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Are You Unintentionally Neglecting Your Pet?

Date: November 5, 2023

How to cite: Barata, R. (2024). Are You Unintentionally Neglecting Your Pet? Human-Animal Science.

Throughout my career, I have introduced the concept of unintentional neglect in animal training and written an encyclopedia entry about it. You can read the entry HERE :

This concept is necessary for understanding how pet care can fall short even with the owner’s best intentions. Unintentional neglect can be defined as failing to meet an animal's needs due to various factors, including lack of knowledge about specific requirements, ideological or outdated views at the family or cultural level, incorrect advice from pet professionals or third parties, time constraints, financial difficulties, or sudden changes in life circumstances. 

Please find below a list of topics that are related to unintentional neglect. It is essential to understand these topics to prevent and address unintentional neglect in various settings, such as healthcare, social services, and education. By increasing our awareness of these issues, we can take proactive steps to prevent harm and ensure the safety and well-being of those who may be vulnerable.

1- The Misunderstanding of Behavioral Labels: The 'Reactive' Label and the "Zoomies"

The term "reactive" in animal behavior is a meme and an oversimplified label, which I paralleled with the "alpha dog" concept in my book. The issue with such labels is their generic nature, leading to misunderstandings of an animal's specific needs and behaviors. 

It's problematic to use generic labels to oversimplify a complex range of behaviors, which can vary from ritualistic and stereotypical to aggressive, among others. Just because a term is widely used doesn't necessarily make it accurate or appropriate.

The lack of consensus on what "reactive" behavior entails can lead to misapplication in training and care. Overreliance on this label can absolve trainers and pet owners from responsibility, attributing problematic behaviors to the animal's inherent "reactiveness" rather than ethologically analyzing the presented behavior or the animal's environment and learning.

On the other hand, the portrayal of "zoomies," or Frenetic Random Activity Periods (FRAPs) in pets, especially dogs, is another example that is often whimsically depicted in popular literature and media. These behaviors are typically shown in social media in a light-hearted and funny context, with numerous esteemed authors and scientific community members describing these episodes as natural and humorous. However, these depictions lack substantial references or scientific evidence to support their assertions because there are no studies or deep academic work exploring them.

While amusing, this popular portrayal of zoomies potentially overlooks the need for a more nuanced understanding of this behavior. The absence of evidence-based research over a decade raises questions about whether FRAPs might sometimes be a symptom of unintentional neglect, resulting from factors like under or over-stimulation. Labeling such behavior as inherently "funny" or "normal" creates a risk of unwittingly contributing to neglect, as this perspective can prevent a deeper investigation into a pet's overall well-being and environmental needs.

Consequently, pet owners are encouraged to consider the context and frequency of zoomies. While they can be a harmless expression of energy, it's essential to remain vigilant to the possibility that they might also indicate unaddressed issues.

2- Knowledge Gaps in Pet Care

Unintentional neglect also stems from fundamental knowledge gaps about an animal's needs, ranging from diet and exercise to behavior and individual needs. Impulsive decisions to have a pet and not seeking professional advice beforehand are signs of unintentional neglect.

Many pet care practices are inherited or influenced by cultural norms and can be outdated or harmful. It's important to reevaluate these beliefs and practices with a critical understanding of animal welfare and well-being.

A less obvious form of unintentional neglect involves the balance between stimulation and overstimulation. Much like humans, pets require a balanced environment for their mental and emotional well-being. Inadequate stimulation, such as a lack of play or exploration opportunities, can lead to understimulation. Conversely, excessive toys and continuous stimulation can overwhelm an animal, leading to overstimulation and stress-related behaviors. Understanding each pet's unique needs is critical to providing the right level of engagement.

There is also a wrong idea passed on in social media by using "beautiful” and staged situations, giving a misunderstood idea of the meaning of “having a pet.”

3- Managing Behaviors in Pets

Addressing pet behaviors is complex and often intertwined with the owner's actions and understanding. Owners may contribute to behavior problems and then struggle to manage these perceived problems. The label "problem behavior" can be misleading, often encompassing normal species-specific undesirable behaviors in a human-centric society.

A fundamental challenge is the lack of education or unbiased understanding of learning theory among pet owners. Misconceptions about reinforcement and punishment are common, sometimes exacerbating issues.

Proper education and understanding that problematic behaviors are often natural responses to the environment or unmet needs are required. Adjusting the environment and adequate training for the individual can mitigate these behaviors effectively.

Consistent training, daily practice, and gradual exposure to various stimuli are essential, especially between professional sessions. Notably, the habituation of pets to stimuli like fireworks is often neglected, or owners leave it to the last minute, leading to distress and inadequate preparation. Proper desensitization and habituation, rather than quick-fix methods like medication, are necessary. During stressful events like fireworks or thunderstorms, securing homes and creating safe spaces for pets is essential to prevent panic and escape attempts.

4- The Impact of Lifestyle and Financial Constraints

Unexpected lifestyle changes or financial constraints can lead to unintentional neglect, reducing time and attention for pets.

Financial challenges can affect the ability to afford consistent veterinary care and quality food. Proactive planning, like pet insurance or emergency funds, can alleviate financial burdens.

5- The Challenge of Misinformation and Information Overload in the Digital Age

The digital landscape presents challenges of misinformation and information overload, especially from social media and online platforms. This environment can lead to unintentional neglect in pet care.

Social media and online communities often mix opinions and advice that are not reliable or scientifically validated. Misinformation extends beyond false facts, including ideological practices, unqualified advice, overgeneralizations, and myths.

Pet owners must proactively research, critically approach information, and seek credible sources, practical, scientifically backed resources, and effective solutions for the situation. Being proactive also means being willing to learn and adapt as new knowledge emerges and understanding of animal welfare evolves.

Conclusion: A Call to Awareness and Responsibility

A comprehensive strategy involving awareness, education, and a critical approach to information is indispensable to address unintentional neglect in pet care. 

Understanding a pet's needs and applying appropriate procedures according to the individual are elemental. Responsible pet ownership today involves a holistic approach that considers a pet's multifaceted well-being. By staying informed, critically evaluating information, and proactively engaging in their pet's care, owners can ensure a nurturing environment for their pets.