From bored goldfish to sexist dogs: 13 common pet problems – solved! | Pets

Remember last summer, when it emerged that a scruffy blond resident of No 10 couldn’t get a grip on his amorous urges? Well, here’s hoping Dilyn, the Johnsons’ jack russell cross, has since undergone some training. As many of the 3.2 million UK families who acquired a pet during the pandemic are discovering, our animals’ behaviour doesn’t always reflect well on us, particularly if we forgot to learn a few key details – like how to look after them properly.

Now we’re paying: dog trainers and animal behaviourists are reporting overwhelming surges in interest. But whether your house rabbit is undermining your housekeeping efforts or the pekingese is staging post-pandemic protests – don’t panic. Our panel of experts – from aquatic vets to dog therapists – is here to help.

cat with “you talking to me?” speech bubble
Photograph: Getty


Since I’ve gone back to the office, I keep coming home to find that my cat has peed on my bed. What’s going on?
Defecating and elimination outside a designated litter box is a sign of discontentment, communicating that they are either not happy or are stressed by something (medical or psychological).

It can be a coping mechanism; leaving scent in various areas makes them feel safe. Your first port of call should be your vet, to rule out medical problems. Then, contact a behaviourist (try the Canine and Feline Behaviour Association) for a home visit. Once they have a definitive diagnosis they will set out a plan for you to follow to resolve this problem.

My (female) cat adores my husband but hates me. Is she trying to oust me, and how can I fix this?
I am sure your cat doesn’t hate you; she wouldn’t even understand that emotional state. Cats choose their favourite people for a variety of reasons, from liking their natural odour, or that person either sitting in the spot they like or being the one who usually feeds them. Sometimes, it’s also to do with the cat’s background – traumas can alter how they respond to their new guardians. So: how to fix it. Become the cat’s only feeder, start to play more with her, and oust your husband from his favourite armchair. Failing this, you might just have to accept your cat prefers his company. Sorry.

My once docile cat keeps trying to nip our baby (who, in fairness, quite likes to grab the cat’s tail).
Cats and babies are a delicate balance. Babies cry loudly, take away Mum and Dad’s attention, leave all kinds of new smells around the home and – yes – like to grab body parts. I would invest in a few cat towers or climbers, to help your cat get up high and out of the reach of tiny hands. Then your cat can relax while adapting to the small new alien in their territory. In the meantime, as your baby grows, it can be shown how to play gently using long rod toys, gentle pats on the back and treats in the hand.

Anita Kelsey, cat behaviourist and author of Let’s Talk About Cats: Conversations on Feline Behaviour

dog with “I need a shrink” speech bubble
Photograph: Getty/iStockphoto


I think my dog may be sexist. He barks at men, especially those in hoodies. What can I do?
While not sexist, dogs absolutely can discriminate – fears can be related to gender, age or skin tone, and usually stem from an early negative experience. Start off by giving him lots of treats every time you see any men at a distance (saving something especially delicious for gents in hoodies). He’ll start to pair the sight of a man with something positive. In the meantime, just remember to keep plenty of space between you and those scary men. Proximity can be built up over time.

Last month, we sent our dog to kennels for the first time. When we picked him up, he seemed low. I thought he was sulking but, a month later, I worry he’s depressed. How can we cheer him up?
First things first – get him checked by the vets to ensure no hidden injury or sickness was picked up while he was away. Staying somewhere new, away from creature comforts and trusted humans, can be really tough. Think of things he enjoys doing, and try to do a few of them every day to boost his mood. Sniffing, playing and chewing are all great activities for creating feelgood vibes. For next time, it’s worth looking into a trusted home pet sitter.

How do I stop my labrador scavenging when he’s out walking, particularly other dogs’ poo?
Coprophagia (poo-eating) is definitely one of the less appealing doggy pastimes. There are a number of reasons for it – poor diet, hunger, boredom or even attention seeking. It can also be a symptom of poor gut health, so it’s definitely worth getting your dog checked by their vet. It’s also important to build up his focus on you and other forms of fun. Playing games with food or toys, alongside working on a strong “leave it” cue, will help manage scavenging.

My rescue dog insists on humping other dogs. He’s already been neutered. What to do?
Interestingly, humping isn’t always related to sexual activity. It can be displayed when a dog is stressed, or even be a sign of an underlying health issue. In the short term, interrupt play regularly (start with every 20 seconds) to turn your dog’s focus away from the other dog and towards you or some scattered treats. If your dog gets easily overexcited during play, teach him a new word that means they have to look at you in order to earn a delicious treat immediately. Start teaching it at home where things are calm, before slowly taking it out into the world of distractions.
Caroline Wilkinson, dog behaviourist, dog yoga practitioner and founder of digital pet-coaching service, Barket Place


My goldfish tank smells, despite constant cleaning. Is there an aquatic equivalent to Febreze?
The majority of aquarium smells are due to an excess in organic waste, such as fish faeces and uneaten food, and subsequent bacterial blooms. Goldfish are messy creatures and will pollute a tank quickly if not maintained. Start by checking water quality to confirm whether the filter is adequately processing waste. If waste levels are high, assess your tank for overfeeding and overstocking – as a rule of thumb you should allow 20 gallons (90 litres) per goldfish.

Generally, I recommend a partial water change of 20% to 50% weekly, making sure to siphon the substrate at the bottom of the tank where organic material collects. The closest and safest option we have to Febreze is running activated carbon in the filter unit, which does an excellent job at binding odour-causing pollutants.

My boyfriend insists our goldfish need stimulation. He buys them new ornaments monthly and last week I caught him ‘rearranging their furniture’. Is he right?
Fish are far more intelligent than we give them credit for. Israeli scientists have just conducted a study which found that goldfish, in a tank on wheels, were able to navigate themselves around a room – an amazing demonstration of spatial awareness and cognitive function. Other studies have shown preferences in goldfish to spend more time in enriched stimulating environments, which to me indicates some level of benefit or enjoyment. Alternative forms of stimulation include a varied diet, live plants and hand feeding.
Dr Bryony Chetwynd-Glover, director of London Aquatic Veterinary Services

Rabbits and rodents

Last year, we got a sweet house rabbit, but she chews everything from the carpet to the table legs. Please help.
This is perfectly normal behaviour for rabbits, it’s just not very convenient for us humans and becomes dangerous if they nibble through electrical cables (phone charger leads are particular favourites). There are a few things you can do. First, redirect this natural chewing behaviour towards more appropriate items: hay, clean deciduous tree branches, woven willow balls, etc. Second: make sure she has the companionship of another rabbit or two. Rabbits are a social species and must, for good welfare, live in pairs or small groups. Last, baby gates and puppy crates make good barricades against precious items or areas.

My son had two gerbils (Elsa and Ana). A few weeks ago, Elsa died. I panicked and bought a lookalike while my son was at school. But they fight constantly, and he’s now confused. What do I do?
I’m afraid you are going to have to come clean with your son. Gerbils, like humans, have preferences for one another, and should have an input on their new partner. This can be done at a rescue centre to see who gets along best. If Ana and Elsa grew up with one another, they will have been more likely to get on anyway.

It’s possible the new pairing might get on better if you introduce them on neutral territory as the new Elsa is an intruder into Ana’s home. So, let them live together, somewhere new, for a couple of weeks before moving them back to their home.

Help! My daughter got a mouse for Christmas. A few days ago, I let it escape. How can I tempt it back?
This is a very common scenario. Try to ensure there is no food left accessible to them, including cupboards and work surfaces. Then put out a temptingly baited humane trap, or even a ramp leading up to a suitable glass or plastic smooth-sided container with something soft in the bottom and food in it to keep them fed overnight. It might take several days or even weeks, but as long as there are no predators such as cats in the house, you should catch him or her safely soon.

Dr Richard Saunders, scholar in zoo and rabbit medicine at Bristol Zoo and vet specialist adviser to the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund


My son wants a lizard but the idea of feeding it baby mice makes me retch (I’m vegan). Are there any reptiles that can have a plant-based diet?
Different species of reptiles need different diets and it is crucial they receive the correct nutrition in order to thrive, whether this comes from a meat-based, plant-based or even insect-based diet.

Some reptiles, like many tortoises, are herbivores and require a plant-based diet to thrive; while others, such as bearded dragons, can have a largely plant-based diet in captivity but may need to supplement this with insects.

It is important to ensure reptiles get adequate protein in their diets and ways of doing this will differ depending on the species.

Not all species will be suitable pets for children as they have complex needs that must be fulfilled to make sure they are happy and healthy. It’s vital to think twice and talk to an exotics vet to ensure you can meet all of the health and welfare needs of a reptile before getting one as a pet.
Dr Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association

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