“2017

When Mittens becomes a monster

While pet ownership is usually rewarding, some people’s pets seem like they’re out for blood. Honi spoke to a pet behaviour specialist to find out why.

Art: Aiden Magro Art: Aiden Magro

My mother has not had a full night’s sleep at home for seven years. Every night, she gets up twice or three times to feed our cat, Malaika, alternating turns with my father in a routine familiar to any new parent. Malaika lets himself in and out of my parents’ room throughout the night. Sometimes, he climbs into bed for a cuddle; other times, he bites my mum and knocks items off her bedside table until she wakes up to feed him.

Malaika was abandoned as a kitten. When we adopted him, his biting and scratching seemed playful, but as a grown-up, he started to inflict damage. Now, he attacks mid-cuddle, seemingly without provocation. He waits at the ends of corridors, ready to latch onto the leg of anyone who dares pass. His antics make us tread more carefully around the house to avoid him.

Mum warned me about the dangers of adopting a cat that was taken away from its mother too early, but, young and impatient to make a new furry friend, I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

***

Our society loves pets. The internet is so full of people sharing pictures of dogs and cats that a new lexicon of dog-related words has developed (think: ‘doggo’ or ‘blep’). The health benefits of owning animals have been extolled for years, with scientists showing that people who own pets are overall more physically and psychologically healthy than those who do not.

It goes without saying that cute photos of dogs with their tongues slightly out and videos of cats calmly purring away miss the imperfect moments in between. But for some, the experience of pet ownership is far from just ‘imperfect’. For some, it becomes scary.

Alisha Brown has always been surrounded by pets. Having raised over five dogs, a rabbit, a bird, a duck, fish, chickens, and even lambs, it’s unsurprising that some of her experiences have been less than pleasant.

When she was 11, Alisha received five chicks for Christmas — three girls and two boys. As they grew up, four of the chicks turned out fine, but one of the roosters, Luke, was aggressive. Every morning, Alisha would let the chickens and roosters out of their cage, a job she loved until the first time Luke attacked her feet. He pinned them with his claws and pecked at her, making her bleed. “I cried,” Alisha says, “I was so upset.” She was around 12 years old and felt betrayed by the rooster she had raised from a chick.

She started to wear a pair of pink gumboots to protect herself. “But then he just took a liking to the gumboots,” she says. “I would walk outside and as soon as he saw me, he would shoot straight towards my foot and flap around and try to mate with my gumboot.” Eventually, she hated letting the chickens out and avoided Luke when she went into the backyard.

The inside of the house remained safe until her family purchased Nibbles, a green-cheeked parakeet. Nibbles began life as a docile pet, until the family left him at a friend’s house while they went on holiday. When they returned, something had changed. “He would literally run across the room and bite you, or fly across the room and attack you.” He used to screech repetitively — not just once, but “WREH, WREH, WREH, like the Psycho theme”. Alisha found herself afraid of another bird.

Though Alisha didn’t feel betrayed when Nibbles turned on the family, he has become a nuisance. If she lets him out of his cage, she has to supervise him. “You just never know what he’s going to do,” she says. “We used to have these laminated signs that said ‘Nibbles is out’ with a picture of him and we would stick them on doors as a warning, in case anyone was walking in.” He has even learned a new phrase — “stop it, I don’t like it” — from the number of times the family has tried to ward off his attacks. With an average lifespan of 15 years — and some living well past this to 25 — Alisha’s family will be avoiding his onslaughts for years to come. “Years of being attacked by a small parrot is not ideal,” Alisha says, “but in the end, for all the good that pets are, it’s probably worth the risk.”

Art: Jessica Ottavi
Art: Jessica Ottavi

Megan Webster knows exactly how much of a nuisance aggressive pets can be. Like Malaika, Megan’s childhood cat, Kidda Pudda, was a stray. Megan and her siblings rescued a litter of five-week-old kittens in Bicentennial Park, just after Megan, then seven years old, had been given permission to get a cat of her own. She chose Kidda and the others were adopted out. “She seemed completely normal, very lovable,” Megan says. “So I don’t think it was until she was older, like a proper adult cat, that she was just insane.”

Kidda alternated between very loving and very aggressive behaviour. “She would be really, really affectionate, like she used to knead blankets and stuff and she’d be suckling them and purring away and drooling because she was so happy.” She would climb into bed to cuddle Megan and even follow her and her siblings down the street to the bus stop. But when she turned, she was vicious. One moment Megan would be patting Kidda, then she would latch onto an arm. “Suddenly there would be teeth and front feet claws and back feet claws”. Nothing would stop her except pushing her off. “It was like self-defence,” Megan says, “because she would come after you again.” She laughs. “I think she was going for damage”.

Everyone around Kidda was cautious not to attract her ire. “You did have to sort of dance around her,” Megan says. “There were times where, if she was sitting on the steps or something, you’re just like ‘Oh god, now I can’t go downstairs’.” Even the other pets avoided her.

She would also approach strangers outside, appearing friendly and inviting them to pat her before attacking their legs, sometimes chasing the unlucky victims down the street. “If she had been a dog, she would have been that kind of dog that would have had to be put down because she was just uncontrollable,” Megan says.

Despite Kidda’s aggression, Megan was “totally gutted” when she died. “You’ve got to love them. She was a good cat despite all those things and I mean she was definitely a memorable cat because of those things … She had a lot of personality.”

***

The walls of the Seaforth Veterinary Hospital (SVH) reception are cluttered with posters. A large, sober black and white sheet describes their triage order for seeing patients (emergencies, then appointments, then drop-ins). Small ads for house sitters and pet minders sport slightly grainy photos of the prospective guardians cheerfully holding pets to reassure viewers of their credentials. A simple, black and white laminated sheet asks dog owners to sign their pets up to donate blood. We don’t often think about dogs needing, or being, blood donors, but as it turns out, this is only one way in which the mental distinction we draw between human and animal medicine is blurred in reality.

Dr Andrew O’Shea is a second year resident in veterinary behavioural medicine at the Sydney Animal Behaviour Service (SABS), which has its offices in SVH. Distinct from veterinarians, who diagnose and treat physical diseases, veterinary behaviour specialists work with psychological disorders in animals and teach owners how to help their pets live with these conditions.

One of the issues they see very frequently is anxiety. Unlike animals with normal levels of anxiety, animals with anxiety disorders cannot calm themselves down after a potential threat has passed. For instance, a normal dog might get scared by the noise of a garbage truck once or twice, but then it learns the truck poses no threat. “When an animal has an anxiety disorder, they never learn that it’s not a problem, so every time the animal is exposed to that noise, it goes through the same process.”

Once aroused, animals exhibit four possible responses: fight, flight, freeze and fidget. Flight and freeze are obvious: the animal runs away from, or stops in the face of, the perceived danger. Fidget involves normal behaviours exhibited out of context, for instance over-grooming, stretching not just after sleep, or shaking off as if wet when dry. Fight involves aggression — attacking, hissing, barking. However, the purpose is not to injure us. “It’s about making the scary thing go away,” O’Shea says. Just like in flight, the animal tries to create distance between itself and the frightening stimulus.

“A lot of aggression is due to an underlying anxiety disorder,” O’Shea says. However, aggression is often not an animal’s first response. Freezing and fidget behaviours are more common but less noticeable, meaning that the animal ends up getting more aroused and backed into a corner where its only option is to defend itself. It then learns that aggression is effective so it uses it the next time it is frightened.

Treatment for these disorders targets the three main determinants of behaviour: the current environment, previous learning, and genetics.

“We manage the environment,” O’Shea says, “to minimise the things that are distressing the animal.” This involves paying attention to the pet’s body language to note when they are aroused and scared. Some triggers are obvious and easily managed, for instance loud noises. Others are actions we may assume pets enjoy, such as patting. However, anxiety can also be triggered by things we’re unaware of, like noises outside our range of hearing.

This is where behaviour modification comes in. “We concentrate on teaching them better ways to cope,” O’Shea explains. The process has links to cognitive behavioural therapy in humans, with the added difficulty that it relies on the pet’s body language rather than verbal cues to measure their level of distress. And once their body language is readable, “the physiological arousal associated with the fear has already been triggered, and that compromises our ability to implement some of those techniques.”

Medications help with this process and with managing the genetic component of anxiety disorders. Pets are prescribed everything from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs — an antidepressant), to benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety medications like Valium), to beta blockers (blood pressure medications) to manage arousal. “It’s really individualised,” O’Shea says. So, too, is the duration of treatment. Some pets are successfully weaned off the drugs after 12 to 18 months while other pets require medication for the rest of their lives.

Art: Aiden Magro
Art: Aiden Magro

Many pet owners don’t make it to the treatment stage, with some abandoning their pets instead. “Approximately one in five pets in a welfare shelter is there because their owners have given up on the behaviour,” O’Shea says. Though the RSPCA attempts to treat such animals through behavioural modification programs, they euthanised nearly 4000 dogs and 4700 cats that couldn’t be treated for behavioural reasons in the 2015–2016 financial year.

Occasionally, some of O’Shea’s clients have chosen to euthanise pets whose quality of life cannot be improved, though it’s not something he often advises. He likens it to putting down a diseased pet. “I think sometimes the psychological pain these animals are in is as great if not greater than some of the physical pain that pets are in,” he says.

For those who do take their pets to behaviour specialists, the costs add up. According to SABS’s website, an initial dog behavioural consultation with a veterinary intern in training starts at $650, which jumps to $990 if it’s with registered veterinary specialist in behavioural medicine. Reassessments are priced from $330. On top of this, O’Shea says there may be ongoing blood tests and, of course, medications, which are not subsidised on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for pets.

So, why do people spend possibly thousands of dollars treating their pets for something that isn’t about to kill them? O’Shea attributes it to the strength of the human animal bond. In essence, people really love their pets, and treat them for psychological disorders the same way they would for physical illness or injury — which itself sometimes adds up to thousands of dollars. “There are a lot of committed people out there,” he says. “They’re committed to [their pets] financially, they’re committed to them emotionally and psychologically … I’m delighted by what some of our clients will do for their pets.”

***

My friend Marissa’s* dog, Roy, has always been an incredibly excitable, “energetic ball of muscle”. He would run through the house and jump up on guests to greet them. While Marissa explains this could be a bit intimidating for people who weren’t familiar with dogs, she says it was not aggressive. “People who were familiar with dogs knew he was just a big, muscly boy who was just trying to say hello.” When I visited her recently, Roy’s greeting was notably subdued. He seemed calmer somehow, though still happy and friendly.

A few months prior, Roy had been prescribed with Lovan, a brand of SSRI with the active ingredient fluoxetine, for anxiety.

Though Marissa emphasises that he’s always been very friendly to humans, Roy has had some aggression issues with other animals. On one occasion, a fight with another dog over a ball ended with him drawing blood. On another, Roy attacked a cat while Marissa’s mother walked him.

Roy also seemed very anxious. He regularly spent lengthy periods — up to five minutes at a time — chasing his tail, so much so that the fur at the end of his tail was partly rubbed off. He would run under tables and quiver during fireworks. When people swam in the family’s pool, he’d bark at them, run around frantically, and seem to try to pull them out by the arms.

Around six months after the cat incident, Roy was chasing his tail again, but this time he caught the end and bit through it. “There was about an inch of his tail hanging off,” Marissa says, “and he was just walking around, and I was like, ‘What the fuck, my dog just bit his own tail off’.” Her family took Roy to the vet for surgery, and, realising the tail-chasing was a symptom of his anxiety, discussed his treatment options with the vet. Ruling out a “dog psychologist” due to the expense, Roy was prescribed with Lovan.

It took a couple of months for them to kick in. For a few weeks, he became very quiet, almost like he was sick or injured. “After that he probably was the best and happiest dog I’ve seen him be in the whole time we’ve owned him,” Marissa says. “He still gets excited … It’s not like his personality has been entirely diminished, it’s just you can see he’s not stressed anymore.”

*Name has been changed