Need to Recognize and Treat Veterinary Behavior Issues Stressed at NAVC

Across the board, veterinary professionals need to take a more humane, intellectual approach to animal behavior problems, Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, MA, DACVB, told a packed room of attendees at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC). Overall, who won the 2006 NAVC Small Animal Practitioner of the Year Award, drew a parallel between animals and children hospitalized for behavioral issues. “These animals are not bored,” she said. “They are chronically distressed. We minimize their behavior and we shouldn’t.”

During her presentation, Overall urged practitioners to assess the role stress plays in behavior issues and gave examples of how to help clients. The NAVC award, high attendance figures at behavior sessions, and the debut issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior this June reflect a growing interest in veterinary behavior. “For someone in behavior to get this recognition means that the field has finally arrived as a legitimate and important discipline,” Overall said.

Suzanne Hetts, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist, has seen some progress in the acceptance of veterinary behavior, “but we are not anywhere near where we need to be,” she added. Hetts, who wrote Pet Behavior Protocols, believes that open-ended behavior questions should be included in every wellness visit to identify behavior issues before they become problems. In a JAVMA article, Hetts discussed how basic behavior assessments can be integrated into general practice but she stresses that veterinarians should refer complex cases to specialists. “I’d like to see [more veterinarians] get back to the basics and build behavior-friendly clinics, instead of trying to solve really complex problems without any foundation to do so.”

Overall, who spoke about basic behavior issues and gave audience members several take-home suggestions, advised colleagues to “consider our patients as cognitive, complex, thinking, social individuals,” and added, “Dogs and cats are not tabula rasa but they have been considered as such.”

Overall told veterinary professionals to analyze the role stress plays in behavioral problems. Hiding, a feline’s natural coping mechanism for stress, is often overlooked by owners and veterinary professionals. Although history shows that the act of hiding may be a cat’s best way to avoid perceived or real danger, cat carriers and cages that are frequently used in clinics do not provide animals with any kind of cover or shelter from view. When denied an ability to hide, cats have a documented increase in urine cortisol excretion, which can lower an animal’s ability to fight infection. To illustrate the natural instinct to hide, Overall referred to the Kyoto earthquake when rescue professionals assumed most of the city’s cats were dead because they couldn’t find them. In the aftermath of the disaster, cats reemerged and were reunited with owners while dogs suffered from severe panic reactions, she said.

Signs of stress in domestic settings include decreased grooming, a greater proportion of time spent awake, and anorexia. She suggests that owners videotape cats to assess the cause of stress, which can manifest in aggressive behavior and increased marking, she added. Videotaping is a valuable tool for professionals as well since owners often misjudge interactions between cats and marking behavior – such as lifting the tail or squatting – can indicate aggressors and victims.

Unpredictable manipulation, such as veterinary exams, is another cause of feline stress that professionals can attempt to minimize. For example, last summer a group of behaviorists invited dog trainers to the NAVC Postgraduate Institute. Although practitioners were skeptical, the collaboration proved successful, Overall said. Trainers worked with behaviorists to train animals to offer paws or roll over when asked in a clinic setting, she said. “We changed a lot of peoples’ minds and showed one way to create more potent treatment teams.”

Working with clients, Overall suggests the following four steps: Avoid placing the animal in a reactionary situation; do not punish or “correct” the behavior; reward the animal for behaviors you want them to exhibit; get professional help and start behavior modification designed to teach the pet to relax and learn behaviors that owners prefer.

“Telling them what they cannot do is not helpful,” she said. “They’d still have a zillion other choices and no direction.”