Friday, February 24, 2017

Why all vets should hone their skills in animal behaviour

The gorgeous Poppy isn't entirely comfortable at the vet.

Why should every veterinarian in general practice hone their skills in behaviour? It’s a question posed by Dr Sarah Heath, RCVS and European Specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, at the Centre forVeterinary Education’s week-long behaviour conference.

There are plenty of vets who speak on different topics, but Dr Heath is a stand-out speaker. She spoke about situations and patients we deal with every day, but her angle gave me new ways to think about these. If you have not yet heard her speak and have the opportunity, take it.

Most of us find out the hard way that unwanted companion animals have implications. They may be local (house-soiling, aggression between animals in the household, aggression to people, behaviour stemming from anxiety that generates anxiety in others and so on). There are wider implications too – nuisance behaviour can damage neighbourly relations, or the media may portray behaviour in a certain way, leading to an unfounded or misdirected negative perspective, or there may be legislative consequences like laws banning certain breeds.

There are also implications in vet practice. Confrontational behaviour from our patients, or avoidance behaviour and fear, or problems between species in the clinic, can have all kinds of implications. For example, one of the key reasons that cat owners delay a veterinary visit is concern about their cat’s behaviour at the vet.

Dr Heath discussed why owners may not seek advice from veterinarians about behaviour problems. Many, she said, do not want the practice to think badly or negatively about their companion. They may be embarrassed and blame themselves, and society might blame them too. (For these people it can be reassuring to know the animal has a mental health issue). They may have erroneous information about behaviour and think certain behaviours are normal. They may not feel the vet has expertise in the area (the vet may feel the same way), or they may be worried that such a discussion will elicit a suggestion of euthanasia from the vet.

In her first talk, Dr Heath gave some practical tips that can be employed in practice to the benefit of our patients, their owners and vets.
  • Consider the impact of coming to the vet on the mental/emotional health of our patients. If owners are aware that we are concerned about their animal’s affective state, they will be more likely to understand its importance. Dr Heath said that for cats, the vet visit can be challenging because they are control freaks who are suddenly withdrawn from their territory and subjected to fairly restrictive handling, which is fairly confronting; their ability to use some of their natural defence strategies (hiding, climbing up high) is limited; and there are scent challenges (which is a nice way of saying vet clinics reek of other animals, and their emotional cues like fear). For dogs, as well as scent challenges, there may be a perception of confrontation, and veterinary staff may lack understanding of appeasement behaviour and signalling. Animals are intelligent, sentient beings – they remember and worry about previous negative experiences.
  • In discussions, be clear that owners do have mental and emotional health. If everyone is thinking in these terms, it is easier to talk about mental and emotional health problems.
  • Emphasise that socialisation of puppies and kittens is NOT about exposing them to a tick-list of various stimuli (loud noises, slippery floors, other species, traffic noises). Rather, exposure should be about quality over quantity. Animals should only be exposed to these stimuli when they are in a positive emotional state – if they’re in a negative emotional state, they may become sensitised to and anxious/fearful/reactive to the stimulus.
  • Cat owners need to be informed that cats socially mature between two and three years and the behaviour of their cat can change significantly at this time. We need owners to establish realistic expectations of feline compatibility in multi-cat households (more on this in a later post).


During her talk, Dr Heath referred to a range of excellent resources, including:
A course on developing emotional intelligence for puppies (very different from puppy training).

A book on training your cat. I have ordered this, it looks amazing (look out, Hero!).

Some fantastic posters drawn by Doggie Drawings artist Lili Chin, for the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors in the UK on 

In other news, Dr Siobhan Mullan (Bristol University) and myself have been toiling away on a book about veterinary ethics for some years. It is the result of a huge team effort – contributors from around the world have provided some fantastic scenarios and responses to these, as well as some beautiful cartoons and illustrations. You can now pre-order the book through 5M, just click here.

Declaration: I attended three of the sessions at the CVE's conference at no charge as I put together a video presentation for a colleague who could not make it.
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