Behavioral problems affect more dogs and cats than any other medical condition and are one of the most common causes of euthanasia and abandonment. You might think that veterinarians only know about medicine and questions about pet behavior are best left to trainers, but veterinarians have the expertise to help you address all kinds of behavior issues—as well as prevent them.
Because mental health is just as important as physical health for the well being of dogs and cats, behavior management is part of modern veterinary practices. At Manchester Animal Hospital we consider many different types of behavior management. Some are easy to resolve and just require good training. Others respond to the use of pharmaceutical and/or nutraceuticals, while a percentage require a referral to a Veterinary Behavior Specialist.
The following are the recommendations from The American Animal Hospital Association. I was delighted to co-author an AHAA Journal article with Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a pioneer in behavior research at Tufts University College of Veterinary Medicine, and one of my favorite Board-Certified Behavior Specialists.
You are the eyes and ears for your veterinarian. Your pet may act differently at home than in the exam room, so tell your veterinarian about any behavioral issues you’ve noticed. Sometimes there’s an underlying medical reason for a problem, like a house trained pet suddenly urinating indoors. Veterinarians can also create treatment plans for common behavior problems, including separation anxiety, noise phobia, inappropriate elimination (i.e., cats not using the litterbox), and aggression.
Decoding body language is critical. Most of us know trembling or whining are signs of distress, but other indicators include yawning, lip licking, lowering of the head or neck, avoiding direct eye contact, shifting legs, and changes in eating or drinking habits. If ignored, a pet could lash out in fear or aggression with catastrophic consequences. Your veterinarian can help you learn to look for a variety of warning signs.
Evaluate behavior early and often. It’s best if you and your veterinarian discuss your pet’s behavior at every exam and enter both of your observations in the medical record. This can help you create appropriate treatment plans and detect potential issues as soon as possible. Plus, dogs and cats never stop learning from experiences, so the sooner you can replace negative associations with positive ones, the better.
Less stress is best. If your pet seems particularly anxious during visits to the animal hospital, don’t stay away. Instead, talk to your veterinarian about ways to diminish stress. AAHA’s guidelines recommend using gentle-handling techniques, offering low-calorie treats to make the visit enjoyable, keeping dogs and cats separate in waiting areas, providing non-slip floors, and moving at the animal’s pace. Reactive pets can enter through side or back doors, and hospitals can schedule them for the first or last appointment of the day instead of during peak hours. Some owners also see significant improvement when pets are given anti-anxiety medication prior to the visit.
Age is a factor. Sometimes dogs or cats will display behavior changes as seniors, which can be caused by loss of vision, hearing, or physical flexibility. Medications, diets, supplements, and environmental changes can improve the quality of life for senior pets and their owners.
Keep it positive. The guidelines strongly endorse positive behavior-modification techniques, such as rewarding correct behaviors and removing rewards for unwanted behaviors. Never use aversive techniques, such as shock or prong collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, or beating, which harm the human-animal bond, problem-solving ability, and health of the pet.
Ask for referrals. Training is not a regulated field; however, your veterinarian can recommend a qualified trainer if your pet needs one. Most importantly, trainers should be certified by a reliable organization that employs positive training methods. In serious cases, such as when a pet bites, cats cannot coexist without fighting, or an anxious dog causes upheaval in the home or neighborhood, you will want a referral for a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
As always, prevention is the best medicine. Behavioral development occurs rapidly in kittens and puppies. The importance of exposure and handling in the first two months can’t be overemphasized. In fact, the guidelines state: “There is no medical reason to delay puppy and kitten classes or social exposure until the vaccination series is completed as long as exposure to sick animals is prohibited, basic hygiene is practiced, and diets are high quality. The risks attendant with missing social exposure far exceed any disease risk.”
Don’t rule out “better living through chemistry.” Your veterinarian can tailor a plan for your pet that not only includes behavior modification, but medication as well. There are dozens of prescription medications used to decrease anxiety, fear, and panic in pets. Medications should be used only as part of an integrated treatment program.
Keep in mind, there’s hope with treatment. By identifying and addressing any behavioral issues with the help of your veterinary team, you can strengthen your relationship with your pet and avoid future frustrations. Many dogs and cats are relinquished to animal shelters for behavior issues, so talking to your veterinarian as soon as you notice any troubling behavior could save your pet’s life! In the end, remember: You are not alone.
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