Misunderstood animals: if we look and listen, we can learn - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Misunderstood animals: if we look and listen, we can learn

Francesca Riccomini suggests that once owners learn to understand what their animals are telling them, many common problems can be sorted – or avoided.

CHATTING RECENTLY WITH
PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW WELL
,
the subject of veterinary fees came up.
When this happens no one it seems
ever mentions the modest nature of
their bill! So to prevent more “vet
bashing” and later embarrassment, I
immediately revealed my profession.

The response was remarkably pleasing.
We are
apparently
considered
more
skilled
than
doctors,
because
even though our patients cannot tell us
what is wrong, we generally manage to
work things out and make them better!
This was undoubtedly a compliment
and the conversation soon moved on.

Later, however, I reflected on the
comment, how frequently it is made
and how misguided those of us who
deal with animals on a daily basis
know it to be. After all, much of the communication between human
beings is non-verbal and it is often
when we cannot see and “read” people
accurately that misunderstandings arise – no wonder folk fall out during
telephone calls or after exchanges of
e-mails or texts!

So if we eliminate the ability to
talk to each other, using a language
comprehensible to both parties, we nd ourselves in much the same
position as the animals with which we
live and work.

And as veterinary professionals, we
are constantly aware of the amount of
meaningful information we can actually
glean from our patients and our pets,
with the added advantage, I was told
early in my career, that unlike humans
they rarely lie to us!

OK, some individuals and breeds
make more fuss over what seem like
more minor issues than others. On
the whole though, a genuine loss of
appetite (not mere fussiness), increase
in thirst, response to irritation or pain
or withdrawal from normal activity
usefully alert owners to medical
problems and precipitate a clinic visit.
We are then helped to reach a diagnosis
by other more subtle signs, such as muscle tensing on palpation of joints
or viscera.

The process is, of course, a
combined enterprise between the
animal’s carers and us. And, in
order to do the best for any pet,
we all need sensitivity, patience and
good observational skills; plus, very
importantly indeed, knowledge of the natural
behaviour
of the
species
involved
– prey
animals for
example
advertise illness and injury much less overtly than do their predators.

In addition, however, we all
recognise the importance of being
able to put the information we glean
together in the right way to avoid
making mistakes or even missing
something obvious.

Overlooking significant
evidence

This is perhaps the most critical issue
when it comes to problems associated
with the way companion animals
behave. Looking back over many
behaviour cases, it is sad to reflect
how often pets were quite clearly
communicating their emotional states,
their need for better understanding or
changed and improved circumstances.

Yet owners, despite being
conscientious, caring and not at
all stupid, were simply failing to
comprehend what they were clearly
“being told”. Had they been more
aware and able to “join up the dots”,
as it were, so they could respond
appropriately, all involved, including
the affected individual, other pets and
people, would have been much better
off. The clients would also have saved
their fees!

Some examples have amusing
aspects. The indoor rabbits that had
systematically stripped all the wallpaper
they could reach in their small terraced
home, for instance. Despite this,
their owners did not even mention
such a significant sign of frustration
that indicated a lack of knowledge
and appropriate management, a contributory factor in the aggression
with which they were struggling.
Many cat owners also laugh at themselves when it is suggested they
clear the tops of fridge-freezers and
kitchen cupboards to provide an
elevated retreat for their anxious,
stressed or fearful felines.

Invariably these cats have been
trying, repeatedly and often desperately, to access such
junk-covered
perches,
quite openly
indicating their
needs and one potential
solution to
their problems,
but being
chastised for
doing so –
when there
was really no
reason at all
for not making
the areas available to them.

Recognition can
come too late

Sadly, however, there are the other
cases where fearful or poorly socialised
pets have been frequently coerced
into situations they obviously found
profoundly distressing and which
sometimes put the safety of people
and/or other animals at serious risk.

One much-loved cat for instance
retreated upstairs whenever visitors
arrived. Then she was always taken
to “join the throng” in the tiny sitting
room, with all means of escape closed
off, simply because of her owners’
mistaken belief that she should “learn
to be sociable” and this was the way to
do it.

Worse still was the noise-sensitive border collie twice-daily forced outside
at rush hour for exercise by an owner,
who lived in a very small at alongside
one of the busiest roads in outer
London.

The dog’s increasing reluctance and
tendency to run away and hide when
the lead was produced was put down
to stubbornness until the day when he
bit the man to whom he was otherwise closely
bonded.

This poor
animal had
been trying in
all the ways he
knew how to
communicate
but been
misunderstood
by a novice
owner, who
initially turned
for help to an
“old school”
dog trainer, a wasted opportunity that ultimately
proved fatal for his likeable pet.

We must “look,
listen and learn”

Which brings us to a serious point.
Behaviour problems undermine
welfare and can cost animals their lives.
We, owners and professionals, don’t
need, as some people believe, to be Dr
Dolittles to hear what our pets “have
to say”.

We do, however, need to arm
ourselves with knowledge and perfect
the art of opening our eyes and
engaging our brains.

Only then can we be as effective as
our pets deserve in getting things right
for them and making a dent in the
distressingly high problem behaviour
statistics.

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