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


Dr Jess Beer, BVSc, Qualified Veterinary Behaviourist

I’ve just adopted a puppy, Cody, and walking him is a nightmare. He pulls all the time! What can I do?

Dogs pull because they’re excited about where they’re going and by pulling they get there faster! Going for a walk is probably the highlight of Cody’s day and it’s hard to dampen that enthusiasm. It’s important to work on this while Cody is still a puppy, and always train as you mean to go on, the aim is to have a loose leash. If he is pulling while you’re out walking, stop, call his name and reward him with a treat when he comes back to you. Then continue forward, repeating as soon as he starts to pull again. Consistency and persistence is key! The sudden stop is all the pressure needed to indicate that pulling is unwanted, as Cody learns it is more rewarding to stay close to you, and then only a small amount of tension on the leash will remind Cody to slow up and stay close.

Your goal is to make Cody want to follow you and build a strong bond with him so he wants to follow you. It can be frustrating, but pulling or yanking on the leash often doesn’t work. Punitive tools such as choke chains, prong collars and martingale collars aren’t effective either because in most cases the reward of going for a walk is greater than the pain you’re inflicting.

If you’re still having trouble with his training, you may wish to look into some of the newer tools such as a halti or harness, which can help dogs who persist with pulling.

My cat Henry goes crazy at 5am! He runs around the house and wakes me up. Why does he do this?

Cats are most active at dawn and dusk, and these high energy bursts are completely normal cat behaviour. I understanding it can be frustrating though if it’s disturbing your sleep! Have you recently changed your routine? Cats like routine so if you’ve changed your work hours from weekends to weekdays, Henry may just be expecting your attention.

One way you can stop the early morning wake-ups is by ensuring Henry is entertained and exercised during the day. Set aside some time to play with him, followed by a small meal ideally in the evening just before bed. This is a good way to help him rest throughout the entire night.

Remember that like dogs, cats will repeat a behaviour if rewarded. So make sure you’re not responding to his 5am wake-up calls by giving him food or attention – this will only encourage Henry to keep waking you up at that time. Sometimes having him sleep in a separate room will minimise this rude awakening and avoid the inadvertent rewards of your attention.

My local SPCA has a rabbit Alfie who I think might be a perfect friend for my bunny Otis. I’ve heard bonding rabbits can be difficult, so what’s the best way to introduce them?

Rabbits are very sociable and often crave the companionship of their own kind, so getting a friend for Alfie could be a recipe for happiness.

Remember that while rabbits form powerful bonds, bonding them takes time, patience and commitment from you and you will need separate housing for each rabbit until they are successfully bonded. Introduce Alfie and Otis by first getting them acquainted by sight and small. Position their hutches beside each other and after a week, swap the rabbits over to the other’s hutch.

After another week try putting them together. This is best done in neutral territory where neither has been before. Rabbits are extremely territorial and may use territorial droppings, urinating and aggressive behaviour. It’s important to be prepared: have a water bottle handy to squirt them if they begin to be aggressive and have a towel handy so you can use it to pick one rabbit up if a serious fight breaks out.  Never put your hand between fighting rabbits.

The more you work with Alfie and Otis, the faster the bonding process will be. So work with them every day for at least 15 minutes. Remember that when they are not fully bonded they need to be kept separate when you are not with them – and it could take from a few weeks to a few months until Alfie and Otis are a bonded pair.  Once Alfie and Otis have bonded don’t separate them, even to take them to a vet. Rabbits form a bond for life and separating these two friends would cause a great deal of emotional trauma to them both. If you have further questions, or would like advice on finding a friend for your bunny, ask the staff at your local SPCA. Good luck!

I absolutely adore my cat Moby, but he won’t stop scratching my brand new couch. Help!

I can understand this is frustrating for you, but please remember that cat scratching is perfectly normal and it’s necessary for Moby’s health to help keep them stretched, limber and their nails in good health. That’s because the outer sheath needs to shed regularly, or they can suffer from painful, infected ingrown nails. Scratching is also an essential way of marking their territory – which is why you might see Moby scratching near windows or doors.

Cats will use your furniture if you don’t provide them with another appropriate outlet. So the good news for you – and your couch – is that you can teach Moby to scratch somewhere else. You’ll need some appropriate scratching materials like posts, or a cat tree. Keep in mind that some cats, especially if they are older, like horizontal surfaces and others like vertical surfaces, which should be 1.5 times the height of your cat.

Place this new scratching item near the coach and make the couch less appealing by wrapping the area where Moby scratches in bubble wrap, tin foil, or double-sided tape. Or block access to the couch, and tempt him to use the new scratching post by dangling toys or treats at the top of the post. Remember the sooner you offer alternatives to scratching your couch, the more success you will have in changing this behaviour.