Because huddling by the fire these days is apt to win out over a romp in the woods, don't be surprised if you're not the only one with cabin fever. Your dog (or cat) may be getting downright neurotic. And frigid winds may not be the only thing that's biting.
"There's a close correlation between confinement and aggression," says Ginger Hamilton, a psychologist who treats both people and pets. Winter confinement, she says, can heighten tensions between man and beast. In the 10 years she has treated problem behavior in pets, January and February have consistently been busy times at her animal psychology office in Silver Spring.
The same uneasiness you're noticing in yourself, says Hamilton, you'll see in animals.
"Did you ever teach school?" she asks. "Nothing is worse than a day when you can't take the kids outside . . . the teacher is climbing the wall, the kids are climbing the wall. The same thing happens to animals. If you confine an animal, they're going to have to let that energy off."
Without an appropriate outlet, that energy can manifest itself in aggression due to stress: the biggest single cause of behavioral disorders in animals, often a reaction to living conditions (confusion, change or anything inhibiting normal animal behavior, such as lack of exercise).
"People get grouchy when they're confined and animals pick that up," says Hamilton.
Hamilton finds that of the three factors determining an animal's personality -- genetics, parentage and environment -- aggressive disorders are most often "a function of the environment," either as a direct result of living conditions or the owner's personality.
One preliminary finding in Hamilton's study of animal-abuse is that maltreated dogs are overly aggressive. The prognosis for cure is "poor." In another study, she has found that pet owners who have sought psychological help for pets with aggressive problems tend to be aggressive themselves. Dogs are more likely than cats to demonstrate aggressive behavior.
"The slightest growl, the lip lift, the hair coming up," are all signals that should be heeded, warns Hamilton. Especially in large dogs, "one bite could be lethal."
"A danger symptom for aggression would be any kind of aggressive behavior around food. You should be able to remove anything from an animal's mouth. If you can't, you've got problems."
Essentially, discipline dynamics for animals resemble those for children: They need to have structure, says Hamilton, to feel secure, and love is not the panacea. "If you don't maintain the structure, they'll quickly test your limits again, just as children do."
One of the most trying situations -- house-soiling -- is apt to increase during winter confinement. Lead the transgressor to the site rather than calling it to be punished. Your call, she says, should be associated with positive things, and you want your pet to know that it is not them, but their behavior you're objecting to.
"Then bawl them out like mad." Act for about 15 minutes, she says, as if you don't own a pet. "They're in disgrace and that hurts them more than anything else." Afterwards, act normally, but do not lavish attention because you feel guilty about punishment. That's a sure-fire way, says Hamilton, to build a masochistic relationship.
The ice and snow of winter, of course, only magnify the confinement problem that exists for many city dogs year-round.
"It's socially acceptable -- and important and necessary -- to fulfill needs through pets," says Hamilton.
"But in order to keep problems to a minimum, owners must assume responsibility for their pets' environment. It's the single most important element affecting your pet, and you, as owner, control it."