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Aggressive Pet Behavior at the Vet: Owners’ Top Nine Excuses

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Veterinary Aggression

Though it may surprise you to hear, a great many pet owners are in denial over their loved ones’ aggression. These are the pet owners who ignore the growls, explain away the snarls, snaps and near-misses, and seem generally oblivious to the consequences of their pets’ behavior.

Why? Because they can’t face the reality of what their pet’s aggression might say about their ownership skills (maybe). Or because they genuinely don’t know it’s a problem (more likely).

Either way, it’s a big deal not only for the individual dogs whose behavioral abnormalities are left untreated, but also for those of us who have to work with these unhappily unruly animals in our daily lives.

With this distinctly veterinary point of view in mind, consider these nine common vet-directed “explanations” for aggressive pet behavior:

#1 “He's never bitten anybody before.”

This is the most popular statement I’m treated to on the subject of pet aggression. And sure, I can believe he’s never bitten anyone before. After all, a veterinary hospital is a strange and forbidding place and fear is a powerful root of aggression. (Moreover, there’s a first time for everything.)

But here the owner’s point is that their pet is not displaying a significant amount of aggression. Which when accompanied by a snarling pet’s raised hackles, stiff tail, and impending lunge represents a degree of denial that scares me.

#2 “She never did this with my previous vet.”

It’s obvious that every hospital and every individual circumstance will have its different effects on a dog. But here the implication is that we’re doing something to trigger this “very strange” behavior in their pet –– as if the fact of aggression is impossible to fathom.

Which, again, represents a problematic degree of denial, because, ultimately, every owner needs to understand their dog’s capacity to do harm.

#3 “She was abused as a puppy.”

Was she abused? Maybe. But it’s much more likely she was never socialized to certain situations. Or that she has a hereditary predisposition towards certain anxiety disorders. This is important because people should know that a history of abuse is no excuse for living with a fearful or aggressive pet –– not without taking steps to relieve her fears.

See my past post on this subject here.

#4 “He's just playing.”

If that’s playing, I’m sure I don’t want to know what he’s like when he’s in a bad mood.

Pet owners should understand that some aggressive behaviors may be misinterpreted as playful behaviors (stiff tail wags, “nips,” “nibbles,” and certain growly sounds, for example). And, unfortunately, assuming these warning signs are typically welcomed only reinforces the behavior.

#5 “She doesn't like men.”

It’s a common refrain, this preferential sentiment issued on behalf of a pet. But that doesn’t mean she gets a pass. Not “liking” someone usually means she’s laboring under an anxiety disorder that needs to be treated. Counter-conditioning is a highly effective solution for pets who suffer from fear-based “sexism.”

#6 “She’s just big and black. What are you implying?”

I’m not implying anything. I’m telling you she’s aggressive. And I swear it has nothing to do with the color of her coat. Though people do tend to harbor biases against large, dark-hued dogs… I’m not one of them.

As veterinarians, we’re not usually biased against color or breed. We’ve got enough examples of friendly dogs of all breeds, colors and sizes to tame any biases. Instead, we’re usually reacting to clear warnings: stiff tail (with or without a wag), raised hackles, a cowering stance with other evidence of fear aggression, or an outright, leash-straining lunge.

#7 “He’s just ‘mouthy.’”

Mouthy is one thing. That’s what Labrador Retrievers do when they drop a slobbery ball into your lap in a desperate attempt to entice you to play. But when she makes a quick, growly grab at my hand when I try to trim her toenails… that no longer qualifies as merely “mouthy.”

#8 “She’s just ‘talking.’”

Growly dogs and hissing cats are very kindly offering us warnings. These are signs of aggression. It does no one any good to characterize them otherwise. Softening the intended message only puts people unnecessarily at risk when they interact with these pets.

#9 “He doesn’t like vets.”

He’s just not into me. I get it. Most pets don’t especially like veterinarians. Even dogs who walk in sporting friendly faces and wiggly tail wags will typically change their tune when they catch wind of who we are. As with numbers one through eight, this is an explanation for aggression… not a good reason to dismiss it.

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