About Cat and Dog Behaviour
We interact with dogs and cats in our care in many ways, including basic daily care, restraint for veterinary care, and training. Dogs and cats communicate with us through their body language and it is important to be able to understand this language. Understanding animal behaviour can help to prevent injury and unnecessary stress for both animals and their caretakers. Using our understanding of animal behaviour helps us provide low stress environments, care, and training. What example of animal handling, training or other interactions illustrates your own best practice?
Understanding Dog and Cat Body Language
Before working with or interacting with an animal, it is important to understand basic animal body language. This allows us to recognize how the animal is feeling. Not only does this keep us safe by allowing us to avoid potentially aggressive behaviour, it also increases animal welfare by ensuring that we are not causing fear, anxiety, or stress.
Review the following resources for an overview of dog and cat body language:
Basic Body Language Charts (Dr. Sophia Yin and Lili Chin)
Dog Body Language 101 (Fear Free Happy Homes)
Understanding Dog Behaviour While Handling (Dogs Trust)
Cat Body Language 101 (Fear Free Happy Homes)
Dogs behave in ways that are consistent with their innate tendencies. All dogs sniff, bark, chase, dig, and play to some degree. Different breeds of dogs have characteristics and behaviours that are a result of selective breeding. For example, terriers were bred to dig and hounds to sniff out scents. Therefore, it is important to understand the unique nature of different dog breeds.
Dogs are social animals and want regular contact with their owners or familiar people. They can suffer when they are kept in social isolation. Dogs spend much of their time resting. However, they require physical and social stimulation, including play, during their active period in order to develop and behave normally. Social contact with other dogs and people is extremely important to them.
Dogs can learn at any age and should be trained to interact in ways that are safe and enjoyable for both the dog and human.
Like other animals, dogs behave better in environments that are predictable and consistent. Aggression is a normal behaviour intended to create distance between the animal and a perceived threat.
Aggressive behaviour can include:
- teeth baring
- snapping at the air
- biting that makes contact with the threat
- loud, rapid barks.
Aggressive behaviour can have serious consequences for health, safety and welfare if it is excessive or prolonged.
Anyone who works with dogs has a responsibility to understand and respond to the behavioral responses of the animal.
Aggressive behaviour is usually a last resort when an animal feels stressed, frustrated, or threatened. Aggression can result from the animal feeling a threat to their personal safety or the threat of removal of a highly valued toy or food. An aggressive response can also be caused when the dog is prevented from doing something she or he really wants to do. Painful health conditions can also cause a dog to behave aggressively.
Aggressive behaviour can be triggered by situations, such as:
- Feeding or cleaning that frustrates or frightens animals.
- Contact with unfamiliar individuals.
- Lack of visibility, especially where dogs can hear activity, but not see what is happening.
- Lack of space or resources and/or competition for these.
There are typically many behavioural signs leading up to a dangerous, aggressive response, which dog handlers should be watchful of. You can view a diagram of behaviours that signal a progression towards aggression here.
Many of the instances in which dogs feel threatened and may display aggression is during restraint. We may need to restrain a dog for routine medical care, examination, or to transport a dog. Dogs should be carried gently with minimal restraint, but in a way that allows the handler to increase the amount of restraint if necessary.
Before restraining dogs, strategies can be used to make them more comfortable. The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association recommends the following approaches:
- “Crouch down so that you are on their level. Do not sit on the ground as you will be unable to move away or protect yourself if necessary.
- Avoid direct eye contact but maintain safe visual contact with the animal.
- Talk in soothing tones. Avoid high-pitched, excited talk.
- Try patting your leg or the ground, motioning the animal towards you.”
Excerpt obtained from "Animal Handling and Restraint", Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
What does the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Kennels say about acceptable strategies for handling dogs?
Kennel caregivers can train dogs to enjoy handling and be at ease with restraint through positive reinforcement. The approach taken may differ based on the dog’s experiences and reaction to handling and may involve conditioning, counter-conditioning, and desensitization. The best method of handling provides the least restraint required to allow the specific procedure(s) to be performed properly. It will minimize fear, pain, stress, and suffering for the animal, and protect both the dog and personnel from harm. Handling and restraining in a confrontational or forceful manner can lead to serious physical and psychological consequences for dogs. The physical limitations placed on an animal can transform the animal’s experience of stress into distress.
- Use positive-reinforcement methods for routine handling and restraint.
- The method of handling provides the least restraint required to allow the specific procedure(s) to be performed properly. It will minimize fear, pain, stress, and suffering for the animal, and protect both the dog and personnel from harm.
Daily gentle handling of puppies gradually increases their plasticity and ability to adapt to change and stress. Improperly socialized dogs are fearful of humans.”
A significant proportion of dogs for which owners request euthanasia have exhibited behavioural problems unacceptable to the owner or the community in which they live.
It is difficult to identify inherited breed behavioural problems and; therefore, such problems may often be unidentified.
Veterinarians may observe behavioural problems that appear to be directly related to the genetic predispositions of selected breeding animals. Aggressive behaviours, especially biting and excessive barking, are some of the problem areas. Dog breeders must understand these undesirable behavioural patterns and should carefully screen their breeding stock and offspring.
Behaviour towards people is extremely important. Dogs that bark excessively, hide at the back of the pen, refuse to come to regular attendants, or demonstrate aggressive tendencies when approached are not likely to socialize well with people, and should not be bred.
Unsocialized dogs are fearful of people, may be more likely to bite if they feel stressed, and are more difficult to handle and control. Early exposure of puppies to people (socialization) greatly influences the future acceptability of the animal in a home setting. Daily socialization must be a regular component of every kennel operation and breeding program.
“Puppies are born with certain innate temperament traits. The degree to which these behaviours are displayed is determined by genetics, environmental factors including positive or negative experiences, and socialization.
Prevention of undesirable breed traits being passed to offspring begins with the selection of the sire and dam. Many tests exist for temperament evaluation and may be useful to the breeder for detecting problem behaviours. Temperament traits to be tested for include aggressiveness, excitableness, fearfulness, anxiousness, and playfulness.
Responsible dog breeders are aware and knowledgeable of potentially undesirable behaviours, and they will carefully screen their breeding stock and offspring to eliminate problem behaviours from the gene pool.”
“Studies have shown that animals raised in an enriched environment are able to learn and retain more information. These animals are also more stable and cope with and recover from frightening or stimulating situations more effectively. The results of positive and varying stimuli in the environment are smarter, and more interactive and trainable dogs.
Caregivers can provide enrichment for dogs through regular play, and by exposing dogs to various outdoor and indoor settings, toys, training, exercise, and affection. Dogs are social animals and benefit from social interaction with their own species and/or with humans. There are many sources available on suitable enrichment for dogs. Failure to provide enrichment can lead to development of boredom, anxiety, insecurity, and destructive behaviours. This can eventually lead to the development of stereotypic behaviours, such as excessive grooming or repetitive pacing. A stimulus-rich environment includes interactive toys, tunnels, steps, and obstacle courses that are constantly changing. New games and training challenges keep the puppies and adults stimulated, learning, problem solving, and promotes self-confidence.
- When placing dogs in homes, evaluate the behaviour of dogs and ensure the home is suited to their personality and behavioural traits. Explain to potential owners the behaviour characteristics of the dog of interest before sale or exchange.
- Socialization and humane-training plans that expose dogs of all ages to positive experiences are in place and readily available for review. These plans teach the development of confidence and trust; and do not expose dogs to negative experiences that result in fear, pain, injury, or illness.
- Humans who interact with dogs of all ages ensure their clothing, hands, and feet are clean in order to minimize the risk of disease transmission to dogs.
- Starting at birth, caregivers handle puppies gently on a daily basis.
- Puppies between three and eight weeks of age receive a minimum of 20 minutes twice a day of socialization with humans. Some of this time is spent with each puppy individually.
- Dogs and puppies older than eight weeks of age receive a minimum of 30 minutes per day of contact with other compatible dogs, and at least 30 minutes per day of direct contact with humans.
- Puppies between eight and 12 weeks are exposed to experiences outside the kennel environment, including leash walking, car rides, and positive veterinary visits.
- Daily enrichment is provided to dogs. Enrichment includes play, exposing dogs to various outdoor and indoor settings, toys, training, exercise, and affection. The type of enrichment tools and length of exposure will vary greatly depending on the age and temperament of the dog.
- Seek professional help from veterinarians and trained behaviourists as quickly as possible if undesirable behaviours develop.
- Ensure dogs to be sold to new owners are well-adapted socially, do not display aggression or maladaptive fear, and readily display personality traits suited to possible future environments.
- Begin early reward-based training programs at the kennel and encourage new owners to continue training the dog in its new environment.
- Habituate and/or socialize dogs with other animals of the same and other species when compatible and safe to do so.
- Habituate dogs to various environmental stimuli outside the kennel.
- Expose dogs to humans of varied age, gender, size, and dressed in varied attire.
- Expose puppies to small daily changes in their enriched environment. The level of change and challenge is increased as the puppies grow older.
- Provide adult dogs with challenges that promote learning and self-confidence.”
Excerpts obtained from the Code of Practice for Kennel Operations (3rd Edition, 2018), Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
Cat owners who understand the animal’s behaviour can apply this knowledge for more effective and less stressful handling and transportation. Cats can often be better handled if they are socialized with other cats, the people around them and their living environments. However, like dogs, aggressive behaviors are a normal part of the behavioral repertoire. Cats may display aggression in the form of:
- hunched body posture
- flattened ears and flared whiskers
You can read more about the body language signals leading up to an escalated aggressive response here.
By watching for and understanding the signs leading up to a dangerous, aggressive behaviour, cat handlers can avoid causing undue stress to the cat.
Cats often need to be handled and restrained for grooming and veterinary procedures. This can be stressful for cats and result in aggression. Cats should be carried gently with minimal restraint, but in a way that allows the handler to increase the amount of restraint if necessary. Use positive reinforcement to make handling a pleasant experience for the cat.
You can learn about safe, low stress ways to handle and restrain cats from Foote & Friends.
Cats should be provided with opportunities to be socialized.
Behavioural Needs of Cats
What does the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Catteries say about providing for the behavioral needs of cats?
“The physical and mental well-being of domestic cats in confined facilities is greatly improved in an environment where the cats can express a wide range of normal feline behaviours. The cats must be allowed to engage in as many species-typical activities as possible.
Socialization is a response to learned behaviour. The ability to become sociable differs from cat to cat and may relate to genetic or family dispositions. However, any cat raised in isolation or deprived of sufficient contact with animals of its own kind will develop abnormal social behaviour. Auditory socialization should be provided in breeding facilities. Kittens should be exposed to household sounds such as toilets flushing, vacuum cleaners and doorbells to prepare them for home life.
Social relationships develop within the first two months of a cat’s life. Following this time period, cats need continued socialization with other cats.
Most social bonds between cats occur between adults and juveniles with the strongest bonds occurring between family members and between females.
Social hierarchies develop within a group of cats. Aggressive behaviour can be minimized by providing sufficient housing area and adequate structures for hiding and seclusion. Independent of the housing system, cats should be given the chance to interact with other cats daily.
Visual and olfactory contact is important for cat-to-cat interaction. Cats communicate with each other through scent marking, a behaviour promoted by offering furniture or objects for the cats to rub on. Visual cues are expressed in body and tail posture as well as facial expression with ears, eyes, mouth, and lips.
Social behaviour is also fostered by interactions with humans. The socialization of kittens to people must be introduced within the kitten’s first three weeks of life. Older kittens should receive human contact for a minimum of 40 minutes daily. Contact with more than one person increases acceptance of humans later in life. Adult cats should be given the opportunity for individual human contact routinely, preferably daily or at least five days a week.
Interaction should be a positive experience for the cat and may take place during feeding time, grooming time, play time with interactive toys, or as “quiet time” when the animal caretaker is present in the housing quarters and available for interaction if the cat so chooses. Do not hand play with cats, as this may cause some cats to develop predatory play behaviour towards humans.
Socialization of the kittens and cats to human beings and other cats should be a goal of all those who care for the animals. Kittens should remain in sibling and colony contact for a minimum of 8 weeks (ideally 10-12 weeks) and be handled by humans, including children, from 3 weeks of age until sold. The social development needs of the kitten into early adulthood should be explained clearly to the new owners.”
Excerpts from the Code of Practice for Cattery Operations (1st Edition, 2009) by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have been used with permission.