then adopt strategies to help reduce this.

Depending on the cause of your dog’s barking, strategies could include blocking their view of passers-by, rewarding calm behaviour and ignoring attention-seeking barking, and teaching the ‘quiet’ request. However, these solutions may still not be effective if your dog’s exercise, stimulation or company needs aren’t met.

If your dog’s barking continues, your veterinarian can identify and treat any underlying health or behavioural problems, such as separation or other forms of anxiety, or refer you to a reputable trainer who uses positive reinforcement training or to an animal behaviourist.

Digging: Dogs dig for many reasons, although some do so more than others. For example, terriers and small hound breeds were originally bred to flush out rodents from burrows, so they instinctively dig to hunt. Other reasons dogs might dig include retrieving bones or other treasures they have buried, or to get to something that smells good to them, such as buried cat faeces!

Dogs who dig generally enjoy this behaviour, but sometimes they dig for negative reasons, such as to relieve boredom, to comfort themselves if left outside without adequate protection from heat or cold, or to escape – this could be due to separation anxiety or frustration when seeking a mate.

Digging for pleasure can usually be accommodated by providing your dog with a designated digging area, training them to use this area by burying their special treats or toys and rewarding them for retrieving these treasures, or building around any garden areas you want to protect. Eliminating the causes of excessive digging may need to include safe rodent-proofing, ensuring your dog is protected from the elements in all climates by keeping them indoors in extreme weather and providing a safe outdoor shelter, desexing your dog, providing sufficient enrichment and stimulation and finding alternatives to leaving them alone for long periods, like a dog walker or doggy day care.

Compulsive digging can indicate an underlying behavioural issue. A common example is separation anxiety, where digging is often accompanied by excessive barking or whining and other destructive behaviours. This can be a sign of distress and you may wish to seek your veterinarian’s advice.

Common behavioural issues in cats to keep an eye on

The following are some of the common behaviours in cats that can cause concern for people. Just like dogs, making sure your cat is receiving the enrichment they need is a good way to help prevent behavioural issues from developing. For cats, this includes fun feeding, with small amounts of food placed in different locations and using puzzle feeders, several choices of water bowls in different spots, at least two litter trays per cat, places to hide, rest and perch, a variety of scratching posts, and stimulation through games and safe toys, along with the opportunity for privacy, routine, and scent marking.

Cats must also be protected from social situations that put them under pressure because they can hide their stress to avoid appearing vulnerable. This makes it difficult for owners to know their cat is suffering, as the only signs shown are often non-specific and can be vague, such as sleeping or hiding more. By the time behaviours escalate to a point where their owners notice there is a problem, cats can be already very stressed.

Inappropriate urination: When cats urinate outside of their litter box, it is called inappropriate urination. It’s important not to regard this as ‘naughty’, as it can be the result of a medical problem or a way that your cat is communicating their distress. Stress may be a response to a variety of situations including a change in routine (such as owner absence) or a change to the cat’s living area (such as home extensions), the composition of the household (such as the introduction of a new pet or person), conflict with other cats in the household (or neighbourhood) or excessive contact from humans.

Cats may also urinate inappropriately due to issues with their litter tray such as not liking the litter substrate, the location or cleanliness of the litter tray or because there are not enough trays to ensure their privacy and/or avoid conflict with other cats.

Any cat who starts urinating inappropriately should first be assessed by a veterinarian. Inappropriate urination can be a sign of feline lower urinary tract disease, which can be associated with an underlying medical condition, including serious diseases of the urinary tract and diseases of other body systems that can affect the urinary tract. However, many cases of feline lower urinary tract disease have no identifiable underlying cause (as many as two-thirds of cases), although the signs are very real and can be painful and serious; this is called ‘feline idiopathic cystitis’. Stress can play an important role in feline idiopathic cystitis and, so, managing stress is an important part of the approach.

If your veterinarian has ruled out any specific medical problems that could be causing inappropriate urination, they can advise on stress and behavioural management and may suggest referral to a behavioural specialist. In addition to behavioural and stress management, cats with feline idiopathic cystitis often require medical treatment such as pain relief and a special diet as recommended by your veterinarian.

Please be aware that if your cat is having trouble urinating, they could have a urinary ‘blockage’ – this means the cat cannot urinate properly or at all (signs include straining to urinate without passing urine or without passing a normal stream of urine, with or without vocalisation when urinating) and is a medical emergency. Please see your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your cat could be blocked.

In the meantime, you can help by reducing or eliminating sources of stress, cleaning sprayed areas as recommended by your veterinarian and asking your veterinarian about using a diffuser, which uses pheromones to help reduce anxiety in your cat.

Scratching surfaces: Cats scratch surfaces to sharpen their nails, stretch, exercise, relieve pent up energy and mark their territory. This normal behaviour can become a concern for owners when it damages carpet, woodwork, walls and furnishings. The best way to help avoid conflict due to this behaviour is to provide your cat with a choice of scratching posts and surfaces and train them to become comfortable with claw trimming from an early age. Ideal scratching posts should be rigid enough for your cat to push against, tall enough for them to scratch at full strength and allow them to scratch both horizontal and vertical surfaces. Placing a scratching post near your cat’s bed will encourage them to use it because cats like to stretch and scratch when they wake up.

Scratching surfaces can also be due to anxiety, such as in relation to competition for resources in a multi-cat household. If you suspect your cat’s scratching is anxiety based or if it is widespread throughout the house, you should consult your veterinarian.

Aggression towards people: Cats can become aggressive towards humans for several reasons so one way to establish the cause is to see your veterinarian, who can assess for any underlying medical causes (including pain) and then refer to a veterinary behaviour specialist.

Petting aggression is a normal behaviour and can be very common – this is when your cat appears perfectly happy being petted and then suddenly bites or scratches you because they have reached a threshold and can no longer tolerate petting. The best way to avoid this is not to pressure a cat to be petted and to be alert to the early warning signs, such as a swishing tail, tense body or ears held back. You should allow your cat to initiate any petting, keep petting sessions brief and always respect your cat’s signals that they no longer want to be petted.

Another common type of aggression from cats is play aggression, a normal cat behaviour that can be directed towards owners who continue to engage in play despite the cat displaying signs that they wish to stop, such as biting and clawing behaviour. Cats who display ‘play aggression’ sometimes hide and pounce on their owners without warning. Unfortunately, this behaviour can often been rewarded, so the solution is to retrain your cat by giving them no attention for this behaviour, redirecting their attention to a toy and rewarding calm behaviour.

Daily play periods with your cat that involve toys they can pounce on and stalk will allow them to express these natural behaviours. You can also teach your cat bite and claw-inhibition through positive reinforcement training when they are calm.

Behavioural issues may not be covered by pet insurance, you may wish to consider a policy in case your pet suffers an eligible injury or illness. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will go towards supporting the RSPCA.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.