Fido, Fluffy and Flopsy go to the shrink

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The Independent Online
SCIENTISTS BELIEVE they have discovered why some dogs are dysfunctional, many cats aloof and some horses downright nasty. They were probably deprived of tender loving care when they were little.

It's not their parents' fault, but their owners. Britain may be a nation of animal lovers but we are not so good at understanding what goes on in our pets' minds.

But help is at hand. Academics at Southampton University are offering a counselling service for vets and desperate owners unable to cope with their wayward animals.

The newly opened Animal Behaviour Clinic is the first university centre in Britain exclusively devoted to pet psychology.

The clinic's first major piece of research, into the anti-social behaviour of some adult pet rabbits, suggests that the first few days after birth are crucial. It is the owner's behaviour that will determine whether bunny grows up a model Thumper, the affectionate companion of Bambi, or a Peter Rabbit type - loveable but naughty.

The centre, an offspring of the university's anthrozoology unit, combines clinical teaching and research, as well as acting as an advisory and referral service for the public.

"The field of clinical psychology for pets has, up to now, had a very skimpy scientific base," said Dr John Bradshaw, director of the anthrozoology unit.

"While an increasing number of animal behavioural counsellors are dealing with individual cases, our aim is to provide a teaching hospital for animals which will pull together case studies and new research in a broad database.

"In this way we hope to determine the underlying physical and environmental causes of behavioural problems and develop treatments to improve animal welfare accordingly."

Until now, most owners have tended to view their pets' bad behaviour in isolation from their surroundings, with thousands of animals referred to pet counsellors each year. But researchers at the clinic suggest that many problems are actually common reactions to various stresses.

There are two million pet rabbits in Britain, and they are now the country's third most popular companion animal after cats and dogs. Yet, according to Dr Anne McBride, the clinic's animal behavioural therapist, public ignorance about their care often causes stress which leads to aggressive or timid behaviour.

Dr McBride's latest research suggests that rabbit kittens need to be handled by humans at a much earlier age than previously thought to avoid trouble later in life.

She found that by the age of seven weeks, rabbits exposed to human contact in their first days of life were significantly more sociable than a control group who were left alone.

"There appears to be a sensitive period when rabbits are most able to learn about people. The trouble is that most rabbits are bought through pet shops and are not handled until they are older,"she said.

Dr McBride, the author of Why Does My Rabbit ..., says many problems have more to do with owners' expectations of their rabbit than abuse or neglect.

"Rabbits are social creatures who need stimulation and human company but a lot of owners don't realise the importance of handling them."

Her solutions to problem behaviour include providing frustrated and bored rabbits with more activities, such as encouraging them to work for their food by hanging it up or scattering it around and building obstacles to provide cover in the run.

Researchers at the clinic are also compiling data on the separation fears of dogs, displayed through chewing and scratching furniture or trying to escape from the house.

Although more than 70 per cent of young dogs have some anxiety about separation from their owners, around 10 per cent experience chronic problems which call for clinical intervention, in the form of initial medication and longer term training.

The researchers suggest one way of dealing with the problem is to desensitise the dog to its owner's departure by leaving the house for short initial periods, which can be lengthened later.

Meanwhile, the clinic's resident vet, Rachel Casey, is working with horses to trace back the origins of behaviour such as barging and bucking and a refusal to be caught or enter a trailer.

"These issues tend to be related to some kind of previous pain or fear, but because horses are a prey animal their innate response it to run away," she said. "Once any medical problems, such as sore feet or badly fitting saddles, are resolved, the next step is reduce stresses in the current environment before moving on to retraining. For example, horses need to graze almost continuously for 16 hours a day. Giving them two daily meals is not meeting their needs."

Ms Casey is also looking at hypersensitivity in cats, manifested through twitchy skin, overgrooming and strong reactions to sound and light, in order to assess the overlap between medical and stress-related causes of the condition.

While the traditional assumption has been that cats bring themselves up, around one third experience a fear of strangers, a fact that the clinic's researchers say is a sign of unhappiness that can be addressed.

With cats now billed as the pet of the next century, the researchers argue that the need to address their welfare, as they live in smaller spaces, is stronger than ever.

DYSFUNCTIONAL PETS: AN OWNER'S GUIDE

AFRICAN GREY PARROTS

Why buy a parrot if you are not prepared to talk to it? Extremely sociable birds, they will shout and screech when they don't get attention.

If possible keep two, even better lodge them in an aviary, they just love company.

It is essential to have a large cage and plenty of toys and games to keep them occupied. If properly looked after, they can make much better conversationalists than many humans.

GERBILS

Inattentive owners can drive their pets up the wall. Watch out for the danger signs - animals pulling out their fur, running from side to side in their cage and jumping up at the bars.

Actually, gerbils shouldn't be in cages at all. Try a fish tank half full of earth which enables them to dig down and escape from the light and prying human eyes.

CATS

If your moggy pees indoors don't blame it. It's your fault. The poor creature has probably had a run-in with next door's tom or is worried that you prefer your newly arrived child. Ultra-insecure cats get into a state over a change in furniture. They think you love the sofa more than them.

So chase off the next door's tom, introduce Buttons to the baby and invite it to share the sofa with you. If you worry about hairs on the furniture don't keep cats.

DOGS

It is true, as your postman will testify, that some dogs are guilty of threatening, even violent behaviour. But this is because they are scared, possibly because of a nasty incident when they were young.

They need to be "desensitised". For example, if your postman delivers at much the same time every day, try taking Bonzo out to meet him, initially from a distance. Calm him down and reward him once he stops barking.

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