Distinguishing normal vs abnormal behaviors in dogs

Publication
Article
dvm360dvm360 September 2023
Volume 54
Issue 9
Pages: 28

Plus, how to address those that are normal but still a nuisance.

At the 2023 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Convention, Valli Parthasarathy, DVM, DACVB, owner of Synergy Veterinary Behavior in Portland, Oregon, informed attendees on her process of determining if a canine behavior is normal or abnormal.1 She also shared what to do when a nuisance behavior—that is technically normal—arises in dogs and how to work with the client to manage it.

Daria17 / stock.adobe.com

Daria17 / stock.adobe.com

There are various factors she considers when categorizing a behavior, including the individual pet, along with its species, age, breed, environment, and health status. Parthasarathy said, “For example, if we have a little puppy that's chewing everything up, that's pretty normal, as opposed to a 9-year-old dog, who suddenly is starting to chew everything up. That’s something that's more abnormal, we need to figure out what's going on.”

Normal nuisance behaviors

According to Parthasarathy, nuisance behaviors to pet parents can be those that are still perfectly natural for the dog but are occurring in a context the human doesn’t like, such as a dog digging in the yard of their freshly mowed lawn. “Something that is a problem for human society or human world, is not necessarily something that's abnormal from a dog’s perspective,” she said.

Because these normal behaviors are still a concern for pet owners, Parthasarathy advises to address them when the pets are young by asking clients if there is something their pet is doing, they rather they wouldn’t. Then if a client says, for example, their dog is doing well with training, but is pulling more on the leash, you can recommend them a trainer and provide them a handout to help them manage the situation in the interim. “Let’s get you matched up with a [trainer], so you can start working on this when he's 15 lbs, so that when he's 100 lbs, he’s not dragging you down the street,” Parthasarathy remarked.

She added that asking clients about nuisance behaviors when their pets are puppies is also an excellent way to learn about any abnormal behaviors. Veterinarians can take note of anything out-of-the-ordinary from the start and figure out the root cause.

Abnormal behaviors

Parthasarathy explained that abnormal behaviors are those considered disproportionately strong or potentially disproportionately strong in relation to a typical member of that signalment. Compared to normal nuisance behaviors, abnormal behaviors are those that may require a higher skilled behavior modification. “These are typically not situations where just the regular obedience class is going to help [the dog],” said Parthasarathy, adding that medical intervention may even be needed. There are also behaviors that can be traditionally normal, but if they become more exaggerated, they could enter the realm of abnormal. This can be a dog chasing his tail, which is considered normal, but if it becomes more intense or destructive this can be abnormal.

When trying to identify if the behavior is abnormal, Parthasarathy considers looking at medical conditions that may be contributing to it. She uses the example of a dog who just started counter surfing and said she would ask herself: could this indicate an increased appetite? Then, she may consider conditions such as Cushing’s disease, or “could we be having some IBD or some other gastrointestinal condition which is causing the dog to feel the need to eat more?” added Parthasarathy. If the dog's behavior is indicating a potential disease, then you can run diagnostics to determine the cause and help the pet manage the condition and mitigate their abnormal behavior.

Reference

Parthasarathy V. Normal but nuisance—dealing with unruly behaviors in dogs. Presented at: AVMA Convention; Denver, Colorado. July 16, 2023.

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