Just like humans, our furry friends can suffer from a range of pet mental health disorders. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is running a month-long campaign in March – Polite Pets Month – to help owners address behaviour issues in pets.

The theme is phobias and anxiety disorders and the notion that ‘mental health is important for pets’. Pets4Life asks expert animal behaviourist, Dr Joanne Righetti about pet mental health, what is ‘good behaviour’ and the steps new pet owners should take to ensure a happy, well-adjusted pet.

Pets4Life:  What are the signs of an unhappy dog and an unhappy cat?

Dr Joanne Righetti

Dr Joanne Righetti and Chilli. Photo: Supplied

Dr Jo: Dogs and cats cannot tell us that they are unhappy but there are clues from their behaviour and appearance. Unhappy animals will tend to become lethargic, may sleep a lot and generally become uninterested in events that would normally excite them. Your dog’s tail may be held low, between their legs and they may not be as responsive to your commands. Cats will tend to ignore you – more than they usually do! This can also be a sign of illness so a vet check is advisable.

Pets4Life: Is a happy pet a well-behaved pet?

Dr Jo: This depends on your pet’s personality and your interpretation of their behaviour. On occasion, you may find that your pet reacts more actively when unhappy. For instance, if your dog or cat is bored and looking for stimulation they may pull washing off the line, dig up your garden or climb your curtains. A dog that wants to engage you in games may be fun but one who barks at the drop of a leaf is rarely appreciated.

Pets4Life: What is good dog behaviour and good cat behaviour?

Dr Jo: ‘Good’ behaviour is a matter of interpretation and owners tend to think of an animal as well-behaved when it is doing what they want.  True good dog and good cat behaviour is behaviour that is advantageous for their species. Instinctively animals will look after their own needs. This is why your dog raids garbage bins. They are trying to satisfy their need to find food, not your need for a tidy house. Satisfy their needs and you will see better behaviour. For instance, instead of raiding garbage bins, allow your dog to ‘hunt’ for food by placing treats and food in a food-releasing toy.

Owners often do not realise that, if we wish our pets to behave a certain way, then we need to teach them or at least reinforce desired behaviours. For instance, if your dog jumps up visitors coming through your door, this is advantageous for the dog as they get attention but is unwanted by humans. We need to teach them an acceptable ‘good’ behaviour such as a calm sit or perhaps to fetch a toy.

Pets4Life: Thousands of dogs and cats are surrendered to the pound every year for many reasons including behavioural problems from poor pet mental health.  Where does it go wrong for pet owners?

Pet mental health

Pet mental health. ‘Mayhem’ (photo: Felicity Bremner)

Dr Jo: There are many reasons that pets are surrendered and unwanted behaviours are certainly one of the main reasons. There are also many reasons that owners cannot change unwanted behaviours. Perhaps they have not understood their pet or have been unsuccessful in their attempts to change their pet’s behaviour or perhaps they are simply not bonded enough to their pet to try. Not every behaviour problems can be cured but we can always work towards better management and a reduction in unwanted behaviour, hopefully with an increase in desired activities. Owners need to seek help and realise that no problem is too big, too small or too embarrassing to be discussed. They also need a lot of patience!

Pets4Life: What steps should a new pet owner take when they bring home a new cat or doggie to keep them happy and well behaved?

Dr Jo: The most important steps include:

  1. Careful introductions to the home and its inhabitants, both humans and animal. Let the new animal get to know their home, room by room and introduce to other pets gradually and in a positive manner, using food, treats, praise and pats to motivate.
  2. Socialise your new puppy or kitten by introducing them to many different experiences in life, making each introduction as positive as possible. Experiences include people, animals, vehicles, events such as parties, thunderstorms, cameras etc.
  3. Teach your pet how you would like them to behave. This means training your dog – and cat (yes – they can be trained!) Every time they do something you like, reward them with your praise, a pat, a treat or a toy.
  4. Problems will arise, this is almost inevitable in any relationship. Be prepared to seek help and to work towards a resolution.
  5. Enjoy your pet!

( Dr Jo has a socialisation chart on her website www.petproblemsolved.com.au that new puppy and kitten owners can download plus lots of information on solving pet behaviour problems.)