Speakers explore the ups and downs of pet keeping

AAHA sessions delve into the human-animal bond, dog and cat behavior problems
Published on May 16, 2009
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People have kept pets for millennia, but that long history doesn't mean owners always know how to handle behavior problems in their cats and dogs.

Youngster with petsThe human-animal bond and pets' behavior problems were the focus of a number of sessions during the recent meeting of the American Animal Hospital Association, March 26-29 in Phoenix.

The speakers discussed subjects that ranged from therapy animals to the one-health concept to aggressive, anxious, and attention-seeking behaviors in dogs and cats.

Human-animal bond 

A series of sessions on the human-animal bond examined the concept of people keeping pets, types of animal-assisted activities, and connections between human and animal health. 

Most Americans now own at least one cat or dog, said James Serpell, PhD, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Serpell said several myths exist about pet keeping—including the idea that it is a modern, Western phenomenon or fad. He cited examples of pets in art from ancient Egypt and Greece. Another myth is that pet keeping is a product of material affluence. Dr. Serpell countered that native Amazonians and Aborigines keep pets.

A third myth is that pet keeping is a symptom of social pathology—because it encourages people to give affection to pets rather than people. Dr. Serpell believes pets are good for people, though. He cited several studies of the benefits of pets to human health, including greater social interaction and lower stress.

"The presence of pets is associated with a sort of de-arousal," Dr. Serpell said.

The second speaker, Ann R. Howie, began integrating animals into her counseling practice more than two decades ago. She also works with the Delta Society, which seeks to improve human health through therapy and service animals.

Howie said therapy animals not only visit hospitals and nursing homes but also assist in activities that range from physical rehabilitation to mental health treatment. Howie encouraged veterinarian involvement in animal-assisted programs to help protect the health of participating animals and humans.

Lawrence Norvell, president of the Delta Society, spoke about the ways in which therapy animals and household pets can benefit human health. Having a dog might encourage a person to exercise more, for example.

More exercise also could benefit the dog's health. Human and animal health interconnect in many situations, said Dr. Lynne A. White-Shim, an assistant director in the AVMA Scientific Activities Division. Smoking cessation, for example, can improve pets' health.

Dr. White-Shim provided an overview of the One Health Initiative—which aims to foster interdisciplinary approaches to improving human, animal, and ecosystem health. The One Health Initiative Task Force, involving the AVMA and other organizations, laid the groundwork for the establishment of a One Health Commission in the near future.

"The task force really felt that 'one health' is world health through collaboration," Dr. White-Shim said.

She said veterinarians can help protect the health of pets and people in areas ranging from zoonotic disease to disaster preparedness. 

Dog and cat behavior

Despite the connections between humans and animals, people sometimes need help with pets' behavior problems. Dr. Debra F. Horwitz, a past president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, shared her expertise and experience during several sessions at the AAHA meeting. 

Dr. Horwitz, who has a behavior referral practice in St. Louis, emphasized meeting animals' needs and reinforcing desirable behaviors. She suggested being very cautious with punishment, and she advised against trying to control dogs through dominance.

Separately, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has issued similar statements on punishment and dominance. In 2007, the AVSAB came out with the position that punishment is not appropriate as a first-line or early-use treatment for behavior problems. In 2008, the AVSAB expressed concern with the re-emergence of dominance theory.

"Dogs know that we aren't dogs," Dr. Horwitz said during her presentation on human-directed canine aggression. Confrontational training actually can elicit aggression, she said, and force is not necessary to control dogs. People do need to learn how to read canine body language for signs of anxiety and aggression so they can respond appropriately.

Dr. Horwitz said biting behavior is rarely curable but is often controllable. Owners of aggressive dogs should avoid the dogs' triggers. If triggers are unavoidable, another home may be safer—but rehoming aggressive dogs can be risky.

For fearful dogs, the best solution is prevention. Dr. Horwitz advised exposing puppies to novel situations frequently while controlling the intensity of the experience. Providing a complex environment also is helpful.

For a dog that is already fearful of a situation, exposing the dog to the situation over and over again can increase the fear. Instead, Dr. Horwitz said, the owner should control the intensity of the experience and reward the dog with treats for staying calm at each level of intensity.

In her talk on "Fractious Felines," Dr. Horwitz summarized how to read cats' body language for signs of aggression. When a cat becomes aggressive with housemates, she said, the owner should isolate the cat until it is calm. Then the owner should reintroduce the cat very slowly to its housemates.

"People often get another cat without thinking that their cat might not want another cat," Dr. Horwitz added, which can create a problem in integrating the newcomer into the home.

Besides aggression and anxiety, Dr. Horwitz said, attention-seeking behaviors can become problematic in pets. To decrease an attention-seeking behavior, the owner must learn not to respond—either positively or negatively. The owner should teach the pet appropriate ways to earn attention.

During her presentations, Dr. Horwitz noted that cats' and dogs' needs aren't always the same as the needs of their humans. A pet might desire more space and separation between themselves and other pets or people in the house. Then again, a pet might need more social interaction—just like a person.