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Ask a behaviourist - Dr Jess Beer answers your pet behaviour questions


Dr Jess Beer, BVSc, Qualified Veterinary Behaviourist Ask a behaviourist

Help! My cat keeps urinating on my son’s schoolbag! Is he mad at my son?

Inappropriate urination is most commonly a sign of stress and anxiety. I promise, it’s not your cat being mad or vindictive!

It’s important to remember that behaviour and health issues are very closely linked in cats. It’s possible that the inappropriate urination can also be as a result of a medical issue such as a urinary tract infection, so you should always consult with your veterinarian first.

Once this has been ruled out, you should start looking at your environment and what is causing stress for the cat. Has your son recently moved back home, or is there another new person in the house? Have you recently adopted another pet? Or is there a neighbourhood cat coming onto your property that might be making your cat anxious? Once you have determined this, if it’s possible you should remove or reduce the cat’s interaction with the source of stress.

The key to resolving the inappropriate urination is by removing the scent of urine. You should use a cat urine-specific cleaner rather than your normal household cleaning products. If necessary, follow that up with Feliway spray in your son’s room or any other affected areas.

We recently adopted a rescue puppy, Jack, earlier this year. Now he’s six months old Jack has started digging up my veggie garden while I’m at work! How do I get him to stop?

Congratulations on the recent addition to your family! It sounds like Jack might be a bit bored and digging is a way to keep busy during the day. Puppies are a lot of fun, but they also need a lot of exercise and mental stimulation to ensure they are happy and healthy.

Make sure you’re providing an appropriate outlet for Jack’s energy. Give him interactive toys to play with, or food-dispensing toys such as a kong or food puzzle toy, and ensure he’s getting enough exercise by going for walks every day. You could also consider doggy daycare, a friend or family member or a dog walker while you’re at work. Training is also a requirement at this age, so when adolescence is kicking in, be sure to enrol in a basic (or advanced) obedience class with a qualified positive trainer who can give you the tools to guide Jack through this time.

Dogs can also be destructive when they are anxious. In cases like this I recommend families video their dog while they are out of the home. With the help of a qualified veterinary behaviourist, you can determine if the digging is out of boredom or a more serious issue such as separation anxiety.

Regardless of the reason for the digging, the very best way to protect your veggie garden is to restrict him from the area! Put up a fence or block access to the garden, and only let Jack back in once you’re confident he won’t be destructive.

I recently adopted a rabbit for my kids, and she keeps scratching them. I was told she would be a good pet for children, and now I’m not so sure.

Rabbits are wonderful animals, and they can make great pets for families. But they are intelligent and social, and need more exercise, interaction and stimulation than most people realise. Rabbits also appreciate the companionship of another rabbit, so often a bonded pair is the best way to ensure your rabbit is happier and less likely to become frustrated with life in general.

It sounds like you’re already doing the right thing by interacting with her and encouraging your children to take part in her care. But you must remember that rabbits are prey species who can be fearful of many things. Kicking and scratching when being held is often a sign of her trying to escape when she feels unhappy, panicked or scared. Especially with small children whose hands may simply not be big enough to keep her comforted!

The first thing to do is to help her feel safe and secure. Teach your children how to handle her correctly while sitting on the ground. Rewarding her for coming over to be hand-fed treats and veggies, and sitting in their laps, perhaps with a towel to protect from her claws, keeps everyone happy and safe. By supervising their interactions you’ll minimise any scratching to your children, and also help prevent your rabbit getting accidentally hurt.

For more detailed tips on how to correctly handle your pet, check out the rabbit care information at

My dog Sullivan keeps jumping up on me when I get home. How do I get him to stop?

This is a really common problem, and one I hear all the time. Often this behaviour begins with dogs are just puppies, and it is inadvertently rewarded. But what’s cute as a puppy can lead to people getting accidentally hurt once the dog is a fully grown adult.

The good news is that dogs can always learn. As long as you’re consistent with your behaviour, he’ll be consistent with his.

The key to stopping Sullivan is to replace the jumping with a more appropriate behaviour.

When he starts to jump up on you, turn, ignore him and give Sullivan another action such as ‘sit’, and immediately reward that. It’s important that you are consistent with this though. Don’t confuse Sullivan by allowing the jumping up some days, and telling him off on others. 

Always remember – train puppies and dogs as you mean to go on, and be sure to reward all behaviours you want.