Have you ever asked yourself, “Why does my pet do that?” The reasons why pets do what they do and behave the way they do will always have a function, whether we understand it or not!
Reasons, Emotions and Needs Behind Pets’ Behaviors
Behavior is a complex subject, and when we examine our pet’s behavior, there are many factors to consider, such as:
- Physical health – pain, disease, hormones, age, and general health
- Genetic – species, breed, breeding lines, hereditary
- Temperament – personality, breed type
- History – socialization, early life experience, abuse and neglect
- Mental function – neurological problems, stress, arousal
- Environment – context
- Emotions – overall mood, positive or negative feelings
- Learning history – positive or negative consequences
Today, we’ll look at two of these to help you understand why your pets do what they do: learning and emotions, and how they’re linked.
Until recently, we assumed that behavior was only motivated by negative or positive consequences – what happened to the animal after it’d ‘done the thing’; what it was trying to get or achieve by doing something. And to some extent, that’s true, but there is another very important factor behind behavior, and that is how it is driven by emotion.
“Emotion Drives Behavior”
But what exactly does that mean?
It means that nearly all of your pet’s behavior has an emotional component. They are sentient beings, and their emotions influence how they behave. Pets are constantly striving to move into a state of comfort and pleasure and away from things that cause them fear, discomfort, or pain.
Here are some examples of common problem behaviors we see in pets, as well as possible explanations for why they do them.
Growling and Aggressive Behavior
Animals have a fight or flight response and will often choose to flee rather than engage in an altercation, but if they can’t, they will use aggression to get the ‘thing’ to leave them alone.
Growling behavior is intended to increase distance. It usually happens because the animal is distressed and wants the threat to leave. This behavior is driven by a negative emotion, most often fear.
When the animal growls, the thing that is scaring him or her usually disappears; if this occurs, relief is felt, and the animal will do it again because it had a positive outcome. If this tactic fails, the animal may escalate to more aggressive behavior; lunging, snapping, biting.
This is a common behavior issue in cats, as well as in dogs. Urination provides a sense of relief and is commonly observed when the animal is stressed or has a problem with the surface or substrate they are using.
Chewing is a normal behavior for many dogs, especially puppies, but it is not typical for most cats. Destructive chewing in dogs is a problem for many pet owners.
Chewing stimulates the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain and is an excellent stress reliever. If your dog is destructive chewing, it’s likely that they aren’t feeling well emotionally and are using chewing to help them feel better. When the owner goes out, we frequently see destructive chewing, which can be a sign that the dog is not coping at home alone, i.e. they may have separation anxiety.
So all of these behavioral issues have an emotional basis; the animal was experiencing a negative emotion and acted in a certain way to make themselves feel better, which has a positive outcome or consequence for the animal. Can you see it now?
If you’re experiencing a problem with your pet, seek out the help of a behavior consultant; they should always carry out an emotional assessment of your animal when working with them.
And if you’re wondering, ‘Why does my pet do that?’ perhaps instead ask the question, ‘What is my pet feeling?’ it often tells us a lot more.
About the Author
Petrina Firth is a Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behaviorist of over 10 years who now mainly specializes in Separation Anxiety (CSAT) and also creates content, lessons and articles for the Zigzag puppy training app and website. Petrina is a member of the Pet Professional Guild, the head of marketing and board member for the APDT UK, and a member of the CAPBT committee. She is also a tech and gadget enthusiast who enjoys city living with her rescue French Bulldog and partner.
Zigzag* is a puppy training app with a difference, rather than focusing solely on obedience we take puppy guardians on a journey through Life Skills and important developmental stages, to hopefully give them happy, confident and well-behaved puppies, with an understanding that puppies and dogs aren’t robots, they have big feelings, and that’s ok!
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