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



Dr Jess Beer, BVSc, Qualified Veterinary Behaviourist

Guinea PigsQ: I had two guinea pigs, Bill and Bobby, but recently Bill has passed away. Now that Bobby is by himself I have noticed he has stopped eating and isn’t as happy as he used to be. Does this mean I should get him another friend?

I am sorry to hear that Bill has passed away. Guinea pigs are very social animals, and do pine when they are alone. Bobby has probably stopped eating because he is lonely, and is craving the companionship of his own kind. Guinea pigs thrive with one or two companions, so I would definitely recommend getting a friend for Bobby to fill the void Bill left behind.

Many vets can routinely desex guinea pigs, so you don’t have to worry them mating if you were to get a desexed female guinea pig friend for Bobby. Bonding guinea pigs tends to be a lot easier than bonding rabbits – allow them to meet, and if they don’t immediately fight, they are fine as a pair. Ideal pairings are one desexed male and 2 desexed females. Note it is never appropriate to house rabbits and guinea pigs together.

It is also important to make sure Bobby and his new friend have enough space to interact and show natural behaviours. The key to Bobby’s happiness is catering to his social needs by having a friend, enough space to ‘popcorn’, burrows to hide, and levels to climb. In no time Bobby should be eating again, and back to his normal self!

Q: My sister has just adopted a young puppy called Jazz. I really want Jazz and my dog Monty to get along, but Monty doesn’t seem to like her at all. What can I do?

We need to remember that puppies are still learning to behave. They can be excessive and demanding, which some older dogs find disruptive. Firstly, it is important for Jazz to learn good manners, and to respect Monty’s tolerance levels. Your sister can do this by always rewarding Jazz with a treat for calm behaviour, like “sit and wait” and eventually Jazz will learn this is a desirable way to act.

Secondly, both Jazz and Monty need to associate each other’s presence as positive. A good way to do this is if you and your sister take Jazz and Monty for a short walk on lead together. Then during the walk sporadically call the puppy and give them a treat. This way Jazz will learn to focus on your sister, and Monty won’t feel threatened by an over exuberant puppy. Having good verbal control to redirect too much exuberance is essential to teach good manners and protect the older dog from being pestered!

Sensible and stable older dogs will usually be quite competent at interacting with a young puppy. For example, they will initiate play and contact. It is not appropriate if Jazz is the only one initiating play, and if Monty only growls, snarls, and avoids Jazz, then you need to respect his wishes and give him space.

The most important thing when introducing Jazz and Monty is reading their body language. The signs to be aware of are body posture, avoidance, growling or snapping. If a dog is showing signs of stiffness, lip licking or whites of eyes you need to stop the interaction. A low growl is an appropriate reprimand, but you must never let interactions continue to the point of snapping or attempting to bite. Jazz must learn to read other dogs’ body language, and positive and safe meetings of sensible older dogs will be essential for Jazz’s upbringing.

Keep in mind that some older dogs might have health problems, or are just too old. So it is not suitable for them to be around a bouncy puppy.

Q: My cat Hudson won’t stop jumping up on the kitchen bench looking for food. It is making cooking a nightmare, please help!

A behaviour is repeated when it is beneficial for an animal. If Hudson is getting food or similar rewards when he jumps up on the bench, then this is a desirable place for him to be.

To get Hudson to stop, you will need to make your bench undesirable. Firstly, cats like being high, so if your bench is the only high place in your house and easily accessed then Hudson will keep jumping up. Provide other high places around your house as alternative options, such as cat towers or a bed on top of a chair and increase the temptation to these high places by placing beds, toys and food there.

Punishment such as yelling or squirting water bottles is not an appropriate option as it can cause fear in Hudson and will only ever stop Hudson from jumping up on the bench if you are present. It also won’t teach Hudson what you want him to do, it will only deter him temporarily.

If giving Hudson other desirable options to your bench doesn’t work, use double sided sticky tape or tinfoil on the bench consistently for a few weeks. But, it is usually most successful if you provide an alternative. Good luck!

Q: I just moved into a new house and my cat Charlie won’t stop licking his belly. He is starting to go bald and I don’t know what to do!

You will need to rule out medical causes such as allergies, fleas, or abdominal pain first. But if Charlie isn’t licking his belly for any medical reasons, it may be psychological. A cat licking their belly can be a sign of stress or anxiety, similar to how people bite their nails.

Moving house tends to be very stressful for cats, so Charlie might be struggling with both his new environment or outside cats he isn’t familiar with. Simple treatment for Charlie would include Feliway Diffuser in the home, as well as daily positive interactions with you through games, treats and grooming.

It is also important to protect him from sources of stress. For example moving him in to just one room in the new house with familiar furniture and smells to get used will help him settle before slowly exploring the new environment over the following weeks. It is usually advised to keep your cat indoors for 1-2 weeks when moving to a new home to ensure they do not wander off trying to find their old home.

If Charlie tolerates being in a cattery, consider putting him in one for a few days during the house move as this help with the transition. This way he won’t endure the stress of you settling into a new house. In cases that aren’t resolved with the above recommendations, seek advice from your veterinarian who can refer Charlie to a behaviourist who may consider using medication to help him cope.