Friday, September 25, 2015

Non-veterinary solutions to behaviour problems in dogs, cats and other non-human animals

Today's post is about dog (and cat) doors. Not quite like these ones though.
Companion animals are kept in our homes, but it isn’t always a harmonious co-existence. Common problems that can arise in the keeping of companion animals include separation associated distress and destruction of items in the home. As a veterinarian I am often asked about these issues, but I am not the only one.

I recently found out that companies that make custom doors are often called about pet problems, which makes sense. If you think about it, we take our entry and exit into our homes for granted. But our companion animals may have to wait for us to let them in and out, which isn't ideal if we're not home. A dog I know had severe behaviour problems during storms, and escaped during storms if the owners were out. Installation of a dog door enabled the dog to retreat inside during storms, putting an end to the escape behaviour. I’m interested in how environmental modifications like this can make a difference. 

I spoke to Sunita and the team from Alsafe Security about the requests they get for custom pet doors, and occasional household destruction that prompts some of these requests.

You have been called about replacing blinds and curtains due to pet damage. What sort of damage tends to be done and what animals are implicated?

Biting blinds, breaking chains and slats. Scratching the mesh (doors) and tearing it apart is the most common damage. Dogs and cats mainly, but cockatoos, rats, mice, brush turkeys too. [Ed. I absolutely adore cockatoos, but I had a family member whose wooden back verandah was eaten by them. Did make me wonder about the choice of building material, given the frequency of avian visitors].

Are you aware of the sort of circumstances in which this damage is done? For example is it more likely to occur when owners are out?

Yes, mostly when owners are out. Also likely to occur when the pets are out and there is a storm/ fireworks.

What is the extent of damage you have seen pets do?

Walk through the flyscreen mesh. Have also witnessed severe damage to wooden door jambs by dogs.
We recommend people to go for a stronger mesh when it comes to doors and not a regular flyscreen because that can easily be torn apart.

I’m a big fan of allowing animals to have as much choice as possible about the way they use their environment, and to that end I think pet doors are generally great. What are the most important features of a pet door?
  1. Lockable both sides –can choose which side to lock so pet can either go out/come in or completely lock both times, as and when required. [Ed. I think this is esp important for cats who might otherwise head out at night].
  2. Size. [Ed. This particular company makes small doors for small animals, eg 240mmx190mm, but also has to accommodate larger breeds, eg 400mm x 260mm].
  3. Swings both ways
  4. Magnetic strips at the bottom for it to swing smoothly
  5. Clear plastic – easy to see through
  6. Durable

Example of a small pet door (Image Courtesy Alsafe Security).
What is the biggest pet door you have made?

We have made a door about 2 feet high (Please note: we do not recommend this as the flap become quite large and heavy and might hurt the animal).

A larger door to suit larger dogs. (Image Courtesy Alsafe Security).
Any unusual requests you have had to cater for?

Occasionally people want pet doors without flaps and their pet doesn't like flaps.

Have you had any feedback about an animal’s behaviour before and after installing a pet door?

It can sometimes take time for the pet to understand how the door functions before they get used to it. Other times pets have been really scared to use it. [Ed. Good point – in my experience animals do need to be shown a few times, in the first place that the door exists and secondly that the movement of the flap is normal. With most dogs and food motivated cats you can encourage them to walk through the door with a treat, although with one of my cats I had to actually physically help her through the door so she could see how it worked].

Learning curve. This cat is demonstrating an unconventional upside down approach to a cat door, attacking the flap for good measure. After several got the hang of it.
What could we do to make the world better for non-human animals?

Look after their environment.

Thank you Sunita for answering my questions. I am currently undertaking a short course in small animal behaviour through the Centrefor Veterinary Education. Behaviour problems (due to expression of both normal and abnormal behaviour in animals) are common and do require owners to seek help and assistance from a range of sources. So I am interested to hear if anyone has had success with environmental modifications like pet doors.