Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists California Veterinary Specialists Carlsbad, CA (760) 431-2273
Dear Dr. Schwartz,
My cat Roger Rabbit is such a sweet boy, but he becomes aggressive at mealtime toward Jessica, my other cat. They eat from the same bowl and have been together since they were kittens. Why does he do this?
Dear Toon Mom,
Like many other animal species, cats can become possessive of their food. This is normal and has important adaptive significance; when competition over food is a matter of life and death, it can be a vital survivor behavior. The level of hunger also plays a role in possessive aggression (also referred to as resource guarding), as does food deprivation in early life. Still, some cats with no history of starvation simply do not like to be approached while they eat.
I’d recommend you feed Roger and Jessica from separate bowls sitting at a comfortable distance from each other. You could feed them at opposite ends of the kitchen or even feed Roger on a countertop while Jessica’s bowl is on the floor. Offer two, even three meals a day so that he doesn’t get too hungry between meals. Let him enjoy his food without feeling threatened. That should take care of it.
Dear Dr. Schwartz,
My blue tick coonhound is a counter surfer. If we leave any food on the countertop, even for a minute, he will be on it. When we go to work, we have to make sure the counters are cleared or he’ll get whatever we leave: bananas, cake, steak knives, defrosting chicken… and at dinner, he’s under the table waiting for my kids to drop something. It’s becoming a real problem. Help!
Dear Coonhound Mom,
Dogs are scavengers. Unguarded food is fair game! This is self-rewarding behavior, meaning that the free snack ensures he’ll look in the same area again and take advantage of free snacks elsewhere. This applies to the scraps at the dinner table; kids are messy eaters, and dogs really love that about them. Dogs will wait patiently for any tidbit because the reward is unpredictable and intermittent. They know it’s coming. They just don’t know when and how much of what they will get.
It can also be helpful to block access to the kitchen while you are away. Close any doors or put up baby gates; some dogs will jump the gates or push through them, but many will accept the obstacle. As for dinnertime scavenging, feed your dog at the same time as your kids while he is tethered on a leash and at a designated feeding spot until they’re done. He’ll get used to it if you continue to give commands such as “sit,” “down” and “stay.” If you like, you can save some scraps for him and give them to him in his spot after dinner.
Please continue to clear your countertops and put food away. Dangerous items like steak knives must be put away immediately. Keeping your home pet-proofed is part of being a responsible pet owner. You know that he explores elevated surfaces, so keeping these areas clear is just part of keeping him safe.
Dr. Stefanie Schwartz is a board certified veterinary behaviorist based at California Veterinary Specialists in Carlsbad, CA. She also sees patients at the Veterinary Neurology Center in Tustin, CA. For more information, please call (760) 431-2273 and visit www.californiaveterinaryspecialists.com and www.veterinarybehavior.org.