Think you know your pet’s every unspoken wish? Think again.
Your pet is unlikely to be capable of communicating her wants and needs in ways you might assume she would. Even those of you most in touch with your pets’ feelings are likely missing a few cues here and there.
As a veterinarian, I’m more than aware of some of those communication gaps. It’s not as if I’m perfect in assessing my own pets’ thoughts and feelings (ain’t none of us perfect), but as someone who works on the front lines of animal health care, I can usually spot interpretation mismatches pretty quickly (in others, anyway).
With that prelude in mind, here’s my top 10 list of things your pet won’t tell you:
- I hurt. Pain is probably the No. 1 thing your pet won’t communicate directly. Sure, she may limp, chew funny or shake her head, but whining, crying and carrying on (like we humans would) isn’t her MO. Slowing down, taking the stairs more tentatively, being reluctant to jump and struggling to rise are more than likely signs of true pain — not just “old age.”
- I’m scared. When pets get aggressive, owners often assume their pets are acting out because they’re being dominant, angry or just pain bratty. But the truth is often much simpler: They may be just plain scared. And fear must be dealt with differently — far more carefully — than other kinds of aggression. It calls for the assistance of a certified trainer or veterinary behaviorist.
- I’m pissed off. I know it’s a vulgar thing to say, but there you have it. Cats, especially, are prone to getting PO’ed when things don’t go their way. While there can certainly be an underlying medical condition behind litterbox avoidance, it can also be a sign of pent-up resentments in kitties, especially if they don’t agree with your choice of litter or have a bone to pick with the litterbox cleaning schedule.
- I resent my housemate. Both dogs and cats can be jealous creatures. And cats are extraordinarily territorial by nature. But the signs that things are amiss between dogs and dogs or cats and cats can be incredibly subtle. So subtle that you’ll easily miss them — until it’s too late, of course, and altercations ensue. It’s another instance where a certified trainer or veterinary behaviorist might be in order.
- I need to lose weight. If there’s one subject most owners tend to overlook, it’s obesity. In fact, most of my clients are shocked when I tell them their pets are easily 20 to 50 percent overweight.
Now, your pets may not want to eat less, but they certainly don’t want to feel the effects that excess poundage brings.
- I need more exercise. This is a corollary to No. 5, but it deserves its own line item on this list. That’s because dogs and cats who get regular exercise are not only leaner, they also tend to be happier. Promoting exercise is a key goal of environmental enrichment, after all.
- I’m sick. As with pain, dogs and cats are masters of masquerade when it comes to illness. Cats are especially proficient at this kind of obfuscation. Indeed, unless you’re really, really careful about watching their every move (appetite and litterbox activities, especially), you might not catch a critical issue until it’s well under way.
- I need to be socialized. It’s not just puppies; cats need to be socialized, too. In fact, poor socialization is the No. 1 reason pets become fearful. (Abuse is a far less common cause for fear aggression, but it’s one many pet owners mistakenly assume is to blame.)
Trouble is, the socialization window for pets is both early and brief. Ask a certified pet trainer or veterinary behaviorist how socialization is best accomplished.
- I need a professional trainer. Training is not just for puppies! And training is not just for dogs who misbehave. Training is forever. Ideally through a certified trainer who can hook you up with Canine Good Citizen or therapy pet status and other niceties, including training for athletic endeavors, if your pet is so inclined. Not only is it intellectually stimulating, it’s also great for your relationship with your pet.
Now, training your cat? That’s a whole ’nother story — but it’s possible.
- I need pet insurance! Pet insurance is a must! Without pet insurance, you might not be able to do what’s best for your pets. Consider my recent bill at the board-certified veterinary dentist: Would you be able to pay $6,000 for two root canals? Most of you wouldn’t. Hate to say it, but some owners might leave their dogs in pain or simply extract teeth that have an important function (for $1,500-$2,000) if they couldn’t afford it. Sad, right?
But if pet health insurance will happily pay 90 percent of that bill, why not take out a policy?
OK, so that’s my list. Have any extra oft-misunderstood pet signals to share?
By Dr. Patty Khuly