What is a pet behavioural service and what does it offer you?
NEVS offers behavioural consultations with Emma, who has a particular interest in behaviour and is completing a year of further study this year with a view to sitting membership exams next year. Emma’s interest in behaviour began when she acquired a dog with severe anxiety problems that required medication, years of conditioning training and desensitisation and of course lots of support to not see danger in every corner!
Behavioural medicine is also one of the fastest growing fields of veterinary medicine, and the recognition of emotion and advanced cognition in our animal friends has been a major leap forward and allowed more humane methods of training to come to the fore – all to the benefit of welfare for our pets!
Why is behaviour so important?
Behaviour shapes everything we do, from greetings to social gatherings, to relationships, to sharing and cohabiting, to seeking and consumption of food and water, to mating and rearing of offspring. Behaviour is a complex combination of genetics, the environment, and learning; this means that whilst some behaviours are innate in the animal (herding in working breeds for example) the expression of the behaviour will be dependent on the environment they are in (they can’t herd in a crate) as well as what they have previously learned from the situation they have been exposed to (maybe they were reprimanded for displaying herding behaviours).
Behaviours may change depending on genetic makeup, the situation, the environment we are in, and the company we are in, as well as how we are feeling (ever snapped at someone you didn’t mean to, over something trivial, because you were so stressed out?). Behaviours can make or break friendships, relationships, emotional bonds and statistically they are one of THE major reason for relinquishment of pets to shelters (and the major reason for pets under 2 years of age). People who own animals with behavioural issues often suffer a weakening of the human-animal bond, which can lead to excessive punishments being used out of frustration, and eventually relinquishment of the pet. It can be really hard, and disheartening owning an animal with behavioural issues. In a nutshell, behaviour is complex!!
Does my pet have a behavioural problem?
This is the first thing to assess: is it a behavioural problem, or a problem behaviour? It may sound like semantics but the difference is crucial in the treatment and the root of the issue. A problem behaviour is a naturally occurring behaviour for the species that is somehow inappropriate or inconvenient for the owner, like a dog digging up the garden. Digging is a completely normal behaviour for dogs, there is nothing abnormal about it. A behavioural problem is something that is displayed out of context for the situation, or at a frequency, intensity or duration that is abnormal or maladaptive. A good example is tail-chasing: it serves no purpose, it is not an innate behaviour of dogs and it can lead to suffering if it becomes compulsive.
An example of a behaviour that needs to be assessed well is spraying in cats: spraying is a normal communication method for cats, but can also be a sign of stress or unhappiness and so it needs to be assessed for the underlying cause in order to correctly identify if it is normal, or abnormal, and thus be treated accordingly. Problem behaviours can usually be trained to correction, but behavioural problems are a complex interaction of psychology, environment, genetics, neurotransmitters and learning and are not a training problem!
But even so, a problem behaviour can become a behavioural problem over time!
What are behavioural consults for my pet?
Behavioural consultations are extended consultations, usually an hour or more, that initially serve to provide a background on the behaviour and to gather information about the quality, intensity, frequency, and nature of the behaviour as well as why it is a problem for the owner, the animal, and anyone else involved. We get you to complete a questionnaire prior to the consult which helps us gather background information and can lead us to question further certain areas to garner more information. During the consultation your pet will be assessed, as best we can (some animals are too fearful or aggressive to examine well!) for any underlying medical issue that could be the cause, or contributing to the behaviour. We will also be assessing the general disposition and how well the animal copes with the clinic setting.
At the end of the consult we will reiterate some of the major issues, their suspected causes or triggers, and the implementation of various initial measures to reduce these behaviours as well as begin medications if we feel they are needed or will be helpful. After the consult a comprehensive summary will be put together outlining the issues, an assessment of the reason behind them and ways to approach either reducing the frequency of the behaviour, or providing alternate behaviours that are more acceptable. You will also be provided with resources, handouts and links to help you implement programs as well as constant contact with the clinic for help and advice if needed.
What else should I know about behavioural problems?
You are not alone! There are tons of animals with behaviour problems, or problem behaviours and it is becoming more and more common with higher density housing, longer working hours and the actual recognition of behavioural issues as well as people wanting to work with their pets rather than relinquishing them (which is a true reflection of the increase in the emotional value of pets over the last 20 years). The biggest thing though is to have realistic expectations about how long it will take to reverse, or manage the behaviour (sometimes lifelong management is required), how much work may be involved in actively moulding new behaviours, and just how much your pet can change (often you will find a happy medium where you both are satisfied with the outcome).
Behaviour can be really frustrating! Understanding the motivation, triggers, as well as the reinforcement for behaviours can be difficult but that’s why we will often ask you to video behaviours, or make note of the surroundings, or keep a diary of events. And finally know that you can contact us at any time during your pets’ treatment for advice, or help, or to update or seek further options – we need to be able to walk side-by-side to give your pet the best help and the best chance of learning a healthier, more acceptable way to behave.
Who else can help me?
Often a trainer may be recommended to help you if the behaviour is training-based (normal, but unacceptable) , or to initiate behaviour modification programs in a positive way to ensure the best chance of effective rehabilitation if we have diagnosed a behavioural problem. We will work together to ensure your pet is moving forward in a satisfactory way. Like other medical conditions only a veterinarian can diagnose, and prescribe medications for your pet and it is in fact illegal for anyone other than a vet to diagnose or prescribe medications. However we do all work together to provide a network for you and your pet to utilise and rely on for support with a view to providing your pet with the best avenue for rehabilitation.
If you have any questions about your pets behaviour, whether you feel it is abnormal and it requires help, or you would like a consultation please call the clinic on 67710200.