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Establishing behavior management as a core competency

Companion animal practices that develop behavior management as a core competency have taken an important step toward ensuring that their patients maintain a safe, happy relationship with their owners and live in a low-stress environment. For that effort to succeed, the entire health care team must be committed to a scientific approach to assessing behavior and diagnosing/treating behavior problems. It is helpful to identify a champion in the practice to lead this effort, but there must be a commitment from the practice leadership to support the implementation of humane handling techniques and preventive and interventional behavioral medicine.

That effort requires a commitment to staff education. Every member of the health care team, including kennel workers, must be adept in reading basic animal body language and be able to spot at-risk behaviors that signal stress, fear, aggression, or withdrawal. All staff members should be knowledgeable about humane handling techniques and types of restraint and understand that restraint is a procedure in itself, not just the means to a procedure. Using that approach will mean manual restraint will be used less often and only when necessary.

When behavior management is a core competency, the practice will value a culture of kindness toward its patients and empathy with its clients. An evidence-based approach to pet behavior management is an investment in a longterm veterinarian-pet-client relationship that focuses on case outcomes rather than expediency. Humane, gentle handling techniques help ensure that patients will experience minimal stress during an exam visit and will be manageable during the next visit. 

Primary care veterinarians should not hesitate to seek specialized animal behavior expertise outside their practices when necessary. Veterinary behavioral medicine is a specialty requiring training, testing, and certification. Referring clients to a qualified veterinary behavior specialist extends the primary care practice’s services to ensure the well-being of their patients.

All team members should be committed to a program of ‘‘behavior prophylaxis,’’ whereby puppies and kittens are treated in a nonthreatening manner from their first visit. As part of that approach, team members should educate all clients about normal and abnormal pet behavior and the importance of avoiding situations that create behavioral health problems. Clients that either rescue or
breed animals should be specifically counseled about the importance of exposure and handling in the first 2 mo of life. Clients should be advised that brain and behavioral development occurs the fastest between 5 and 24 wk and that animals are not socially mature until at least 1–1.5 yr. During that 18 mo period, the practice team must act as an educational resource for the behavioral care of puppies and
kittens. Because behavioral medicine is a rapidly developing field, numerous educational opportunities are available to all team members in this important practice specialty.