Dog won't listen? Pet may simply not understand your 'language'

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Dogs

Dogs (Paul Vozdic / Iconica via Getty Images / June 12, 2012)

Q: My dog doesn't listen to me. What should I do? -- G.H., Baltimore, MD

A: If your dog once did listen and no longer does so, see your veterinarian. Obviously, check the dog's hearing, but there could be another health issue. Dog trainer and certified dog behavior consultant Pat Miller, of Fairplay, M.D., says she once had a Pomerian who competed in agility, and suddenly wasn't taking direction. She says, "It turned out this little dog wasn't being stubborn, but had hip dysplasia."

Miller adds, "You need to find out if the message isn't understood by the dog, or if the dog isn't motivated with a reinforcer to comply." In other words, while we assume the dog understands, that's not always the case; or that treat (reinforcer) may not be tasty enough.

Miller, author of "How To Foster Dogs: From Homeless to Homeward Bound," (Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, WA, 2013; $14.95), recommends that you find something fun to do with your dog, and in the process your pup will learn to communicate with you. Examples include organized dog sports like agility (an obstacle for dogs) or nose work (dogs learn to sniff for specific objects).

"Unless there's something physically going with your dog, the responsibility is on your shoulders; your dog is not ignoring you on purpose," Miller says.

Q: One of my cats, George, has started urinating outside the litter box. I wasn't sure at first which cat was the culprit, but now he's done it twice right in front of us. George is about 5 years old. My veterinarian says the problem is behavioral. With three cats, we have three litter boxes. One upstairs, one is in a bathroom on the main level, and the third is in the basement. The cats are littermates and get along famously. In fact, I'm worried that if anything happens to one of them, the others will mourn terribly. They're all indoor cats. What's wrong? -- C.J, Tampa, FL

A: Certified cat behavior consultant Beth Adelman says when a cat urinates right in front of family members, the problem can likely be traced to one of three issues:

1. It hurts to urinate. A medical problem is responsible, such as urinary bladder stores or cystitis.

2. The litter or box is dirty, or the litter brand was suddenly changed and is not to the cat's liking.

3. The cat is scared.

Adelman, of New York City, says to scoop all the litter boxes at least once daily. If you just changed litter brands, revert to the old one. Your litter box placement sounds OK, but ideally with three cats, four litter boxes is preferred.

Cat dislike change. Adelman says she also wonders if you can identify any variation in the household routine, from home construction to a change in your work schedule, even a houseguest. If so, consider toning down your cat's anxiety by using Feliway, a copy of a soothing pheromone. A plug-in diffuser or collar infused with Feliway can help lessen stress.

"Sometimes we think cats are getting along, and mostly they are," says Adelman. "But it might be that one cat is blocking access to the litter box -- on purpose or just because it's when and where he likes to hang out."

Adelman adds, "Sometimes veterinarians make assumptions, I wonder if there was a truly thorough exam, and if blood work was done for this cat."

A certified cat behavior consultant (http://www.iaabc.org) could assess the situation.

Q: We're adopting a dog with heartworm disease from a shelter. He's nearly completed the treatments. What I find odd is that the shelter told us Rudy wasn't the exception, and that a least a quarter of the dogs (at the shelter) have heartworm. I thought that heartworm can be avoided with medication. Why do so many dogs then have heartworm? -- P.S., Cyberspace

A: Dr. Stephen Jones, president of the American Heartworm Society, wonders the same thing. He says you're absolutely right in that "heartworm is a preventable disease. But people need to buy and then use that preventative."

Jones, of Moncks Corner, S.C., notes that 64 percent of dogs (and far more cats) leave veterinary clinics without a heartworm preventative. Most often, it's clients who balk, either complaining about the expense or saying they don't want to use a "drug" (although side effects are exceedingly rare).

Occasionally, veterinarians are guilty themselves, and don't even broach the topic. Or clients refuse the testing for heartworm, which is done before a preventative is dispensed. Some veterinarians refuse to prescribe a preventative if the test is not done.

Some clients do purchase heartworm preventative, but then forget to give it to their pet.

Sadly, too many pet owners never see a veterinarian. Heartworm prevention isn't readily available online or anywhere without a veterinary prescription.

Jones points out that heartworm disease can kill, and prevention in dogs is less expensive than costly, arduous treatment. In cats, there is no treatment, and the only symptom may be sudden death.

"It's a shame so many dogs, particularly in the South (where mosquitoes that spread heartworm are most common), test positive for heartworm," says Jones. "Dogs with heartworm get sick or worse needlessly."

Q: Peaches was always wary of visitors, but over the past few months she seems totally afraid. Any advice? -- B.H., Las Vegas, NV.

A: See your veterinarian, and soon. Cats are adept at hiding illness. Any time a pet changes its behavior for no apparent reason, there is, in fact, a reason. Ruling out a physical problem first makes the most sense.

You didn't mention Peaches' age. Older cats may suffer from an Alzheimer's-like condition.

The problem could have begun inadvertently. Perhaps, for example, a loud noise occurred as a guest was walking in the door, and the cat now associates fear with visitors. You could ask guests to toss treats to your cat, but otherwise ignore Peaches to reverse the negative association.

(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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