Pets do strange, cute, funny, confusing things sometimes. Maybe your dog spins around when you turn on the vacuum. Or your cat chews on socks when someone knocks at the door.
If you own a pet, odds are good you’ve seen … odd behaviors. But you might not always know why they do it. You may not even think about it. But you should.
“When we see those types of behaviors, we have to ask ourselves, is our pet facing a negative stressor in that situation?” said Dr. M. Leanne Lilly, assistant professor of veterinary behavior medicine at Ohio State. “If your emotional response is either “meh,” or “this is great,” you’re often not going to see those types of behaviors. But we can use those behaviors to say, maybe my pet’s not as OK as I thought.”
These behaviors may have been on display especially during the past few months if you’ve been working from home during the COVID-19 lockdowns. They may even crop up again when you return to work.
So what exactly is going on here?
Pets can take on displacement or out-of-context behaviors to cope with stressors.
Those anxieties can show up as lip licking, jumping, hiding, mounting, yawning, pacing, chewing, scratching or any number of out-of-context behaviors – such as a dog scratching his or her left shoulder when you say “be right back,” a behavior one of Lilly’s students’ dogs exhibited without fail.
“Right now, when many of us are at home, there’s the question of, did my dog always do this when I wasn’t home and I’m just now seeing it? Or is it a new behavior,” Lilly said. “Of course, these can also be signs of illness. So we need to be careful that if we see a behavior change, we’re at least asking these questions.”
If it’s not a physical illness, what could be causing the stress?
Your dog may not love the sound of the neighbor’s lawnmower. Your cockatiel may not enjoy a knock at the door. Your cat may not enjoy your sudden 24/7 presence.
“For a lot of cats, sometimes it’s the presence of other cats outside,” Lilly said. “If your dog is not the type of dog who wants to go to the dog park and meet every single dog on the planet, or they’re hearing more dogs outside, they may be doing more panting, more pacing, more lip licking.”
It may not be other animals, though – it may be us. Schedule changes, a massive increase in snuggling, incessant loads of laundry could irk your pet into new nervous tics to keep an eye out for.
If you ignore them, they could become long-term problems.
Repetitive displacement behaviors can hurt your pet. Spinning, pacing, digging and chewing aren't always safe for them.
“Some portion of pets who start these behaviors when they’re stressed, or in response to anxiety, seem to be susceptible to become emancipated from that stressor and then they become compulsive behaviors,” Lilly said. “It’s certainly a concern if you tell me your dog started chasing its tail in response to playing tag when it was four months of age, but now it will spin and chase its tail to the exclusion of actually eating dinner.”
So, what can you do?
First, identify the stressor. If the stressor is something you can avoid, avoid it. If it’s not, such as going back to work or taking a shower, address it.
Maybe start leaving every morning around your normal departure time to prepare them for your return to work. Or when a distressing noise – the shower, the lawnmower, other animals – happens, get them a toy to take their focus.
“It’s all about finding out their motivation and working to change it,” Lilly said.
If your efforts don’t work or you can’t find the stressor itself, look to other resources. Lilly recommends Decoding your Dog (Decoding your Cat is due out this summer). However, it’s always best to see a professional.
“I always tell people, if you’re asking yourself whether or not you should ask your vet, the answer is you should ask,” Lilly said. “We would much rather take a phone call or see a pet who turns out nothing is wrong than see you in crisis.”