Questions for animal behaviorist Meghan Herron
A veterinarian who specializes in understanding and changing animal behavior answers your questions about your pets’ less endearing habits.
Meghan Herron entered college thinking she’d become a zoo veterinarian who treated wild animals. Instead, she discovered a passion for taming the wilder sides of our at-home companion animals.
At Ohio State, she pursues interests in teaching, practicing and outreach as a clinical associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences. She spends a lot of time and energy preparing future veterinarians to treat the problems in pets that can’t necessarily be solved with medication or surgery.
As more of us adopt rescue and shelter animals, we’re sharing our lives with more pets that weren’t conditioned to trust humans or live happily with us. The good news is, veterinarians such as Herron can help. “The human-animal bond is incredible today. People say, ‘Maybe I can work on this. Maybe I can find a way to keep this dog,’” she says.
Our 4-year-old bulldog Lulu was rescued from a puppy mill. She walks well on a leash but crouches and shakes when she hears sudden noises. At night, when she is alone in the kitchen, she plays with toys and barks at our other dog. If she catches us watching her, she freezes and runs back to her bed. It feels like we are her captors instead of her family. How can we help her adjust? — Heather Jepsen ’13
Poor Lulu! The life of a puppy-mill dog is often stressful. Since she likely wasn’t living in a home environment, the sounds of doors closing and people talking or knocking are foreign and frightening. The socialization period in dogs is 3 to 12 weeks of age. This means they need to have pleasant interactions with people, dogs, objects, sounds and environments before they are 3 months old. If this exposure is lacking, a dog’s brain doesn’t consolidate the positive memories needed to not feel fear later in life.
She needs to be convinced that you and your home are safe. Let her have her space in the kitchen and never force her to come out of it before she is ready. See if you can find a delicious food item that she can’t refuse. Start to associate your presence with that bit of food by tossing it in her direction without looking at her anytime you pass that area in the kitchen. If you do this several times a day, she will start to perk up when she hears you coming into the kitchen. If this works well, try sitting in a chair at the other end of the kitchen and toss one bit of food to her at a time. Over time you can move closer to her until eventually, she may be willing to take food from your hand. Once she is willing to do this, you can work on looking at her while she takes the treat and eventually talking to her and someday petting her, starting with under the chin scratches while she takes her treat. If this works, you can use this technique in other areas of the house.
Eight years ago, we adopted a feral cat that lived in the vet’s office. He has always been skittish with us, and the cat runs anytime our toddler gets near him. He sleeps next to me every night, but until we go to bed, he sits there and meows. He’s driving us crazy. What can we do? — Silvia Slivo ’00
Most feral cats didn’t socialize with humans when they were kittens, making it hard for them to trust people, even those who love them. He is meowing to communicate something. My guess is he feels safest when you are lying down, sleeping, when he doesn’t feel at risk of being picked up or petted.
See if you can find other means of showing your affection. This might be tossing toys for him or giving him catnip. Skittish cats also appreciate high vantage points — especially when a toddler is around. You also could try lying on the floor or couch. Put a few treats around you and see if he takes up the offer to approach. Maybe a chance to safely be close to you at other times of the day would help settle the meowing.
Our Chihuahua-dachshund mix rescue dog has decided she likes to eat her own feces. She has never done this before, and we have had her for three years. Why do dogs do this, and how can we stop it? — Robert Bevilacqua ’85
Poop-eating (coprophagy) is one of the most unpleasant and frustrating behaviors our pooches can offer. Have there been any diet changes recently or an attempt to cut calories so that she can lose a few pounds? The popular grain-free, high-protein diets do tend to create tastier stools. If you have not changed her food or recently reduced her caloric intake, the next step would be to have a stool sample checked for parasites. Hookworms in particular can decrease a dog’s ability to absorb proper nutrients after eating, and this can sometimes trigger them to eat their own stools to compensate. In rarer cases, medical problems can trigger the behavior, so blood tests may be warranted.
Now that she has learned there is a treat to look forward to after she poops, it may be a habit, even if you do end up finding and changing the root cause. To break this habit, teach her to look forward to the treat offered in front of her. As soon as she finishes, call her to you for the treat. This will get her away from her poop and close to you for the reward.
You also can try adding chunks of pineapple or sprinkling powdered meat tenderizer on her food to make her poop less palatable.