Your pet is licking the couch, or staring at you like a zombie—and of course he can't tell you why. "Many pets do things that are simply quirky, but sometimes signal an underlying medical or behavioral issue," says veterinarian Justine Lee, author of . These explanations for weird, but common, behaviors can help you understand your dog or cat better, and figure out when there's cause for concern.
You hardly notice it at first, but one day you realize that your jewelry, slippers, even dirty laundry, are disappearing. Then you see your pooch loping across the lawn with a sock clutched in his jaw. Dobermans, Airedale terriers and poodles have all been known to abscond with items, and the Munchkin breed of cat likes to hoard shiny objects. It may be an evolutionary trait—an offshoot of the same impulse that drives animals to capture, guard and bury their food.
SHOULD YOU WORRY? Probably not. Most likely your pet is just being playful. "Stealing can be fun, and it brings attention," says Sheila D'Arpino, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist with the Animal Rescue League of Boston. D'Arpino advises spending more time with your pet and rewarding him for good behavior, "so stealing isn't his main source of attention." But take note if Sticky Paws seems frantic or anxious, as it may be a sign of a compulsive disorder (common in Dobermans)—your vet may be able to prescribe antianxiety medication.
Swirling the water in their bowls with one paw is a signature move for many cats, like the water-loving Turkish angora and Maine coon (who would probably jump right in for a swim if they could). Others may be mimicking their ancestors, who fished for food. "Moving water is much more attractive to cats than stationary water," says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, author of , "especially considering that their ancestors who drank from standing water, which is more likely to be contaminated, did not survive as well as those who drank from running water." If your dog is sloshing his water, it's usually because it's fun, or he's just a sloppy drinker.
SHOULD YOU WORRY? No. Though messy, the behavior is only noteworthy if your pet regularly splashes all the water out or overturns the bowl completely, as he may be trying to tell you that the water is too warm or the bowl may smell or taste funny. Otherwise, just be sure to refresh your pet's water every few days or whenever there's fur or kibble floating around in it. Also try swapping your easily tipped bowl for a heavier one or a kitchen pot.
Many cat breeds like to lick plastic bags, possibly because of the way the plastic smells and tastes, or they like the way the bag shape-shifts when they prod it. Oriental cats (Siamese, Burmese, Singapura) are thought to have a genetic tendency to suck on wool objects (like a sweater or your carpet), while other felines who do this may have been weaned too early. Dogs may lick floors, furniture and carpets. Or you may notice your pet is licking the same spot on her body repeatedly.
SHOULD YOU WORRY? If it's infrequent, they're likely grooming themselves, or just rela. "Licking may release endorphins in the brain, which helps animals cope with stress," says D'Arpino. "But if she's doing it for hours, and won't come when called, it's a real issue." Some pets do it to distract themselves from nausea or an irritable bowel, and if your pet licks the same part of her body every time, that area may be hurting. "Interrupt obsessive licking ASAP, but do it kindly," says Patricia McConnell, PhD, author of . Then talk to your vet, who can diagnose any medical issues. Often, you can calm nervous pets by simply increasing their activity levels.
If your dog or cat is studying you intently, she may want something you control (food, water, a chance to relieve herself, or exercise).
SHOULD YOU WORRY? Only if you sense hostility: If your cat glares and snakes her head from side to side, or if your dog stiffens her body and shuts her mouth tightly, she may be challenging you. If it seems aggressive, Dr. Dodman advises walking away as if it isn't happening. (Don't stare back, as she may think you're reciprocating the challenge, increasing the chance of an attack.) In very rare cases, a cat glaring with twitching skin may indicate partial seizure activity, and you should report it to your vet. Otherwise, it's just a sign of affection. "If pets look at you and calmly bat their eyelids, they are expressing love," says Dr. Dodman. So return the compliment by engaging in a little playtime.