'Spying' on Pets with Clients

Using Technology to Enhance Behavior Visits

By Sherrie Yuschak, RVT, VTS (Behavior)


Veterinary professionals gather a great deal of information about the pets in their care. But how well do they really get to know that individual? Like a color-changing chameleon, pets display different identities in different situations.

The hissing cat hiding under the exam room bench may be a purring pussycat who rubs on visiting houseguests. Or the silly, bouncing Labrador in the reception area becomes a growling, teeth-baring threat every day at mealtime. Specifics of the environmental scenario generate observable behavioral changes in the animal.

Smartphones have become a new human appendage, and their near constant access provides handy opportunities to capture pet behavior.

Gathering these objective details is critical to evaluating behavior complaints a client may present. Data-collecting technology can act as a veterinarian’s behavioral spy, revealing the pet’s secrets to guide a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Recording the ABCs

Smartphones have become a new human appendage, and their near constant access provides handy opportunities to capture pet behavior. Tablets, laptops, and PCs with cameras are also useful. Many clients have home security systems that can collect footage even if they aren’t home. Thankfully, grainy black and white footage has been upgraded to high-definition color images allowing for subtle body language observations. Cameras can even peer into the darkness of night while a pet sleeps. Modern technology means pets can rarely hide from prying eyes keen on learning the intricacies of their behavior.

Pictures and video footage can help clients show the veterinary team their pet behavior concerns. This visual information can fill in knowledge gaps, remove biased descriptions, and provide observable body language and behavior instead of relying upon third-party descriptions and subjective labels (e.g. “aggression”).

The key components necessary to diagnose and treat pet behavior problems are:

A. Antecedents (triggers)—what occurs before the behavior

B. Behavior—specific body language and actions

C. Consequence—how the client, other pets, or the environment reacts to that behavior

Client-submitted A, B, and C event recordings can be evaluated by the veterinarian. Differential diagnosis can be formulated, diagnostics determined, treatment planned, and implementation results monitored. The behavior data can be shared with professionals such as veterinary behaviorists, behavior consultants, credentialed trainers, or veterinary specialists such as neurologists.

Equally as important as medical data, the footage becomes part of the pet’s behavioral and physical health history. Pet behavior is adaptive, and animals are always learning and changing. These changes can be monitored and compared as the pet ages and lifestyle changes.

Home security cameras can be utilized to collect pet behavior data.

Using Technology to Support Complaints

Pets live in a human-centric world with lifestyles curated by their caregivers. Given their unique sensory perception, differing needs, and inability to communicate verbally, conflict and behavior complaints are not uncommon. Below are some examples of behavior concerns and a few helpful details that video data can reveal.

  • Separation-related behavior (separation anxiety): Onset and duration of symptoms, single or multiple occurrences during the separation, environmental triggers such as sounds, and alternative or compounding causes.
  • Barking and vocalization: Triggers, body language, intended target, duration, and frequency.
  • House soiling: Identification of the pet (in multipet households), location, time of day, frequency, any stress-inducing triggers, and body posture during elimination (such as straining).
  • Excessive grooming: Triggers, frequency, and duration.
  • Sound and thunderstorm: Subtle body language signs indicating fear.
  • Social interactions between pets: Abnormal play, conflict, and aggression between pets.
  • Social interactions with people: Fear and aggression toward unfamiliar people, family members, and houseguests.
  • Medical components: Seizures, body language, and movements indicating pain or sensory and cognitive impairment.

Since most behavioral problems occur at home, the client is an integral part of their pet’s behavioral health care. Recording the pet’s behavior may show subtle signs of problems before they escalate and become harder to treat. Veterinarians can help evaluate normal versus abnormal behavior and educate the client about body language and behavior to monitor. Objective analysis can help clients understand their pet better, decrease any misguided judgement, build empathy, and strengthen the human–animal bond.

During video review, the client’s behavior can also be observed, and any helpful alternatives suggested. Recording the client’s behavior also may show subtle signs of problems before they escalate and become harder to treat.

Since most behavioral problems occur at home, the client is an integral part of their pet’s behavioral health care.

Virtual meeting apps are an adjunct or alternative to recordings and can provide real-time observation, evaluation, and coaching. These internet integrations expand access to other professionals and a behavior team approach can maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Virtual behavior modification and training sessions have proved successful, and many clients appreciate the convenience. Pets who become stressed in unfamiliar environments benefit from being at home where skills can develop faster. The client and pet can practice the learned skills in the home environment where they are needed.

Meeting apps are often intuitive to many people, but clients occasionally need a bit of guidance to generate and share video footage efficiently. Each practice should determine what platforms and systems work best and provide simple and convenient instructions for clients. Written steps and video tutorials are available on the internet for commonly used programs and apps such as Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet.

Home security cameras can be utilized to collect pet behavior data. Work with the client to figure out how the camera should be used. Whether it be motion-activated, always-on, or infrared, you can discuss with the client which setting is best for their particular situation. Sometimes storage capacity can be an issue so talk with them to figure out what their system is capable of.

Getting the Data to You

Creating a plan for the client’s video submissions is an important part of successful behavior data collection. Video files often exceed the size limits for email attachments. Texting the video often results in low quality and difficult viewing (especially between Androids and iPhones).

Sending a link within an email or text is best. It preserves veterinary team and client privacy and simplifies transfer to the patient’s file. Popular online services such as Google Drive, Microsoft One Drive, and Dropbox can create sharable links. A link can be specific to one video or a whole folder where future videos can be uploaded and accessed. Social media users can create sharable links from their account, but this is not ideal due to privacy concerns and universal viewing access.

Accurately documenting the pet’s behavior concern beyond video recording is beneficial. Like other treatment recommendations, it is helpful to offer a few choices. Ask which data collection option the client prefers (for example, video, checklist, or photos) and then streamline implementation.

Data collection document templates can provide questions and answer space and action item checkboxes. This helps prompt the client’s action and ensures the data are succinct and relevant. Formats can be created for common behavior concerns and treatments and then customized based on the individual needs.

For example, if the complaint is house soiling, the ABC data collection form could look like this:

  • What were the observable triggers or environmental changes: (example: worked late, kids left for camp)
  • How long after the dog was let outside (or cat’s litterbox scooped) did the soiling occur?
  • Was there any straining or unusual behavior?
  • Where did the soiling occur?
  • How did people respond to the incident?
  • How was it cleaned?

Action items: Collect urine and drop off at the vet, set phone reminder for every two hours, and let dog out/scoop litterbox, add another litterbox, schedule appointment with the trainer.

Many clients are unaware of subtle body language signals and their possible indications. Yet this awareness is a critical component for behavior data collection and treatment implementation. There are many dog and cat body language infographics, books, and videos created by veterinary and behavior professionals. For those who like to gamify learning, available products include a dog body language app (Dog Decoder) with pictures and knowledge quizzes, an interactive dog detective kit for teachers of school-age kids, and a board game for group play.

Creating a plan for client’s video submissions is an important part of successful behavior data collection.

Other Helpful Technology

Advancements in artificial intelligence and large data crunching are being used to create pet behavior analysis programs using pictures or video. However, some of the apps are not scientifically accurate and are only for entertainment purposes. A new app that is relevant to veterinary medicine interprets a cat’s pain level based on the validated Cat Grimace Scale. Based on a picture of the cat’s face it can help identify signs of pain the client may otherwise miss. Other research and development are occurring with the goal of interpreting animal behavior data in real time. Before suggesting pet behavior apps for clients, always ensure board certified veterinary behaviorists (DACVB) have co-created or evaluated the validity of the app.

Smart collars are another helpful behavior data collection tool. GPS tracking has improved in precision and relevance and is now very accurate. In addition to finding a lost pet or following where the cat wanders, they monitor the pet’s activity level. Peaks and valleys in activity levels may correlate with behavior triggers, and trends over time may show if a pet is not getting enough exercise or is restless during sleeping hours.

Behavior changes are often the first sign of a medical problem and physical ailments can create new behavior problems. Wearable tech that accurately collects biometrics can be a first alert and monitoring system. ECG level heart rate mapping, respiration rate tracking, and activity sensors that detect a seizure are new smart collar features. They can alert the client to an abnormality and that data can be sent to the veterinarian.

Electronic self-cleaning litterboxes have been available for many years, but they too have become smarter. Features can include how often a cat uses the box, which cat visited, time spent in the box, if urine or stool was deposited, the cat’s weight, and the frequency of box cleaning. This data can be helpful to monitor early changes in behavior and health.

In every sector, technology is rapidly changing how humans interact, work, play, and navigate daily life. Designers are constantly upgrading and creating new trends to entice our attention and wallets. Since modern pets are deeply intertwined family members, it makes sense these trends are gaining market share in the companion animal space as well.

New behavior tech for pets means additional opportunities for veterinary applications and better care. Easy to use high-tech cameras, speedy video sharing options, and insight from artificial intelligence and data analysis can all be implemented to advance pet behavioral and physical health.

Sherrie Yuschak, RVT, VTS (Behavior), KPA-CTP, Elite FFCP, is a faculty member of the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Behavior and Training where she contributes to curriculum and teaches several courses.


Photo credits: Mariia Borovkova/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Veronica Montesdeoca/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Practice management Trends