Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How can vets do behaviour better?

Dr Kersti Seksel with companion Indi.

Did you know that over two thirds of pet owners ask their vet questions about behaviour – but they often walk away with unanswered questions. SAT talked to veterinary behaviour specialist Dr Kersti Seksel about what exactly behaviour vets do and how we can all do behaviour a bit better.

Dr Seksel is a registered veterinary specialist in Behavioural Medicine, and principal of Sydney Animal Behaviour Service (SABS). She is also the proud owner of GSD Indi.

How is what a veterinary behaviour specialist does different from what a trainer does?

Unfortunately there are no clear definitions that the public can easily find. – the word ‘behaviourist’ is used very loosely and often isn’t in reference to a veterinary behaviour specialist or any specialised qualifications or training.
A dog trainer can call themselves a canine behaviour specialist or a behaviourist and there are no laws governing that; they don’t need to have any qualifications.

This is where the problem lies. While training is useful for helping teach basic manners, it won’t assist with medically based behaviour issues. The two professions deal with very different issues however the distinction isn’t well understood by pet owners.

The general public still tends to think that if an animal is behaving badly then you just need to train it to resolve the issue.  However training will not address medical issues such as anxiety disorders. Similarly, if you had a child with ADHD, you would see a doctor or psychologist not seek advice from a teacher although both may be considered professionals in their respective fields. It’s just taking a while for that to be recognised in the animal world.

Veterinary behaviour specialists
It’s important to understand that someone who calls themselves a ‘behaviourist’ or ‘behaviour specialist’ may not necessarily have any formal training. Veterinary behaviourists however are vets who have extra qualifications in behaviour and have done extensive study in this field.

Veterinary behaviourists firstly do a veterinary degree and then a further qualification called a membership of the Australian College of VeterinaryScientists in Animal Behaviour.  To be able to call themselves a specialist a veterinarian also has to complete a Fellowship qualification in the Australian College, a Diplomate qualification in the USA College or a Diplomate qualification in the European College.

There are about 50 veterinary behaviourists in Australia, but only three specialists in Behaviourial Medicine. To become a specialist involves completing a residency which may take an additional three to five years and conducting scientific research, publishing papers and seeing cases under the supervision of a specialist.

Dog trainers
Just as the name suggests, dog trainers primarily deal with training problems. The focus is very different to behaviour consultations; obedience training is primarily to teach a dog good manners and correct any simple training problems.

The most common training problems include:

  • Pulling on the lead
  • Jumping on people
  • Digging
  • Barking at other dogs
  • Basic manners such as sitting and staying
  • Toilet training


To modify these problems, a training program should include rewards for desirable behaviours, and correction of undesirable behaviours where possible.
Dog trainers work with veterinary behaviourists to help modify a dog’s behaviour and together they can help many owners and dogs live together, harmoniously.

Kersti performs a training exercise with Indi.

What are the most common behaviour problems you see in dogs and cats?

I see mostly anxiety based problems such as separation anxiety, aggression, obsessive compulsive disorders.

What kinds of other species do you treat and for what?

We see birds, horses, rabbits, tigers, cheetahs- we will help all species great and small.

We know these problems impact on the human animal bond, but how do behaviour problems impact on the wellbeing of pets?

It is now recognised that 20 per cent of dogs have an anxiety disorder, which is very similar to that of humans. Studies have also shown that dogs with anxiety disorders have a shorter life expectancy and are more likely to have skin problems and gastrointestinal problems.

What are the barriers to practicing good behaviour medicine?

Every animal we see as vets we need to consider their behaviour. After all the reason an owner brings a pet to the vet is that its behaviour has changed in some way - that is it is dull, depressed, lethargic, with physical signs like vomiting, diarrhoea anorexia, scratching more – so awareness of behaviour is important.

Vets often talk about lack of time yet they manage to schedule time for surgery so the same has to be made for behaviour- similar for charging for this.  We now know that stressed animals have a shorter quantity of life as well as a poorer quality of life and many vets are recognising this.

Also 68% of owners that visit the vet ask about behaviour but some vets unfortunately do not see that behaviour problems are medical problems so they need to educate themselves and their staff.

How important is medication in managing behaviour problems?

All behaviour in every species is determined by genetic predisposition, learning from previous experiences and the current environment. How behaviour problems are treated involves addressing all these three factors- behaviour modification for modifying the learning, environmental management for the environmental issues and medication to address the genetic predisposition. Not dissimilar from treating diabetes- diet and exercise and insulin. Medication alone is rarely the answer but is in an integral part of the treatment.

How can veterinarians decrease stress in their patients?

By understanding that animals are non - verbal communicators vets can learn to read the animal’s body language. This way they can recognise when their patient may be getting concerned. They can design the waiting room, schedule appointments times and train their staff about the importance of rewards. Keeping up to date with behavioural medicine is also important so they use the latest techniques and medications to help their patients.

What can veterinary students and veterinarians do to improve their behaviour medicine?

Further training might include:

Aside from including behaviour questions in the history, increasing our awareness of behaviour issues and investing in continuing education, are there any other websites or books you recommend?



…and generally reading books by qualified veterinary behaviourists and trainers.

1 comment:

  1. I feel so out of my depth with many behaviour issues - although I always try to address concerns. I also try to get owners with breeds that have genetic predispositions to consider pet insurance that will cover the cost of behavioural referral to Dr Seskel! People will pay (sometimes) thousands for an op but baulk at the $6-700 to see a veterinary behaviour specialist even though euthanasia for behaviour problems is the biggest killer of dogs.

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