Newly adopted dog may need time to settle in before she becomes playful

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Pet dog

Pet dog (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune / January 7, 2012)

Q: We just adopted what the shelter referred to as a "shepherd-mix," but Gracie is only about 30 pounds. We don't really know if there's any shepherd in her. Gracie is about a year old, though we're not sure about that, either. Our veterinarian says she's healthy. Gracie is very patient with our kids, ages 8 and 14, but she refuses to play with them or with us. She's just really serious. Do some dogs never play? -- K.J., Portland, ME

A: Give Gracie time to settle in. Some newly adopted or rescued dogs will immediately integrate themselves into a family as if they've been there forever. However, most newly adopted pets -- be they dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets or parrots -- take anywhere from a week to a month to truly feel comfortable.

Some newly adopted animals are slow to trust people based on their past experiences. I'm referring primarily to animal abuse, but being given up to a shelter is traumatic enough. And some pets have been given up more than once.

Also, some dogs are more serious. Others simply might not think your idea of a game is especially entertaining. Some dogs don't enjoy fetch, but get really excited about running around the house with a squeaky toy.

If Gracie enjoys treats, you could start with a game of "chase the cookie." Simply toss a morsel along the floor and encourage her to chase it. Hide-and-seek can be fun because this game allows a dog to be a dog. First, offer a treat about six feet in front of Gracie. Once she scarfs it, begin to extend the distance, eventually hiding treats in unexpected places throughout the house.

To help dogs open up and bond better, I'm a fan of organized dog sports, when taught with positive reinforcement. Examples include agility (an obstacle course for dogs) and flyball (a relay race for dogs). Like anything else, of course, some dogs enjoy these activities, some don't.

Q: If our cat had been the goalie in the Minnesota Wild net, we could have made it to the Stanley Cup. I throw pretty hard and I can't get a squishy cat toy past Oliver. Is this cat seriously special? -- S.H., Saint Paul, MN

A: I can believe your cat is speedy, indeed, but so are all felines. Their reflexes are quicker than ours. Also, even with a feline in the net, the Wild was bound to lose its playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks. But then, you're writing to a Chicago-based columnist!

Q: Could our dog truly be afraid of his own shadow? -- F.J., Hartford, CT

A: Sure. This behavior may not be rooted in fear, however. There might be an ophthalmological issue involved. Dogs can't tell us when they're seeing double, experiencing floaters in the eye, or seeing shadows. Also, the fear may (or may not) be solely the result of compromised vision.

If your dog seems especially nervous or fearful, you may want to seek professional help. Consider contacting a veterinary behaviorist (http://www.dacvb.org) or a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior (http://www.avsabonline.org).

Q: Even since I began traveling for work, our cats have been upset with me. I know this because they urinate outside the litter box when I'm gone. My husband tells me that when I leave Ranger and Tonto, they also mope around. What should I do? -- G.O., Tampa, FL

A: There are many possible explanations for your cats' indiscretions, but spite is not one of them.

Cats don't like change, and it may simply be that the change in your schedule upsets them. While it's quite plausible that they miss your presence, Ranger and Tonto have no way to rationalize that "If I pee outside the box, she'll stop traveling." More likely, they're anxious as a result of your new hours, and unhappy about not seeing you.

A pair of tools which can help ease anxiety are Anxitane (L-theanine, a green tea extract) and Feliway (a copy of a calming pheromone). Also, play is a great stress-buster. When you're gone, ask your husband to use an interactive (fishing pole-type toy with feathers or fabric) to play with the cats a couple times a day. He could even do this between TV shows; cats do fine with five-minute play sessions.

It's also possible the problem is more complex. Perhaps one or both cats had an underlying medical or behavior problem before your schedule changed, and the new stress has unmasked the issue.

For example, perhaps one cat has hyperthyroid disease or is diabetic, but still managed to hit the box. Now that the cat is more anxious now, he can't hold it together any longer. With one cat stressed, and thinking outside the box, it's not unusual for the second to follow. Anytime there's a change in a pet's behavior, a veterinary visit is wise.

Another possibility: The cats weren't getting along so great, but still managed to cope. Now, the added stress is just too much. Aggression in cats may be obvious, but it can also be so subtle that pet owners don't notice. Litter box location may exascerbate these issues.

It's also possible the problem is incredibly simple, such as the litter boxes not being scooped often enough. Also, note I said "boxes." With two cats, three litter boxes (located in three different rooms) is ideal.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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