Monday, March 23, 2015

Can vets do behaviour better?

fearful cat hiding
"Oh NO, its you!" - have you ever had a patient try to hide from you?

There are some lectures you remember more than others. One particularly memorable comment, and I may misquote due to the haze of memory, was made by the now Professor Paul McGreevy in a lecture about animal husbandry. It went something like this: “You studied veterinary science because you love animals, yet you will realise that you may be the thing they fear the most.” Disturbing. Profound. True. Just being a vet can cause a dog to give you the once over then turn towards the door. But something we can work on changing.

Veterinary practice is built around diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotion of animal health, but one aspect frequently overlooked is the behaviour of patients. Whether it’s the reason someone presents an animal – for example, “inappropriate” urination, or an incidental issue (a fearful dog hiding under a chair in the waiting room), observing, interpreting and managing the behaviour of patients is central to what we do.

But we can always do better. Veterinarian Tracey Henderson (Tracey H) and Tracy Bache (Tracy B) are directors of Adelaide Veterinary Behaviour Services (AVBS) in South Australia. Part of their job involves teaching others who work with animals how to interact with them in a way that minimises stress.

They offer animal behaviour services including private consultations (ranging from bad manners to severe anxiety issues), one-on-one training sessions, dog behaviour assessments, consultations for dogs that have been given an Dangerous Dog Order by councils and animal behaviour workshops. I heard about them because they’re running a VetPrac workshop at the end of this month.

So I asked them a bit about what they do. But first, a bit on their backgrounds. Addressing animal behaviour is something that requires experience, serious training, dedication and a range of practical skills. This pair have credentials coming out of their ears.


Tracey Henderson.
Tracey H graduated from Murdoch University in 2000, and worked at Willunga Veterinary Services until 2013. She went to the UK to work in both small and mixed practice for 9 months in 2005, and still locums as a companion animal vet.

She designed and started the Puppy Preschool classes (based on Kersti Seksel’s format) in 2001 at Willunga Veterinary Services, and completed a post graduate course in animal behaviour at Sydney University in 2004. Since then she has been offering behaviour consultations at Willunga Veterinary Services. In 2008 she became a member of the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists in Veterinary Behaviour by examination.(She is one of two vets based in South Australian to gain these qualifications). 

Being a vet and managing behaviour cases give her the advantage of being able to diagnose any underlying medical disorders that may be influencing a pet’s behaviour, and to prescribe anti-anxiety medication if necessary in conjunction with a behaviour modification program.


Tracey B with friend.

Tracey B worked at the RSPCA Lonsdale shelter in 2002 for 6 years. During this time she was involved in behavioural assessments of adopted dogs, and had many hours of hands on training with the dogs. During her time at the RSPCA she developed a strong passion to also help the dogs on the ‘other side’ and to try and prevent them from ending up at the shelter.

Tracy B started at Willunga Veterinary Services in 2008 to work alongside Tracey H behavioural consultations. She is a veterinary nurse at Willunga Veterinary Services. Tracy has been actively involved in updating and teaching Puppy Preschool® at Willunga Veterinary Services.

In 2010 Tracy received her Certificate 4 in Companion animal training and became a nationally accredited Delta Dog Behaviour Trainer. She is a member of the Delta Professional Dog Trainers Association and a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia.

SAT: As a veterinarian I treat companion animals. Why is animal handling so important?

Tracey H: We need to start thinking about the animal’s welfare when we are dealing and handling them. Our clients expect that we are going to ‘best practice’ for their pets, and trust us immensely. If we are educated on being able to read body language and practice low stress handling techniques, this is going to improve the stress and welfare in our patients, and also prevent being bitten.

Tracey B: Handling is a very big part of veterinary work but what we would like to do is educate vets & vet nurses about reducing the stress of the animals we have in our care. Making it a positive experience rather than frightening one.

SAT: What is so different about the behaviour of animals in veterinary clinics?

Tracey H: The majority of our patients are fearful. There are many things in a vet clinic that cause this – smell, unfamiliar animals, unfamiliar people, not feeling well, painful procedures, previous bad experiences, etc.

Tracey B: For some animals being in a veterinary clinic can be an overwhelming experience. This could be due to the lack of socialisation or limited handling and interaction from unfamiliar people. Some animals cannot cope in unfamiliar environments so we need to ensure that the vets and nurses that are interacting with these animals can read and understand their body language. By understanding the animal they will be able to avoid the animal becoming that stressed that they choose to become aggressive towards the handlers or even the owners.

SAT: Veterinary clinics are innately stressful to animals. To what extent can we really address this?

We can address this by being aware of the how the animal is feeling/coping and changing our techniques when dealing with them. This can be as simple as approaching them in a different manner.

SAT: How can animal handling techniques contribute to animal welfare?

Tracey B: By reducing an animal struggling you can reduce the stress. By reducing the stress you can reduce the animal to become reactive and aggressive.

SAT: Do you have any non-human companions and can you tell us about them?

Tracey H: I have a St Bernard ‘pup’ that is 70kg! A border collie and a Labrador, a cat, two horses and some cows! Oh and my hubbie has a crocodile!

Tracy B: I have two very adorable French Bulldogs. Very cheeky and full of personality.

SAT: Do you have any simple tips you can share with veterinarians and vet students that might improve their animal handling right away?

Tracey H: Learn to read body language!!!!
Walk in the ‘paws of your patients’ just for a change rather than focusing on the ‘job to do’.

Tracy B: Become comfortable and handling animals. Practice on nice calm animals. Become familiar how they move, how they like to be held. Learn as much as you can about body language of animals. Even the most subtle signs can have great meaning.

Thank you Tracey and Tracy. If you want to learn more from Tracey H and Tracy B, there’s still time to enrol in VetPrac’s AnimalBehaviour and Handling Workshop, in Canberra this weekend.


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