Furry and Feathered Kids

To think of displacement activities as symptomatic of inner turmoil is useful in two ways. First, in a lab or study setting, or even in a zoo, seeing what they call displacement behavior can give a signal to the humans in charge. Maybe lab animals or zoo animals are being treated more harshly than they need to be.

Pets are a much larger area of interest, personified by Amy Martin of Conscious Companion. As observant pet owners know, an action that is out of character can be a red flag. If a pet does something weird, it might signal an issue that could develop into a significant problem. Why is our awareness of these behaviors important? Martin writes,

Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues.

Martin says that some activities…

[…] have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.

Fair enough. And equally important, a pet’s frame of mind can be conveyed to individuals of a different species — namely, the humans upon whom they depend for their survival. Martin gives examples of what to look out for. In cats and dogs, displacement behavior can include:

— Yawning when not sleepy
— Grooming out of context
— Shaking off when not wet
— Stretching deeply
— Scent marking with their face

For cats, of course, there is the scratching post, which we purposely provide for them in the hope that it will displace their desire to scratch furniture, or us. It is noteworthy when a cat uses the scratching post after a stressful encounter. Every animal has its own signifiers. When a parrot feels conflicted, Martin cites “beak wiping and scratching” as common displacement behaviors.

What to do?

Martin suggests keeping it “upbeat and easy,” turning the conflict into fun…

[…] or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe. Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat. If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on.

Dr. Pretlow has written about the similarities shared by obese pets and obese children:

The pet-parent may need to confront and be treated for her/his own addictive eating to cease enabling it in the pet. The pet-parent would need to implement “tough love” and tolerate “cold shoulder” and actual hostility from the pet when reducing treats/food, as well as seek alternative sources of companionship.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Doin’ the Displacement,” ConsciousCompanion2012.com, August 2015
Source: “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” Cambridge.org, 07/29/16
Image by Cynthia Donovan/CC BY 2.0

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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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