Why Else Do Animals Do What They Do?

In difficult situations, displacement behavior helps people to cope by reducing stress. It seems that a lot of things have not been definitively figured out yet. For instance, related-study authors Changiz Mohiyeddini and Stuart Semple wrote,

Increased levels of displacement behavior are associated with feelings of anxiety and stress; however, the extent to which displacement behavior, as a short-term behavioral response to emotionally challenging stimuli, influences the subsequent experience of stress remains poorly understood.

Although early ethologists observed animals and then extrapolated to human behavior, it has always been possible to turn that around; to observe humans and extrapolate backward to animal behavior. Some call this anthropomorphizing, or attributing human characteristics to non-humans, and frown upon it.

In an audio presentation of interest to Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists and authorities in related fields, an applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell notes that ethologists coined the term “displacement behavior” to refer to out-of-context activities. Again, there is uncertainty about what exactly is going on. McConnell continues:

[Suzanne] Hetts and [Dan] Estep make the excellent point that displacement behavior MAY be a sign of fear or stress… but not necessarily. Take a dog sniffing the ground before greeting another dog for example, often labeled as a “calming signal.” Ethologists would label this as a classic example of a displacement activity – the animal is in some kind of conflict about how to proceed next.

[S]niffing is an example of an animal avoiding conflict with another by avoiding social pressure and giving both dogs time to adjust and settle.

What could be wrong with a delaying tactic that avoids bloodshed? It seems unfair to label this sort of thing as out-of-context, inappropriate, and even wrong. McConnell points out an often-forgotten fact: stress is a neutral term. There is eustress and distress, the difference between a wedding day and a hurricane. McConnell again:

Note that being “stressed” is not inherently a negative state. Stress, if defined and used correctly in the biological sense, refers to being pushed out of a state physiological homeostasis, either by something negative or positive.

A romping puppy confirms that animals can experience both kinds. Another intriguing thought is, “[O]ne single action or posture is never enough to accurately interpret an animal’s behavior.” Although displacement activity is called inappropriate and out-of-context, if we thought we knew everything about why animals do what they do, we would be kidding ourselves.

In “The displacement mechanism: a new explanation and treatment for obesity,” Dr. Pretlow wrote,

The displacement mechanism plays an adaptive role. Yet, if excessively expressed by the animal, from recurring untenable situations, the mechanism may go rogue and become destructive. For example, stressed or socially isolated dogs may lick their paws raw (excessive displacement to the grooming drive), causing significant damage to the paws, termed acral lick disorder.

Veterinarians acknowledge that this disorder may stem from such psychological causes as boredom, insufficient exercise, stress, or anxiety. Still, there are at least nine somatic reasons why some dogs inflict granuloma wounds on themselves, and a range of at least that many lab tests to rule out physical causes. We believe we can figure out why a dog will not give up excessive paw-licking. But maybe he intends to keep it up until someone takes his picture for the cover of DIY Veterinarians Magazine. We are pretty sure that is not the reason, but can we really be 100% certain?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Displacement behaviour regulates the experience of stress in men,” ResearchGate.net, September 2012
Source: “Stress? Fear? Or ‘Displacement Behavior’?,” PatriciaMcConnell.com, 06/26/16
Source: “Acral Lick Dermatitis (Lick Granuloma) in Dogs,” GreatPetCare.com, 09/15/20
Image by Emanuel Bjurhager/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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