Pet behaviour

Unwanted behaviours can damage the bond between pets and their owner and can also result in serious consequences for their welfare. Behavioural problems remain one of the top reasons for dogs to be surrendered to rescues20 and can be a cause of stress for owners


Our data this year has shown a higher proportion of dogs are being left alone for longer periods of time than over the last 2 years (see Companionship). If owners have not properly prepared their dogs for this change, there is a risk of them developing separation related behaviours21.

11% of dogs (1.1 million) are showing signs of stress when left alone*. This is significantly higher for dogs obtained from abroad (20%) compared to dogs obtained from a UK rescue centre rehoming UK pets (12%) or UK breeder of one specific breed (10%). Significantly more dogs owned for up to two years are showing signs of distress when left alone (14%) compared to dogs owned for over five years (9%) – these dogs will only have known life through the COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdowns, so may never have experienced longer periods of time alone.


Signs of fear in dogs

23% of dogs are growling, biting, snapping or showing signs of fear, all of which could be related to a lack of socialisation to new experiences as a young puppy 22. Significantly fewer dogs less than one year old (16%) are displaying these signs compared to dogs aged over one (23%). Whilst we don’t know the reasons for this, it may be that dogs under one have had more normality compared to those slightly older dogs who would have been obtained during the first few months of the pandemic and therefore may have not been exposed to new experiences or had appropriate positive socialisation during lockdowns. However, it may reflect untreated fears and anxieties worsening as dogs become older when signs may become increasingly severe as more subtle communication attempts are unsuccessful.

13% of dogs are growling, snapping or biting unfamiliar dogs, suggesting they may be uncomfortable around dogs they do not know. The proportion of dogs showing this behaviour that were obtained from abroad (19%) or from a UK rescue for UK pets (17%) is significantly higher than for dogs obtained from a UK breeder of one specific breed (10%). Additionally, significantly more dogs obtained from a UK rescue or rehoming centre for UK pets are showing growling, biting, or snapping behaviours and signs of fear (29%) compared to dogs obtained from a UK breeder of one specific breed (17%). While this may reflect in some cases the reasons dogs were surrendered to rescue in the first place, it does highlight the importance of owners choosing rescue organisations who provide full behavioural assessment and post-adoption support.

Significantly more neutered dogs are growling, snapping or biting unfamiliar dogs (14%) compared to unneutered dogs (10%) and significantly more neutered dogs are showing signs of fear (12%) compared to unneutered dogs (8%). This may reflect a higher proportion of neutered dogs coming from UK rescue centres for UK pets (18%) compared to dogs acquired from a UK based breeder of one specific breed (25%). It also highlights the importance of a full veterinary assessment to include behavioural discussions before owners decide on neutering procedures for their pets as removing sex hormones can make problems worse in those dogs that may be anxious and fearful23,24.

Click the above image to see what dogs are afraid of

We asked owners whether their dog had ever been bitten, or had themselves bitten or chased other animals or people. 83% of owners told us that their dog had never been involved in any of these situations. However, 5% (510,000) of dogs have been bitten by another dog outside the home where veterinary care was needed, 3% (320,000) have bitten an unfamiliar dog and 2% (190,000) have bitten a familiar dog. Also, 1% (140,000 dogs) have bitten an owner or carer where professional medical care has been needed, however, this is likely to only capture the more severe bites, and those where medical intervention wasn’t warranted may be much higher.

Training aids for dogs

The majority of owners (86%) told us that they had used training devices for their dog**, with only 13% saying they had not used any of the options given. 20% of dog owners have used training devices that are aversive*** and can be damaging to welfare. This is significantly fewer than in 2019 (25%) but still means that 2 million dogs are subjected to aversive and negative training methods which can compromise welfare, the human-dog relationship, and make behaviour problems worse25.

More owners of dogs obtained from abroad use aversive training aids (31%) compared to dogs from a UK rescue centre for UK pets (14%), from UK based breeders of single or multiple breeds (23%) or from family, friends or neighbours (16%). Fewer dogs registered with a vet use citronella, prong, vibrating, and electric shock collars (5%) compared to those not registered with a vet (10%), which may be a result of veterinary staff communicating the harmful impact these tools can have, or veterinary referrals guiding owners to qualified, registered behaviourists who use positive, evidence-based methods.

Significantly more dogs registered with a vet use treats and rewards as a training aid (76%) compared to those not registered with a vet (42%). Similarly, more dogs registered with a vet use food dispensing toys (24%) compared to those not registered (12%).  Again, this could reflect veterinary teams promoting the use of these valuable training aids.


44% of cats are showing behaviours that may be indicative of stress****. It is important to note that some of these behaviours may not always be seen under stress and may be misinterpreted by the owner, however they can indicate welfare problems for the cat.

Significantly more cats in a single-cat household are showing signs of hiding behaviour (14%) compared to households with two (10%) or three or more (4%) cats. There are a number of possible explanations - owners may have recognised this behaviour in their cats and have tried to reduce their stress by not acquiring other cats, or it could be more noticeable to owners with only one cat to observe.  Alternatively, as cats in multi-cat households often divide up their space, it may be that they are unable to access suitable places to hide.

Significantly more cats in a single-cat household are showing timid, scared or nervous behaviour (24%) compared to households with two (17%) or three or more (10%) cats. Similar to hiding behaviour, it may be that owners notice this more when their focus is only on one cat or contrarily, having another cat/s in the household that they are bonded with may provide confidence and reassurance.

Significantly more cats that live both indoors and outdoors are growling, swiping, or biting other household cats (9%) compared to those cats that live indoors only (5%) which is an interesting finding given that conflict is likely to be higher in indoor-only cats due to potential limitation of resources; however, it may be that owners with indoor cats manage the environment better. Conversely, significantly fewer cats that live both indoors and outdoors are hiding (10%) or showing timid, scared, and nervous behaviour (19%) compared to indoor only cats (16% and 24% respectively). This could reflect the type of cat that owners choose to keep indoors.

30% of owners told us that their cat was afraid of travelling in the car, and 25% were afraid of the vet. This could lead to owners being unwilling to seek veterinary attention when needed. Initiatives such as the International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) Cat Friendly Clinic scheme provide education and resources for veterinary teams on reducing the stress for cats during visits to the vets.


41% of dog owners (4.1 million dogs), 30% of cat owners (3.3 million cats) and 16% of rabbit owners (160,000 rabbits) told us that their pet was afraid of fireworks. In comparison, 24% of dogs, 17% of cats and 11% of rabbit owners told us that their pet was afraid of thunder and lightning. Firework phobia is well recognised in dogs but may be under recognised by owners in cats and rabbits, due to those species not showing overt signs of fear, particularly if their coping mechanism is to hide away. Therefore, the proportion of cats and rabbits with fear of fireworks is likely to be much higher than our findings suggest. This is an area where owner education and support is vital.

82% of all owners agreed that fireworks should only be allowed on certain dates and times and 71% of owners agreed that there should be a compulsory reduction in the noise of fireworks to make them quieter.

Hear from Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine, Dr Sarah Heath, FRCVS

Dr Sarah Heath FRCVS – RCVS and EBVS® European Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine


* e.g. scratching, destructive behaviour, prolonged barking, crying, howling, toileting in the house

** clicker training, citronella collar, electric shock collar, vibrating collar, prong collar, treats or food rewards, toys, food dispensing toys, muzzle, Halti, choke chain, pet corrector spray, water pistol or spray, homemade rattle or noise device.

***citronella collar, electric shock collar, vibrating collar, prong collar, choke chain, pet corrector spray, water pistol or spray, homemade rattle or noise device

**** Growling, biting, swiping, inappropriate toileting, hiding, timid, nervous, scared, overgrooming

20. Powdrill-Wells, N., Taylor, S., & Melfi, V. (2021). Reducing dog relinquishment to rescue centres due to behaviour problems: identifying cases to target with an advice intervention at the point of relinquishment request. Animals, 11(10), 2766.

21. Meneses, T., Robinson, J., Rose, J., Vernick, J., & Overall, K. L. (2021). Review of epidemiological, pathological, genetic, and epigenetic factors that may contribute to the development of separation anxiety in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 259(10), 1118-1129.

22. Puurunen, J., Hakanen, E., Salonen, M. K., Mikkola, S., Sulkama, S., Araujo, C., & Lohi, H. (2020). Inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living environment are associated with social fearfulness in pet dogs. Scientific reports, 10(1), 1-10.

23. Guy, N. C., Luescher, U. A., Dohoo, S. E., Spangler, E., Miller, J. B., Dohoo, I. R., & Bate, L. A. (2001). Demographic and aggressive characteristics of dogs in a general veterinary caseload. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 74(1), 15-28.

24. Bradshaw, J. W. S., McPherson, J. A., Casey, R. A., & Larter, I. S. (2002). Aetiology of separation‐related behaviour in domestic dogs. Veterinary Record, 151(2), 43-46

25. Fernandes, J. G., Olsson, I. A. S., & de Castro, A. C. V. (2017). Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 196, 1-12.