Pets behaving badly? They could be trying to tell you something

Many behaviourists will request a veterinary consult with your pet before beginning a training program. This might seem silly but it is in fact a very important part of the process because in some cases your pet behaving badly may be related to a medical condition.


When an animal is in pain their stress hormones, such as cortisol, are at a high level and this can induce a flight or fight response. In addition to this, chronic pain can lead to hypersensitisation of nerves, meaning areas and activities that should not be painful become unbearable for the animal.

It is no surprise this really hurts!!!

It is no surprise this really hurts!!!

An example is a dog with a chronically infected ear that has gone unnoticed. We all know how painful an ear infection can be, now imagine it has been going on for over a month, the whole side of your head hurts and you are feeling very stressed. Now a friend of yours goes and rubs the side of your face vigorously. What would you do? Well we can talk to our friends so we would perhaps just tell them to leave us alone, but a dog can't talk and perhaps has been trying to tell you not to touch that area in their doggy way for the last few weeks and you keep ignoring them. SO this time they growl or snap. And you decide they are a 'bad dog'.

This is not a made up story - I have seen dogs and cats with ear infections, rotten teeth and severe arthritis that have started acting aggressively with their owners. But it does not mean you have an aggressive pet - it is simply that they do not know how else to tell you they are in pain and can not be touched in that way.


Illness can also induce chronic stress, pain and just generally makes animals feel unwell. Cancer very commonly changes the behaviour of pets - some animals don't want to play as much and start eating less, but for others the constant discomfort can lead to aggression.

A common disorder in cats, that is often mistaken as them being spiteful or naughty, is urine marking around the house. In some cases this is a behavioural issue but in a vast majority there is an underlying urinary infection or disorder. The cat is simply trying to tell their owner that something is wrong and they can no longer control their bladder normally.

Parrots can also have many behavioural disorders, including feather plucking. In many cases this is anxiety related but it can also be related to ectoparasites such as lice and internal disorders like liver disease.

Harry always looks hard done by... but its only because he knows he gets so many pats with that look on his face!

Harry always looks hard done by... but its only because he knows he gets so many pats with that look on his face!

True Behavioural Issue

Once an unwanted behaviour has been identified as truly a behavioural issue training programs and behavioural modification plans can be put in place to help improve it. But it is still important to remember that animals aren't 'bad' because they want to be, behavioural issues are always a manifestation of something deeper; whether that be anxiety, poor training or a simple misunderstanding of human-animal body language.

SO next time your pet does something you deem naughty, first ask yourself could they be trying to tell you something? And if the behaviour continues seek veterinary and behavioural advice.

Want to learn more about medical conditions or pain in pets? Check out the other Pet Care articles.