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Source: Dr. Susan Nelson, 785-532-5690, snelson@vet.k-state.edu
Web site: http://www.k-state.edu/media/mediaguide/bios/nelsonbio.html
News release prepared by: Nellie Ryan, 785-532-6415, media@k-state.edu

Monday, May 11, 2009

IT'S A DOG'S LIFE: K-STATE VETERINARIAN SAYS QUIRKY BEHAVIORS BY CANINES CAN BE JUST FOR FUN, INNATE OR MAY REQUIRE TREATMENT

MANHATTAN -- It's just another day in the life of a dog -- chasing its tail, licking its owner's face and turning around a few times before taking a nap.

Dr. Susan Nelson, veterinarian at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said there are varied reasons for a dog's quirky behavior.

"Everyone has a pet who will sometimes exhibit an odd behavior," Nelson said. "But before you attribute it as just a silly behavior, there might be medical reasons why your pet is acting in a certain way."

Many dogs love to lick, especially people, and it starts as a puppy. Puppies lick their mother's face to get them to regurgitate food, and mother dogs lick their puppies to stimulate breathing and bowel movements, Nelson said.

Licking also is a sign of submission, according to Nelson. Dogs are pack animals, so they will lick the mouths of the more dominant dogs in the pack to show respect. People are considered a member of the pack, often the alpha dog, so when a dog licks a person, they are acknowledging that the person is the boss.

Nelson said dogs also seem to like the salty taste of the human face, not to mention the assortment of food left on children's faces after they eat.

Owners can attempt to extinguish licking by ignoring it, or saying, "no lick," Nelson said, and gently pushing the dog away or turning their back on the dog. Owners also can reinforce licking behavior by showing they enjoy the dog's licks by petting or talking to them in a happy tone as the dog licks them, Nelson said. This encourages the behavior because the dog is getting positive attention from its owner.

Another common behavior noticed in dogs is how they may circle a few times before deciding to lie down. Nelson said this is simply an innate behavior. "In the wild, dogs would rest in grass, so stomping down on the grass several times before lying down made a nice bed for themselves," Nelson said. "This habit has just carried on through time."

Another quirky behavior dogs exhibit is scooting their bottoms on the floor when they walk. Nelson said the main reason why dogs do this is because they are trying to relieve a painful anal sac.

Dogs have glands back by the anal area, and normally when they have a bowel movement, the sacs empty. Sometimes the sacs can get backed up, so dogs scoot along the floor to relieve the pressure, Nelson said. Often times a veterinary visit is needed to fully take care of the problem because anal sacs can rupture or have an abscess.

The scooting behavior also can be because of tapeworms or other intestinal parasites that can cause some itchiness near the anal area, Nelson said. Dogs with short, corkscrew tails can get skin-fold infections, which also can be very itchy. Female dogs may scoot because the skin fold of their vulva is infected. Lastly, there can be feces stuck to the hair around the anus, which can cause some irritation and/or infection to the surrounding skin. This is more common in longhaired dogs, especially when having soft or loose stool. Nelson suggests a veterinary visit for any scooting behavior that is continually exhibited.

Almost everyone has seen a dog chase its own tail, but what makes this activity so popular? Well, some dogs actually think it is fun -- especially if they are bored, Nelson said. "If owners laugh or give the dog attention when it chases its tail, the behavior can be reinforced and the dog will keep doing it," she said. "Dogs are kind of like children in that respect. The more attention they are given for doing a certain activity, the more they will do it."

Other times a medical condition can cause this behavior, Nelson said. Many dogs have a mental condition known as obsessive compulsive disorder and may need to go on medication to control it. Other dogs may be trying to lick or bite their tails because of a flea infestation or other irritation, she said.

Their own tails are not the only thing dogs may chase -- cars are another popular yet dangerous option. "It's an innate behavior," Nelson said. "Dogs are predatory animals. It's instinctive for them to chase moving things. Sometimes it is reinforced because when they chase the car and the car drives away, the dog feels like they did their job."

A thunderstorm is another event that is likely to cause some strange behavior from some dogs. Dogs often hide, bark and become extremely nervous during a thunderstorm, Nelson said. "When a storm hits, dogs can feel the barometric changes," she said. "They are in tune with the weather better than humans. Dogs may also react to their owner's nervousness about storms, which in turn perpetuates the dog's insecurities."

Behavioral modifications and medications are available for severe cases of thunderstorm phobia. Owners also can try changes to the environment, such as completely closing blinds and curtains to block out lightning and turning the volume up on the television or radio to hide the sound of thunder.

Everyone knows that dogs are not discriminatory when it comes to food -- they will eat just about anything, even garbage or cat feces. Nelson said when dogs get bored they often go scavenging for food. Also, if a dog has separation anxiety, they may destroy everything they can find, including the garbage. It is an outlet for their nervousness, she said.

Nelson said that if your dog suddenly starts digging through the garbage and has not exhibited that behavior before, the dog could have a disease that gives them an increased appetite. Eating feces also can be medically related. Dogs might not be digesting their food well or their diet could be deficient in certain nutrients, so they consume feces in an attempt to correct those deficiencies.

Dogs often are attracted to cat feces because cat food typically has more fat in it, so cat droppings taste good to dogs. Dogs who are kenneled for long periods of time might eat their own fecal matter as a way of cleaning their cage, Nelson said.

"Eating fecal matter is not a good idea because of the risk of intestinal parasites and other diseases that are transmitted through them," she said. "To help curb this behavior, owners can add some products to the dog's food that makes their stool taste bad to them. Also, keep the cat's litter box out of a dog's reach."