Unwanted behavior is one of the main reasons people relinquish their pets to shelters. Many times, this correlates with pet owners’ expectations mismatching with the realities of normal pet behaviors that improve with training. While this is true for pets of all ages, in this first part of our behavior series, we’ll look at normal, expected behaviors for puppies and kittens usually resolved with training and maturity.

Relinquished pets

Each year, approximately 4 million cats and dogs are adopted from shelters in the United States¹,². Unfortunately, between 7% and 20% of those adopted pets are returned³. That’s an estimated 280,000–800,000 pets brought back to shelters after finding homes. Consistently throughout the years, one of the top reasons people give for relinquishing pets to shelters is unwanted behavior¹⁻⁶. Studies also show that returning adopted pets, specifically dogs, to shelters makes it less likely they’ll be adopted again²,³.

This is why it’s important for potential adopters to understand not only what behaviors to expect from pets about to enter their homes, but also that many of these behaviors are normal parts of growing and adapting and improve with patience, training, and maturity.

Normal puppy and kitten behaviors

Every pet is unique. Each has their own personality. That said, there are some behaviors that most puppies or kittens tend to exhibit as they grow.

Typical puppy behaviors include:

  • Mouthing/nipping/chewing: used to explore surroundings and to play. Puppies also chew to express boredom or stress or when teething.
  • Whining/barking: used to seek attention and to communicate boredom, loneliness, stress, hunger, fear, excitement, etc.
  • House soiling
  • Jumping
  • General disobedience/ignoring commands

Typical kitten behaviors include:

  • Scratching: necessary and healthy way to manicure nails, stretch, and play
  • Eating/digging in houseplants
  • Clawing up furniture and curtains
  • Biting/scratching during play: usually accidental while learning natural hunting/predatory skills

Solutions

Unwanted behaviors, including the ones listed above, can often improve or disappear with training and time. This is especially true with puppies and kittens. Helping your dog or cat navigate their world and teaching them appropriate displays of behaviors is essential to creating a healthy human-pet bond and a happy environment for both.

One of the most important considerations regarding any unwanted behavior in pets is that it doesn’t come from spite or maliciousness. There is always a reason—trauma, pain, curiosity, lack of experience, lack of training—for any behavior in pets.

Training puppies and kittens requires supervision, consistency, and patience. It can take up to 2½ years of consistent training and reminding for dogs to fully settle into learned appropriate behaviors, depending on the breed⁷. Consider enrolling in a training program for you and your puppy. Once your puppy has learned a good habit, keep encouraging it into adulthood. As for kittens, it may be a common belief they will figure things out for themselves without much training, but they need consistent help, too.

For both kittens and puppies, early socialization is important for developing good habits and behaviors. This is because kittens and puppies learn from other kittens and puppies. All kittens and puppies, socialized or not, benefit from training.

Here are some basic tips for training puppies in good behaviors:

  • Teach puppies that bites are painful or inappropriate with loud “ouch” yelps and a halt in play, turning your back on the puppy for several seconds. Provide chew toys and bones to encourage appropriate chewing. Avoid punishment for biting, as it can lead to learned aggressive behavior⁷.
  • For whining or barking, combat boredom with play, toys, or exercise. For inappropriate attention seeking, such as when crate training, don’t reward behavior with attention (positive or negative).
  • Be consistent in taking puppies outside to relieve themselves often. In general puppies can only hold it for one hour per month of age (up to ten hours maximum). Crate train or keep them confined to a space (e.g. kitchen) with a pee pad when not closely supervised. Never use punishment for accidents as this can lead to long-term, fear-based house soiling behavior⁷.

Tips for encouraging appropriate behaviors in kittens:

  • Provide plenty of scratchers. Place them in areas around furniture to encourage kittens to use the scratchers instead of sofa backs or chair arms. Use scratch deterrent sprays like Feliway.
  • Keep toxic plants out of the home or in a space cats cannot access. Keep in mind that kittens can and will climb and jump onto high surfaces. Provide catnip or cat grass for kittens to chew.
  • Install shelves or put up a cat tree for kittens to climb and lounge on.
  • Play with kittens using toys that distance your hands from their teeth and claws, such as wand toys. Don’t teach kittens to play with your hands. Provide various types of cat toys. Always supervise when string, feathers, or small parts are involved.
  • To help reduce property destruction, International Cat Care suggests confining kittens to a kitten-proofed room with food, water, litter, and toys if they’re left home alone⁸.

Too many pets end up in shelters because of behavior issues. Before bringing a cat or dog (or any pet) into your home, consider the realities of common and potential behaviors you’ll encounter. Also, consider the time, effort, and patience necessary to help pets grow, adjust, and improve.

References

1. Pets by the numbers. HumanePro. https://humanepro.org/page/pets-by-the-numbers
2. Powell L, Lee B, Reinhard CL, Morris M, Satriale D, Serpell J, Watson B. Returning a Shelter Dog: The Role of Owner Expectations and Dog Behavior. Animals. 2022; 12(9):1053.
https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12091053
3. Hawes SM, Kerrigan JM, Hupe T, Morris KN. Factors Informing the Return of Adopted Dogs and Cats to an Animal Shelter. Animals (Basel). 2020;10(9):1573. Published 2020 Sep 3.
doi:10.3390/ani10091573
4. Powell L, Reinhard CL, Satriale D, Morris MJ, Serpell JA, Watson B. Characterizing unsuccessful animal adoptions: age and breed predict the likelihood of return, reasons for return
and post-return outcomes. Scientific Reports. 2021;11(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-021-87649-2
5. Marston LC, Bennett P. Reforging the bond—towards successful canine adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2003;83(3):227-245. doi:10.1016/s0168-1591(03)00135-7
6. Salman M, New JG, Scarlett JM, Kass PH, Ruch-Gallie R, Hetts S. Human and animal factors related to relinquishment of dogs and cats in 12 selected animal shelters in the United States. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 1998;1(3):207-226. doi:10.1207/s15327604jaws0103_2
7. Behavior Guide for your new puppy | OSU Veterinary Medical Center. https://vet.osu.edu/vmc/companion/owner-education/behavior-guide-your-new-puppy
8. Dowgray N BVSc MRCVS MANZCVS(Feline) PGDIP IAWEL PhD, Ellis S BSc(Hons) PGDip PhD, Ryan L BSc(Hons) DipAVN KPA CTP VTS(Behaviour, Oncology) RVN CCAB,
Bessant C BSc(Hons). Life Stage Guide to Caring for Your New Kitten. International Cat Care; 2021.

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