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Your Pets Know Just How You Feel
One of the most difficult things for humans to understand is the powerful effect their own emotions can have on the behavior and outlook of their animal companions. Animals feel everything that we feel; they sense when their humans are happy, sad, discouraged, excited, or angry and react accordingly.
Frequently, when I am called to consult on an animal's problem behavior, I can trace the source of the difficulty right back to some upset or change that has happened within the family. Or, in the case of rescued animals, it may be that the change has brought back a traumatic memory from their past. When I talk to the animal and ask him what he is trying to let his human companion know with his changed behavior, I find that he will tell me. A death, a divorce, the birth of a baby, a change of house, illness, financial difficulties, conflict or deadlines at work-- any of the hundred problems that can beset us--can also deeply affect our animal friends.
Remember that animals gather information telepathically. When you are worried or upset about something, an image of that worry forms within your mind and transmits out from your imagination like a radio beam. Your pet picks up all these silent communications and for him they are even more powerful than your spoken words. So even though you may think that you are hiding your thoughts and feelings from your pets, you really are not. They know everything, and if you are upset and harboring a lot of powerful negative emotions, this will surely affect your pet as well as you are transmitting those feelings out like a radio all the time, beaming pictures that you form in your mind, as well as your thoughts and feelings.
So, if you and your spouse are thinking of ending your marriage, your pet sees the images that have already formed in your mind of you living apart from your mate, and it is very confusing and upsetting to him because he does not understand human concepts like divorce. Usually, the animal loves both of you and the thought of being separated from one of you is traumatic. All they know is that their cozy situation is changing because you are both angry and unhappy, and that is very unsettling to our animal companions. It's a very sad situation for pets when a family breaks apart, but all too often, humans fail to take their animal companion's feelings into account during times of crisis like a divorce and this can lead to behavioral problems.
Many animals react to this sort of stress by acting out. Pets that have always been perfectly well-behaved will start soiling and chewing in an effort to show their displeasure with the unhappy emotions swirling through their homes. But it doesn't have to be anything as dramatic as a divorce that sets your pet off. Sometimes it can be something as simple as jealousy. If they decide you are spending too much time with the new puppy or kitten and not enough time with them, you can be sure that problems will ensue. They will find a way to let you know they are not pleased with the current situation, and then it is up to you to work out the exact nature of the problem and effect a remedy.
We humans tend to make decisions based solely upon our own needs and desires and frequently fail to take into account the needs and desires of our animal companions. Yet everything we do, every decision we make, has the potential to affect our pets dramatically. You may walk by a pet store and see a puppy that appeals to you and impulsively decide to take him home, little stopping to consider what effect this ``interloper'' will have on the pets you already have in your home. To prevent this sort of problem, always talk to the animal you already have in your home and ask him to help you take care of the new arrival. Remember your pet is always in tune with your energy line so you can ask him for his help right from the pet store before you even bring the new pet home.
You may decide to move to a bigger house, failing to take into account that your pet loves the park by the old house where you take your daily walks together. Or perhaps your relationship isn't working out so you decide to leave your partner, but your pet that loves you both can't understand why one of you is gone.
Does this mean you should never get a new pet, never change house or romantic partner? Of course not. It simply means you must prepare your pet for the inevitable changes and upsets that occur in our lives. Talk to him using the images and feelings in your mind, and be sure to send him feelings of love and ask for his help during the transition. This will change your pet's feelings of doubt and fear because he will no longer feel left out.
The first thing to do is to work out when the problem started because there is always a relationship between the start of the problem and the event that triggered it. For example, if your cat that has always been fastidious in his litter box habits suddenly starts going outside the box the day after you bring home your first baby, you can feel quite certain that the difficulty is connected to the jealousy and uncertainty he feels about this baby who seems to be taking up so much of your time. Always acknowledge that he is doing the soiling, then tell him you understand why it has occurred. Don't be angry with him; just love him. Look into his eyes and tell him you understand what he is telling you and he does not need to do this anymore. Then see in your imagination what you want him to do in the future.
If your dog started chewing up shoes within the week after your son leaves for college and has never done that sort of thing before, it's easy to imagine it is his response to missing the child who may have been his companion for years. The shoes have a familiar scent to them and chewing on them gives the dog comfort.
A little understanding and compassion goes a long way in such situations. Put yourself in your pet's place and try to understand what they are feeling. If you can do that, you will be able to come up with sensible solutions to whatever problems you may have with your animal companions.
The problem may be something that to you seems absolutely inconsequential, but rest assured your pet doesn't view it that way. For example, I have had clients whose animal companions became very upset simply because their owners changed what they fed them, or moved the location of their bed or basket. One dog was piqued because his groomer had switched the color of his ribbon from red to blue; another because he wanted a bandana and not a ribbon. As comical as it may seem to us, it was a very important issue to the dog who was determined to go right on relieving himself on the Oriental rug until he got his blue ribbon back. Just realizing that it really can be something as simple as this causing your pet's change in behavior can put you ahead of the game.
You may be wondering why animals are so sensitive to changes in their environment. It's because, like us, they are creatures of habit and they like their familiar comforts. When something changes, often the only way they have to let us know how they feel is to misbehave, because they know that mischief will certainly attract our attention. They don't mind what type of attention you give them, good or bad, just as long as you give them your attention. Even if their behavior has caused you to become angry, at least you are listening to them.
Animals often become confused by the difference in your spoken words and the mental images you are projecting. For example, if you shout, ``Don't chew on the rug!'' at the same time you are projecting out a picture of your dog chewing on the rug, how are they to choose between the two conflicting commands? Usually they go with the telepathic image because it is stronger and more readily understandable to them than the spoken word. When you see in your mind's eye your dog chewing on the rug, that is language your dog readily understands and he will chew on the rug. That is why I emphasize the importance of matching your mental images to your spoken words, to avoid upsetting your pet. Be positive with your thoughts and mental images. Picture him doing what you want him to do instead of what you don't want.
Animals are not familiar with the human concept of deceit; therefore it is imperative that you are always honest with them. If you fib to get them into their carrier by telling them they are going to the park and yet they are receiving the clear image of the visit to the vet that you actually have in your mind, they may learn to distrust you. If you always tell your animals the truth, even if it is something they may not want to hear, then they will learn that you can be trusted implicitly.
Remember that animals are very intelligent. If you take the time to explain a given situation to them--such as why they have to go to the vet, or that you are going out of town for the weekend but you will be back in two days--they will be much more likely to settle down and accept what is happening without complaint. Always be sure to tell them how much you love them, and assure them that you have their best interests at heart and all your decisions are made with those interests uppermost in your mind. If you do this, then the love and trust between you and your animal companions will grow ever stronger.
Sometimes pets behave badly as a show of loyalty to their owners. A friend's daughter, Meghan, had just graduated from college and moved into her first apartment with her college roommate. The girls had always had a good relationship, but after they moved into the apartment various tensions arose, and the problems only got worse after Meghan brought home a rescue dog and named her Sadie. Meghan is a great animal lover and three years in a college dorm without the company of a dog had been very difficult for her to accept, so she was most eager to have an animal companion in her life once again. Her roommate didn't dislike dogs, but simply did not have the patience that Meghan had when it came to dealing with the dog's accidents and constant chewing. Meghan enrolled the dog in an obedience class and over the course of months, with love and consistent training, Sadie turned into a delightful companion. The accidents became a thing of the past. With Meghan's love, Sadie was able to overcome her fear of people, caused by the fact that she had been so abused in her first home, and she and Meghan established a deep and loving bond and trust.
Unfortunately, things were not going as well with the roommate. She and Meghan frequently had verbal sparring matches, mostly over minor things, but the problems were grating to both girls. The cause was a simple difference in temperament, and it could have easily been worked out except that both girls were being a bit stubborn and self-righteous.
Finally came the day when there was a huge shouting match. Poor little Sadie was quaking as she listened to the shouting, then she finally determined she had to do something about it. Gathering her courage about her, the small dog marched into the roommate's bedroom where the fight was in progress, caught the attention of the roommate, and then staring her full in the face, squatted and relieved herself on an expensive decorative rug. At first the roommate was enraged, then suddenly the two girls became quite sheepish, for they realized their constant fighting was childish, and having a very bad effect on poor Sadie. They burst out laughing and were able to restore their friendship to its former comfortable state, thanks to Sadie's intervention.
It took a lot of courage for this small dog to step in between two squabbling humans, but in essence, this is what our pets are doing whenever they act out; they are trying to draw our attention to something they believe is important. She was asking them, ``Please don't fight. It upsets me.'' That day Sadie taught both these girls a valuable lesson--love, not anger, please.
One of the most frequent causes of upset in our animals is that we humans are fickle beings. Often, when we get a pet, we cannot make up our minds whether or not we're going to keep it. This indecision communicates itself directly to the animal and results in a lot of misery and stress for them. Can you imagine how unhappy you would be if from day to day, you didn't know if you would be allowed to stay on in your own home or given away to someone else? Animals under this sort of strain will frequently resort to misbehaving as a way of drawing attention to themselves.
I resolved a problem for a lady on my television show whose bird was pecking out its feathers. She was unable to understand why the bird was doing this, but it communicated to me that it didn't know if it was going to be allowed to stay in the woman's home or not. The lady confessed that she was in fact undecided about keeping the bird and was surprised when I told her that the bird knew this and was pecking out its feathers as a form of protest because it loved the lady and very much wanted to stay with her. The woman immediately told me that she didn't realize what had been going on and assured me that she would keep the bird. After I told the bird that its future was secure, it stopped pulling out its feathers and they grew back as beautiful as before.
As I mentioned earlier, animals make little distinction between positive and negative human attention. Of course your animal would prefer to snuggle on your lap, but if you don't make yourself available for their companionship, they will resort to more outrageous means to grab your attention.
My friend Alexandra has a lovely Blue-crested Conure named Lincoln. While Lincoln is generally a very well-behaved bird, whenever Alexandra's job required her to spend long hours away from home, she would return only to find that Lincoln had shredded his ``bed buddy'' in her absence. (Bed buddies are small, stuffed pillows that parrots and other large birds enjoy snuggling with while they sleep.) It was his way of letting her know that he missed her company when she was gone for so long. Now, when she has to work late, Alexandra knows to remove the bed buddy from Lincoln's cage before she leaves home in the morning, and she also makes sure to spend extra quality time with him when she returns.
Animals do not understand that their misbehavior does not help them; they only know that it gets them the attention they desire from the humans they love. If your pet suddenly develops a new behavioral problem, review the events of the past few days in your household and you will likely find the key to the mystery right there, along with a solution. Just remember that our pets feel our emotions as strongly as we do and don't forget to take their feelings into account when unexpected events change the course of our lives.
Introducing a Baby into Your Household
When you have your first baby, it is the most exciting time in your life, however, the introduction of a baby into a previously tranquil household can precipitate a variety of behavioral problems with your pet. Displays of jealousy, destructive behavior, soiling, wetting, barking, hissing and even nipping can result. All too often a family gives up their beloved pet because they are fearful for the safety of the baby when all that is required is a bit of thoughtful planning in advance to make the transition a smooth one.
I always find it is easier to understand your pet's behavior and thinking if you put yourself in its place. Think how you would feel after years of being cosseted and doted upon, to be suddenly shoved completely aside in favor of the screaming, squalling bundle of energy that is a baby. It is devastating for pets when this happens because it makes them feel like they are no longer loved, and they cannot understand what they have done to fall out of favor. In a situation like this, it is natural for pets to start blaming a new baby for their perceived loss of status, and behavioral problems are sure to follow if you don't prepare them ahead of time.
Many of my clients ask me exactly how to prepare their furry friends for the arrival of a new baby. There are several things to do. First, if you have a friend who has a baby, get her to record the sounds the baby makes and then play them back to your animals. This way when the baby arrives, his cries and the other sounds that a baby makes will already be familiar to your pets. Before your bring your baby home from the hospital, send a blanket home with your husband that has been wrapped around your baby and allow your animals to lie on the blanket so that they may become familiar with the baby's scent. Finally, when you do bring the baby home, always bring your animals into the room with the baby and make a big fuss over them. Tell them how they are helping you to take care of the baby and how you could not manage without them. Then when you put the baby back down to sleep, don't make a fuss over your pets until you pick the baby back up again. If you make a fuss over them and give them treats each time you talk to the baby or have the baby in your arms, then your animal friends will come to associate the baby with good times, and they will feel joy over the baby's addition to the household because you have taken care to keep reassuring them that even though there is a new baby in the house, they are still a very special part of your life too.
Because animal babies are so much better able to care for themselves right from the moment of birth, it can be quite difficult for our pets to fully understand just how helpless human infants can be. Animals do not understand that our babies cannot walk and depend upon us for absolutely everything. When they see us fussing over a new baby they feel neglected and shut out. Just as a child who craves his mother's company will often do something naughty to grab her attention, so too will an animal who is feeling ignored contrive some way to gain your notice.
All of these difficulties can be avoided if you take steps to include your animal companion in the excitement of the new addition to the family. First you must explain to your pets as you would to a child about the impending birth. Take care to assure them that the new arrival will in no way reduce them in your affection, while also explaining that your new duties as a parent may sometimes limit the amount of free time you have. It can also be quite helpful to ask for your pet's help in caring for the baby. Include him in the day-to-day care of the baby and thank him. Animals love to feel they are sharing in the joy of looking after a new arrival. If you assign them a role and make them feel important, your animal companions will welcome the baby just as warmly as you do. As they form a loving bond with your baby, you will find that they become quite protective of the infant.
I had one client who reported that her female cat began to act quite aggressively toward her when she became pregnant. She consulted me because she thought the change in the cat's behavior was due to her pregnancy. But when I connected to the cat's energy, I felt no jealousy, only a feeling of serious illness, nausea and weakness. I sensed that the cat had cancer and her new, aggressive behavior was her way of trying to tell her owner that something was wrong and she needed help. My client took her cat to the vet that afternoon. He confirmed the diagnosis and immediately began treatment to relieve the cat's symptoms. As the cat felt better, her aggressiveness decreased. The timing of the change in her behavior and the beginning of her human companion's pregnancy was only coincidental.
Some people make the mistake of only spending quality time with their pets when their baby is napping. This leads animals to associate the baby's appearance with the end of playtime, and once again, jealous feelings can arise. Try instead to ignore your pet while baby is sleeping; don't play with it and don't pay it much attention. Make a big fuss over both the baby and the pet when the baby wakes up so that your pet will look forward to the baby's awakening. This will reinforce the idea that the baby is an enjoyable addition to the household.
My own daughter, Emma, just had practical experience of this idea. She recently welcomed home her first baby and my first granddaughter--our beautiful little Emily. We prepared for Emily's arrival by telling Emma's two cats, Cinnamon and Raisin, how much we needed their help to care for the baby. By the time Emily came home from the hospital, both cats were bursting with excitement and anticipation. Emma has been careful to lavish attention on the cats whenever Emily is awake. In this fashion the cats have learned to associate the baby's presence with the most pleasant time of their day. Both cats have behaved splendidly toward Emily because they regard her as a positive addition to the family instead of as an unwelcome interloper.
While this may sound strange to you at first, remember I am thinking from the pet's point of view. If you make sure to include your pet in the frenzy of activity that surrounds the months leading up to the birth of a baby, you will find them helpful and protective when you bring the baby home instead of fearful and jealous. It does not have to be an ``either/or'' situation. People who love their animals would find it very hard to give up their ``baby in a fur coat.'' It is up to you to prepare your animal properly to not only accept a new baby, but also to understand that the baby is as much a part of the family as the pet. If you do this, you should have smooth sailing and find that your pet can be relied upon to help you care for and protect your baby.
Teach Your Child to Respect Your Pets
Families who have done a good job of introducing a baby to the household sometimes stumble when it comes to teaching that baby how to interact with pets. As babies grow and become toddlers and become more mobile, a whole new dynamic emerges in your house. Your pets have been used to having the baby confined and under control and suddenly this wild little person has the run of the house, pulling tails, upsetting food dishes and grabbing the pet's favorite toys.
Time once again for a bit of planning and intervention. If you teach your child to treat all living creatures with love and respect, you will not have any problems. But of course, you must first get your toddler through those trying years when he is exploring and learning, and no is his favorite word.
Make sure there is a safe place for your animal friend to go when your baby starts toddling around. If you have a crate with the door open for your animal companion, make sure the baby cannot crawl inside while your pet is sleeping as he needs to have his own private, secure space. If an animal is suddenly startled awake from sleep he will snap at whatever is near out of fear, uncertainty and surprise, never intending to hurt your child. Teach your child to respect a pet's quiet times, and if necessary, make sure your child cannot intrude upon your pet's privacy. Having a toddler in the house can be stressful for all concerned, and our animal companions need to get away from time to time and relax on their own too.
During your son's or daughter's transition from infant to toddler to young child, you must take steps to protect your pets from your child or children, just as you took steps to protect your baby when you first brought it home. First, you must never allow your child to take your pet's toys or food dishes, both for sanitary and safety reasons. Second, make it quite clear that no shouting, hitting, kicking, squeezing or tail pulling will be tolerated at all. Teach your child to handle the pet gently and lovingly, speaking in soft words to assure the pet that all is well. Remind them that sometimes a pet simply does not want to be picked up and petted and they must respect that. If your children have trouble understanding why they cannot grab the pet any time they want, tell them to put themselves in the pet's place and ask how they would feel getting scooped up willy-nilly into your arms in the middle of lunch, or dragged away while they were playing a game or watching a video? This will help your child to understand that pets have daily agendas just as people do and it is important for us to respect both their wishes and their moods.
Introducing New Pets to Your Children
When toddlers reach the point where they can stand and walk, some parents think this is the ideal time to rush right out and get a new puppy or kitten, so that the baby and the pet can ``grow up together.'' This is a bad idea. Toddlers simply do not have the self-control or presence of mind to understand how to treat a pet properly. A young child can easily squeeze a tiny kitten or puppy almost to death in an excess of love and enthusiasm. No pet should ever be put through such a traumatic experience.
It is far better to wait until your child has reached school age to introduce a new pet. At five or six years, a child has much better self-control and a greater understanding of themselves and their strength. They also are less egocentric and have more awareness of the animal's needs and rights.
While some families insist on getting a puppy or kitten, it might be a better idea at this stage to adopt a one- or two-year- old animal from a shelter for your child's first pet. Such animals are usually already trained and are eager to find loving families. Older animals are better able to defend themselves from potential mistreatment and can also do a better job of defending your child from an outside threat such as a roving dog pack or a bully.
I recommend against getting an unusual pet for young children. Most exotic animals have quite specific care requirements, and it can be difficult for a young child to follow these routines consistently. The pet's physical and psychological health can suffer if they are not fed and cared for properly, so unless you intend to take on all the pet's requirements yourself, it probably would be wisest to choose an animal whose needs are less exacting, such as a dog or cat. This is not to say that cats and dogs don't have specific care requirements as well, only that fulfilling those requirements is somewhat easier with animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years and whose needs are well-documented. Do, in fact, teach your child how to take care of a pet, to regularly provide fresh food and water, along with daily grooming and exercise or playtime. But also understand that ultimately, you have to be the responsible one as children do become lazy and lose interest very quickly when it comes to the daily requirements of pet care as the novelty of looking after the animal wears off. As the responsible adult in the household, you must take every step necessary to ensure your pet's continued well-being.
Sometimes the problem is not between your child and your pet, but between two or more of your pets. We'll discuss practical solutions to fighting and jealousy among your animal companions in the next chapter.