Was It Out of Spite? Think Again.

Dogs do not do things out of spite or malice. They are often bored, scared, or need exercise!
Animals don’t do things out of spite or malice. They are often bored, frightened, or need exercise!

Many animal guardians truly believe that their cat, dog, bird, rabbit, pig, horse etc. does things “to them” out of spite or malice.  New Flash: This is not true.  When we don’t know how or why an animal behavior problem exists, we tend to make it about us; we personalize it.  In the animal behavior world, this is referred to this as Anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism: Attributing human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena

I need to be exercised. I am bored. I need to expend my energy elsewhere. Please help me, human.
I need to be exercised. I am bored. I need to expend my energy elsewhere. I am not trying to be a jerk. Please help me, human.

8 Things We Must Acknowledge:

1. All Behavior Serves a Purpose.

Every behavior that at animal does serves a purpose to fit that animal’s particular need at the time; that purpose is not to upset us.  When we find urine or feces on purses, backpacks, clothing, bedding, etc. most people’s first thought is usually that the cat or dog is doing it because he or she is mad or spiteful.  Nothing could be further from the truth. When your pet urinates or defecates on items in the house (your baby’s diaper bag, your boyfriend’s backpack, or your husband’s uniform), it’s not because they are jealous or spiteful.

I see you brought a new item into the house.  I will pee on that new thing and it will be mine.
I see you brought a new item into the house.  I will pee on that new thing and our scents have become One 😉

There could be a few reasons behind this behavior.  Unfamiliar scents in the home can be a stressor for our pets.  Cats “reaffirm” their claim on their territory by marking on a new item.  Although we don’t like it, this is a very normal feline behavior.  When they mark (pee or defecate on them), they are claiming that that particular territory belongs to them. (Diaper bag and backpack = their turf).

Self-preservation is at the root of almost all cat behavior.

Spraying Is Communication.  The abundance of pheromones in your cat’s urine spray are packed full of important tidbits. Spraying provides information about reproductive status, age, sex and even a cat’s emotional state! If you want the spraying to stop, you need to find out what and to whom your cat is trying to communicate.

Cat Spraying is NOT out of Spite_Why Cats Spray

Is it Medical?

If your dog is peeing inside the house, you need to first make sure there is not a medical issue at hand.  When a previously house-trained adult dog starts having accidents in the home, you need to see the veterinarian.  There very well could be a medical component to the accidents, such as a urinary tract infection or the onset of canine cognitive dysfunction.

Is it Environmental?

As their guardian, we need to review any changes that have occurred in our dog’s life.  Ask yourself:  Has there been a move, a change in routine or schedule, a change in diet, more people in the home – guests or new family members, the loss of a family member, a new pet, or the loss of a pet?  These are just a few changes that can contribute to a dog feeling anxious. Anxiety and stress can lead to inappropriate soiling in the house.

Are you gone all day? Dogs really shouldn’t have to hold their bladder for more than 4 or 5 hours. Consider asking a neighbor or dog walker to let your dog out while your’re away. You try holding your bladder for 8+ hours. I know I can’t.

Your dog may be anxious about conditions outside.  The sound of distant thunderstorms, construction, or traffic can all be very stressful for some dogs.  Your dog may normally potty outside, but if the noise is happening, he/she may hunker down indoors and refuse to leave the house; this can lead to  potty accidents in your home.

2. Our Human Perception Is Very Different Than an Animal’s

Ok, so you still aren’t convinced that animals are not acting like jerks just to upset us?   Let’s really think about this.  If our companion animals peed and pooped out of spite or malice, that means they would have to understand and believe that urine and feces are “gross”.  (But that is our personal, human perception of urine and feces; not theirs.)

Science shows that animals view feces and urine quite differently.  To an animal, there is nothing gross about taking a nice fat dump, or a long steamy pee.  In fact, urine and poop are absolutely fascinating to animals!  That’s why they investigate another animal’s urine and feces to learn more about them!

Poop has a plethora of information!
Poop has a plethora of information!

3. Assigning Human Attributes to Animals Is a Big Mistake

Have you ever done anything out of spite?  Think about what’s involved.  You have to do something now in order to upset somebody later.  You also need detailed insight into what would upset the other person, even if that same thing wouldn’t upset you.  And you have to plan it out, because the Nasty Surprise isn’t going to happen now, and might not happen for hours, days, or weeks later. That’s a lot of forethought for an animal. This is what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind“.  It’s the understanding that others have a viewpoint and perceptions all of their own, which might or might not be the same as yours.  Theory of Mind is “the way somebody conceives of mental activity in others, including how children conceptualize mental activity in others and how they attribute intention to and predict the behavior of others.”  

Experiments testing imitation, self-recognition, social relationships, deception, role-taking (or empathy), and perspective-taking help us to answer whether nonhuman animals have theory of mind.  Results have been mixed; only some results show the possibility that animals demonstrate awareness of the mental states of others.

I have my own personal beliefs about this. Almost every species I have worked with has demonstrated that they are self aware, but being spiteful and vengeful  were not part of the equation. So it’s really a very far stretch to believe that your cat, dog, rabbit, or pig can think to him/herself, “I find urine and poop quite interesting and informative, but my people are totally grossed out when they find a steamy pile of it on the family room carpet.  Hmmm.  I think I will poop there just to see their reaction.  I might even pee on their pillow.  That will teach them to not leave me again.”

Our animals are not plotting their revenge to get a reaction from you in the future!  Their behavior is not about YOU.   Let’s review this one more time:

 Anthropomorphism: Attributing human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena

4. But They Look Sooooo Guilty!

I hear people say this all the time, “But they look and act guilty when I find the mess!”.  Here’s the simple truth: If your pet seems to look as if they know they did something wrong after they have shredded something to pieces, or if they have peed or pooped in an off-limits area, there is a very simple explanation; they have learned that wanton destruction or pooping and peeing in the house combined with the presence of their guardian equals bad things (punishment or scolding).

When our pup puts on that doleful, guilty look, they must be guilty of something, right?  He/she clearly feels bad for doing something wrong!   The truth is simply this:  when your dog knows that you are upset he/she will use various facial expressions and body postures (their natural dog language with each other) for you to settle down and therefore avoid punishment.  

A group of canine cognition researchers created an experiment about the myth of guilt that explained the behavior that we see in our dogs when they display that “guilty look”.

There is plenty of evidence for what scientists refer to as primary emotions – happiness and fear, for example – in animals. But empirical evidence for secondary emotions like jealousy, pride, and guilt, is extremely rare in the animal cognition literature. The argument usually given for this lack of evidence is that such secondary emotions seem to require a level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals.  In other words, guilt is complicated.

Hey, if you left them out and they smell like you, they are going to get chewed. Don't be angry.  Prevent it and provide appropriate toys for them to chew!
Hey, if you left your things and they smell like you, they are going to get chewed. Don’t be angry. Prevent it next time by removing access to “unauthorized” chew things and provide appropriate toys!

5. Animals Do Have Emotions.

Unfortunately, many of us have learned that humans can be vindictive and spiteful.  However (but fortunately), this is not part of an animal’s nature.  Their innocence and purity of heart is one of the many reasons that we adore them.  But as you probably have learned for yourself, many of the animals we live with do not come with a clean slate.  Many of them have emotional burdens.  Many of them are sensitive to our emotions.

Because of this, our companion animals can (and will) destroy or improperly eliminate due to underlying emotional reasons. FACT: Anxiety is the most common emotional state underlying soiling in the house and destroying “our property”.   Anxiety is also the number one reason why physical punishment should NEVER be used for correcting behaviors.  Can you imagine being stressed beyond belief that your human has left you, so you destroy something, and then your human comes home to scream at you, or hit you?  Punishment only creates more fear.

Physical and mental punishment never helps the situation, and it certainly only makes behavior issues worse.

Avoid Punishment.

What if you were sick and you couldn’t hold your urine or bladder, then someone hit you, yelled at you, or rubbed your face in it? How would that make you feel? Would you learn not to do it again? Or would you start to fear that person, OR fear going to the bathroom in front of them?

Punishing your dog for potty accidents in the house is never a viable solution. Rather than learning that going inside the house is wrong, your dog will learn that people are unsafe and unpredictable. This can make your dog afraid to go potty in front of you, even outside, and it can make indoor accidents more frequent.

This will continue to happen until you give me appropriate chew toys.
This will continue to happen until you give me appropriate chew toys. I am bored. I have so much energy that needs to be released through healthy exercise. Help me.

6. Pets Are Not “Fur Kids”.

Ok, we all refer to our pets as “fur kids”, but animals are not humans.  Animals have their very own specific environmental, mental, and physical needs that need to be met.  When we treat them as if they are children, we are not recognizing what they inherently need to be happy and healthy in our home.  Your pet is not a child, nor should they be treated like one.  We need to learn to see animals for who they are; a living being that has species-specific needs. Of course our pets have distinct personalities, and they are some of our greatest teachers, but they are not children.  We do them a disservice when we don’t allow them to be a dog, a cat, or a parrot.  When we label them, and put unrealistic expectations on them, we hinder them, and what they need to fully thrive in our home.

These clothes smell new. I think I will make them smell more like me by peeing on them.
These clothes smell new. I think I will make them smell more like me by peeing on them. I am a cat. This is what we cats do.

7. If There Is a Behavioral Issue, It’s Your Job to Figure Out Why.

If your pet is house soiling or destroying “unauthorized items”, it’s your job as their guardian to figure out WHY.  There is always a reason, and I promise it’s not to upset you.  When we explain behaviors away by saying the animal is just “mad” at us or “being a jerk”, we are missing what’s really going on with our animal companions.  Your animal companion may need your HELP, instead of your anger and frustration. As their guardians, we have to learn to see their motivation behind the behavior.  Ask yourself:

  • Is there a medical issue that needs to be addressed?
  • Are they stressed from someone else, or another animal in the house?
  • Is there something outside that is adding stress?
  • Are they experiencing separation anxiety?
  • Are they bored?
  • Do they need more mental and physical enrichment?
Animals will find things to chew if we do not provide appropriate ones.
Animals will find things to chew if we do not provide appropriate ones.

 8. There could be a medical or behavioral issue that needs to be addressed ASAP!

When someone contacts me to help them with a behavior issue that they are seeing in their pet, the first thing I ask is, “When is the last time your ___ had a medical exam?  This is where we want to start.  If there is a behavior issue, we need to rule out the possibility of underlying health issues.   Health issues -in every species of animal- can directly affect their behavior. If there is a confirmed clean bill of health by the veterinarian, then we can start to address the environment, and what might be creating the new, (undesirable) behaviors that they are seeing in their pet.  This can be anything from their diet, to their “person”. Here are some common possibilities for why your pet is doing what you might refer to as “naughty things” when you’re not home:

  • They are climbing out of their skin with excess energy because h/she doesn’t receive enough exercise!
  • They cannot hold their urine or feces for the long time that you are gone.
  • Something else is scaring, frightening, or stressing them while you’re gone.
cat scratcing furniture
If you had given me an appropriate cat scratching post, I wouldn’t have done this to the couch. It was my only option.

So what’s the take home message here?  Our animals are not plotting their revenge on us.  They are not planning how to get back at us.  They are not programmed the way humans are.  So we must learn to recognize what is really going on with the animal that we have chosen to bring into our lives. Yes, “accidents” and mishaps happen in the house, but not because that’s the animal’s way of acting out and being “mad” at us.   Please take the human perceptions and judgments out of the situation, and learn to view life from the animal’s perspective.  Help them!  Find out what they need and what is causing their behavior.  There is always a valid reason and explanation behind it, and it’s not about trying to upset us.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” –Anais Nin

Recommended Reading:

Sources: http://www.merckmanuals.com/vet/behavior/behavioral_medicine_introduction/diagnosis_of_behavioral_problems.html






http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/pets/dog-behavior/ http://www.littlebigcat.com


20 thoughts on “Was It Out of Spite? Think Again.

  1. Laurel Trammell

    Great post! I plan to print this out the next time I find myself trying to convince someone their dog didn’t “do that on purpose.” 🙂


  2. Robert Young

    When one takes on the responsibility of being the guardian to any pet, dog or cat,the first thing they should do is Learn. Educate themselves and then the second thing they should do is “Learn” to think like their pet. I know to many this will sound silly or strange, become one with the animal, Learn to think like your dog or cat, when you do you will become two things the first is the best guardian you can be, the second is a much better person!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert, I completely agree! When messes, accidents and even destruction happens in our home, we have to take responsibility for it. If it could have been prevented or better managed, it’s up to us as their guardians to view life from their perspective and set them up for success!


  3. Amanda

    So when my dog peed directly on my
    Foot for the 2nd time this week it was not on purpose? We have a new baby and she’s been acting out ever since


    1. Amanda, thank you for your comment! I would love to share my experience with this. Is it possible that your dog has a medical condition that needs immediate attention? Companion animals (cats, dogs, and others) will very often tell us that they have something wrong with them, by doing the kind of behavior that you described. Has she been to the vet recently? You may meed to make sure she has a clean bill of health …
      Another thing to consider is this: IF she is checked out by the veterinarian and she has no medical issues, she could be displaying that behavior to Get Your Attention! Dogs who received a lot of attention before a baby arrived in the home often have a hard time adjusting when the attention is not focused on them anymore. Attention is often focused primarily on the baby. Have you noticed that you have not been giving her as much attention? Did she display a lot of attention seeking behaviors before your baby arrived? Dogs that display any attention seeking behaviors before, are only exaggerated and increase once a baby comes into the home.

      1. Are there ways that you can set aside some one-on-one play time with just you and her?
      2. Are there ways that you can consider safely including her in family routines with your baby? This is called “Inclusion” – it’s the importance of including your family dog in daily routines and how to include them safely w/ your child.

      Our Family Paws website can help you with some ideas on how to do this: http://dogsandstorks.blogspot.com/2011/11/setting-up-for-success.html

      and here: https://apdt.com/education/webinars/archives/0013/default.aspx

      And here: http://familypaws.com/introduce-your-dog-and-baby/


      1. AC

        terrible article. Anyone who has actually owned a dog or a cat knows they are very intelligent and they do react to how they’re treated. My dog just spite pissed on the floor because we have not played fetch in weeks. Human baby gets priority over rescued street dog. He will get attention but he’s not #1 anymore.


      2. Good Monday to you! Thank you for commenting. I would love to discuss this further, to provide some insight for you and your family.

        I understand all too well that it appears as if our animal family members are “peeing on purpose” to upset us; I have been there before, but fortunately, science has shown that there is almost always a medical or behavioral issue behind this kind of behavior. When is the last time your dog has had a FULL medical examination (including a blood and urine analysis)?

        Getting your dog (or any other pet) to the veterinarian is the first thing that I suggest to my clients when they see the kind of behavior that you are describing.

        – Anxiety can cause a dog to urinate in front of their owner.
        – a Urinary Tract Infection can cause urination in the house.
        – Weakening of the bladder and sphincter muscles can cause urination in the house.
        – Incontinence may also be related to illnesses that are not directly associated with the bladder and intestines, like viruses and bacterial infections.
        – Dogs with brain diseases, including cognitive dysfunction, may eliminate on the floor with no detectable pattern.
        – Urine Marking can be another cause.
        – Separation Anxiety could be an issue.
        – Kidney Disease is also linked to urinating in the house.
        – bladder infections, bladder stones or crystals, or
        bladder tumors, arthritis, diabetes, or Cushing’s disease could all contribute to indoor elimination.

        Adding a child to a home can often cause a lot of stress on the pets, not to mention the stress added to the parents! 🙂 This is very common.

        It’s also something that I specialize in, by helping families and their pets adjust to a new baby, or to a toddler “on the move”!

        Feel free to contact me if you would like additional help, or if you have questions: http://www.consciouscompanion.com/

        Here are some links that you might find insightful about dogs urinating in the house:




        Click to access Submissive_and_Excitement_Urination_in_Dogs.pdf

        Here are a few ideas that you can try with your dog, to make time for “play time” with a busy schedule:





        I hope this helps! 🙂


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  6. maria

    Well this is probably going to take a long time to explain, but we have this dog, a coon hound and believe it or not she really does make a great indoor dog when she doesn’t act out, which seems to happen for about a week every few months. She is not my dog, she is my husbands dog, and all she really does is tolerate me while he is her everything. However I’m the one that feeds her and takes care of her and is the enforcer and works on trying to make punishment as low key as it can be. Here’s why: when she does do something, something she probably won’t even get in trouble for she pops a squat directly after, and that she does get in trouble for. All we do is put her in her cage (which is big enough for her) overnight. We used to have it in the room and we tried putting pillows in it to make it comfortable, but she pooped in it, so now it lays bare. Then we placed the cage as far away from our room as possible, so the punishment really means something and it seemed to work for a very long time. It’s like banishing her from the pack until she behaves. It’s still a constant battle with her though. We’ve taken her out to go and she would immediately come in and go instead. Someone always has to be out there with her to ensure that she does her business outside. Recently we decided she just can’t be on the bed anymore, she’s too big and it wakes my husband up a lot during the night, he tries to move her and she barks very loudly but more than that she’s meaner and rude when she’s on the bed. So we made her a nice spot and of course she poops on it and all over the room late at night. Then the cage thing, then when we let her out and called her up, she poops halfway up the stairs turns around and goes right back into her cage. Now, I am totally at a loss as to what to do with this dog. I don’t like using the cage and I would hate to have her caged for days and nights on end but this is getting silly. Can she really be that ticked off that she doesn’t get to be on the bed?


  7. This all sounds well and good. I have a cat who has never had a change in anything. Except one day we let her out on the front porch and she pooped on the rug by the door. I did get upset, and set about retraining her. Then I went away for four days but my husband was here, and she peed and pooped on the furniture, and he was again letting her go outside on the porch. She need sto be an indoor cat, cuz of the wild animals outside. Should we simply not have let her out. Can we train her to be an indoor cat again? or has she just gotten a taste of freedom and is pouting? I am desperate. I came home, and thought we were back on track, and then she came out of her potty room and pooped on the couch. seriously don’t know if I can keep her. My husband is sight impaired and i can’t be here all the time.


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  12. Dash

    While a lot of what you said may be true, it is not when it comes to rabbits. Rabbits are highly intelligent and can, in fact, be vengeful.


  13. Our 16-year-old chow/shepherd mix has no serious health problems (full exams three times in three months by three different vets). Even though she’s an elderly dog, she’s as strong-willed and sharp as ever. (Still remembers how to sit, stay, lay down, heel while on a leash, etc.)

    While I see the author’s point about pets being incapable of human motives such as spite or malice, I feel that intelligent pets are very much capable of formulating their own logic (cause-and-effect). As an example, our dog was free to roam the yard at our former home for the better part of 15 years. Now, however, due to age and a recent move to a more extreme climate, she is spending 100 percent of her time as an indoor dog. In our former home, by contrast, she spent only bad weather indoors. In ALL of those years she never once soiled her confinement area (a laundry room at the back of the house given our status as renters).

    Upon buying our present home, she at first was on her best behavior indoors. But three months in, she has decided that the best way to protest her sleep/confinement area is to soil it. In her dog’s mind this no doubt makes perfect sense: By soiling her bed (sleep/confinement area), we have to open the pet gate and bring her out as a means to get to it for cleanup (and to ensure that she doesn’t step in it while we are doing so). So in a very basic sense, despite the scolding she receives, she has figured out a surefire way to ensure that her pet gate reopens. For us this is necessary to separate her from her own feces. But for her? It’s a ticket to freedom.

    At first we fretted over the possibility of fecal incontinence but it turns out to be quite the opposite. It got to the point where each night we were taking her out 5-6 times between 7 p.m. and midnight and another two times between 3:30-4:30 a.m. (which is when one member of the household gets up for work!). But did frequent access outdoors solve the problem? Unfortunately, no. The more we have taken her outdoors the more, not less, she soils her own bed.

    All this nonsense exists because she doesn’t want to sleep where we have the enclosure, adjacent to our bedroom in a front entryway. (At night, we have to sometimes physically pick her up because she refuses to “go to bed” in her enclosure.) I might be tempted to blame this on separation anxiety except that our dog has, since the day we moved in to our home, refuses to set foot in our bedroom night or day. (Sleeping in the same room with us isn’t the goal. Our bedroom and her sleep/confinement area are the two areas she avoids in the house.)

    During the daytime hours, her only aim is to nap — she’s always napped very much like a cat! — and so she makes quick work of her “business” but during the evening she takes her excursions outdoors as a game and upon reentering the house has begun to signal her desire to go back out. Of course, fear that she has not finished her business has caused us to comply every time she tugs on her leash to head back out. Sometimes she would begin to raise her tail or squat as if Number 2 was on the way. But in the last seven weeks she’s done an about-face during the evening/nighttime hours and holds it until she’s confined to her sleep area — then deposits it on the bed. (No amount of letting her out and praising her for doing it outdoors has changed this situation.)

    In summary, while our dog never has an accident with Number 1 she is increasingly resistant to doing Number 2 outdoors. In her mind, she’s being a perfectly logical. When feces are scattered about her sleep area, the gate to her enclosure flies open to rush her out before she steps in the mess. So it’s a case of “feces = freedom”. We caught on to this motive and tried to escort her to the attached garage so that it would not feel as if she was free at such points to make a B-line to her favorite spots in the house, but even our attempts to relocate her to a less desirable place has not worked.

    Perhaps pets don’t do these things out of malice or spite but they definitely do things on a very simplistic albeit logical manner. Our dog is sending a clear message that if we dare confine her she will soil her bed if not also lay on the mess to ensure she has to be removed (to clean her up).

    This may be negative attention, but it’s attention nonetheless!

    At this rate, she may succeed in her battle of the wills given that we cannot continue to awaken in the morning to her lying in her own feces (which necessitates a full bath, time we don’t have on a daily/nightly basis!) Our dog’s reward for demonstrating that it is a bad idea on our part to confine her is that she is let out of her enclosure so that we can clean up. At 16 years old she’s no dummy. She knows that once her bed is a mess, she’s outta there. Maybe she isn’t spiteful but she’s doing the training here — training us that we will be punished for trying to restrict her freedom to pick and choose where she wishes to go in our house.


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