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AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines

We’ve all been there—the cat that hides from house guests, the dog that barks at passersby when on leash, the pet that lashes out at the veterinarian during an exam. 

For many pet owners, these instances are merely another part of accepting an animal into their lives. After all, when we offer a forever home, we implicitly agree to take the bad with the good, the hisses with the kisses.

However, AAHA is seeking to change this with the recent publication of the 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines. Here are the top 10 things pet owners should know about the guidelines:

1. Why did AAHA release these guidelines?

Karen Overall, VMD, chair of the 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines Task Force says, “These guidelines provide the first easily accessible tool whereby veterinary practice teams can structure their assessments of their patients to include behavior in a way that uses scientifically valid information, and gives them the facts and vocabulary to start an ongoing conversation with their clients. This means these guidelines will save lives, prevent euthanasia, prevent relinquishment, and give hope to those trainers and veterinary teams in shelters who are trying to relieve the epidemic of relinquishment and rehoming that causes so much mental damage.”

2. How can these guidelines benefit me as a pet owner?

Familiarizing yourself with your pets’ behavior and treating any existing problems can have several rewards. Understanding your pet’s behavior can help minimize fear during visits to the veterinary practice, allowing for successful examination and recovery after major medical procedures. Treating behavioral problems early on will allow your pet to have appropriate encounters with other animals and people, and improve quality of life by reducing stress for both of you.

3. Should the behavior management guidelines replace the advice of my veterinarian?

No! According to AAHA Chief Executive Officer, Michael Cavanaugh, DVM, DABVP, “Guidelines are just that—a guide—established by experts in a particular area of veterinary medicine. Guidelines do not outweigh the veterinarian’s clinical judgement; instead, they help veterinarians improve every pet’s quality of life.”

4. When is the best time to have my pets’ behavior evaluated?

Pets should have their behavior evaluated every time they visit the veterinarian. Behavioral evaluations are especially important in young animals, and the behavior management guidelines recommend the first one be conducted when your pet is around 6 months old. Senior pets should also be monitored for cognitive and physiological changes starting at 5-8 years in large dogs, 8-10 years in small dogs, and 10-12 years in cats.

5. What can I expect from a behavior assessment?

The veterinary team will work with you to create a comprehensive behavior record. They will observe your pet, ask you questions about your pet’s day-to-day behavior using a standard questionnaire, and address any issues discussed in your last visit.

6. What are some common behavior problems to watch out for?

The most common types of behavioral disorders in pets include inappropriate elimination, aggression, separation anxiety, and noise phobia.

7. What can I do to help prevent my pet from developing bad behavior?

In addition to regular behavior evaluations, allowing dogs and cats to have appropriate encounters with other animals, new places, and people at an early age will minimize the stress and fear that can lead to behavioral or socialization problems. Identifying and correcting problem behaviors early on is also important, as behavior and socialization patterns are established at a young age.

8. What do I do if my pet does have a behavioral disorder?

According to Overall, “Virtually all behavioral problems are treatable if clients can understand the problem and comply with treatment.” If your veterinarian determines that your pet has a behavior problem, they will work with you to create a treatment plan. This can include behavior modification, working with a qualified pet trainer, medication, and/or referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.

9. How do trainers fit into the picture?

While additional training can be beneficial for pets with behavior problems, not all trainers are created equal. If your veterinarian recommends seeking out additional training, he or she can help you find a qualified, certified, and insured trainer who can work with you and your veterinary team. The guidelines discourage the use of aversive training techniques such as prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating. None of those tools and methods should be used to either teach or alter behavior. Nonaversive techniques that rely on the identification and rewarding of desirable behaviors should be used instead. This guidelines strongly endorse behavior modification techniques that focus on rewarding correct behaviors and removing rewards for unwanted behaviors.

10. What if my pet’s just stressed about going to the vet?

Regular behavior evaluations and an updated behavioral history will help your veterinarian determine whether your pet is really only afraid of going to the veterinary practice, or if fearful or aggressive behavior is more generalized. The behavior management guidelines also feature recommendations for veterinary staff on low-stress handling and reducing patient fear in the veterinary clinic.


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