Problem behaviour deserves our attention - Veterinary Practice
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Problem behaviour deserves our attention

Francesca Riccomini introduces a new series on companion animal behaviour problem and their treatment

Problem behaviour in companion animals often poses risks to the physical safety of people and pets, both the affected individual and others; threatens relationships – those with owners, the wider society and others of their kind; represents directly or indirectly compromised welfare; and not infrequently results in relinquishment and/or euthanasia.

Not surprisingly, therefore, we in the veterinary profession have a responsibility to acquaint ourselves with a current understanding of the species behaviour of each type of pet we deal with. How else can we perceive problems related to the behaviour of the pets under our care, offer genuinely useful “first aid” advice that keeps all those involved safe; prevents a worsening of the individual pet’s condition; and avoids the sort of owner desperation that results in abandonment before any meaningful intervention can hopefully begin to retrieve the situation?

Knowledge gives us power for good

This is especially important because normal behaviour may be problematic to owners who fail to understand the nature of the animal they have chosen and thus impose totally unrealistic expectations upon the pet or pets in question.

This invariably leads to a failure to provide adequately for all the natural needs of the species, breed and individual temperament of each pet, with consequent welfare implications plus a reduction in enjoyment and the quality of owner-pet relationships.

Where such inadequacies occur and educated intervention is lacking, the measures people adopt as they struggle to cope with their deteriorating circumstances are often harsh.

Positive punishment, be this frank abuse or “milder” tactics, such as water pistols for cats or rattle cans for dogs, is commonly a complicating and distressing feature of behaviour cases, particularly where the client believes the identified pet (not necessarily the “guilty party”) in multi-pet homes knows that it has “done wrong” or “shouldn’t have taken that”, and so on.

Often the single most effective weapon we have in protecting and helping animals under our care is to identify the norm and explain the first principles in catering for it.

Obviously this may not be enough, as not all companion animal behaviours are simply problematic because they irritate, annoy or distress people. Some are the product of environmental conditions that impose so much stress on an individual or group of pets that the resultant negative emotional impact leads to some behaviours that may impose severe, if not life-threatening, risks to health when their progress continues unchecked.

The risk of physical harm is most obvious with aggression, and compulsive behaviours involving pica – chewing electric cables and indigestible foreign bodies is unlikely to enhance welfare, for example – but those conditions that are associated with chronic, unremitting stress and distress obviously have the potential to impact immunity, reduce quality of a life and potentially hasten its end.

Thus, indoor urinary spraying and low grade intimidation in multi-pet homes may be tolerated but they present an opportunity for us to really live up to the oath we take when embarking upon our chosen profession.

Opportunities are myriad

There are a number of designated occasions when we are likely to identify problems with clients, having obvious opportunities to highlight their behavioural concerns and ask for advice regarding appropriate courses of action.

From initial new pet appointments, first vaccinations or checks on newly acquired more mature pets, onwards to regular attendance for boosters, neutering, nail clipping, specialist sessions, whatever the individual’s age and health status, offer us the chance to chat openly in an understanding, non-critical way that is likely to encourage even the most reticent of owners to open up on the subject of their pet’s behavioural difficulties.

A common mistake, however, is to wait for our professional attention to be drawn to problem behaviours, whether minor and recent in onset or longer standing and more troublesome. Behavioural awareness really does need to form a significant element of everyday veterinary practice, with those of us who regularly interact with pets and their owners having the knowledge and confidence to sensitively identify any evidence that could indicate that companion animals and/or clients are struggling.

Dermatological cases, for instance, can be purely medical in origin, but behind many supposedly straightforward skins cases a behavioural problem may lurk to a greater or lesser extent.

While a young dog, rabbit or cat can be ingesting foreign material for a variety of reasons, looking for underlying physical disease and removing the offending items is not likely to solve the problem unless someone stops to ask why this has happened in the first place, let alone the second, third or fourth time round.

This is a behavioural case if ever there was one, and it requires us to treat it as such. Coincidentally, we could earn the clients’ deep devotion, bonding them to us for life.

Effort is often rewarded

Once started, it’s amazing not how few but how many clients need some sort of behavioural intervention, whether minor or much more comprehensive. And it should be remembered that cost in this area is not just emotional.

Problem behaviour not uncommonly has financial implications for owners, insurers and veterinary practices, because those who feel unsupported in any way when they encounter problems with their pets’ behaviour are likely at best to seek alternative veterinary care.

At worst, even if they see out the life of the affected individual, they could ultimately join the swelling ranks of the non-pet-owning public, representing a monetary loss to the profession as a whole, not just the clinic concerned.

In these recessionary times, this, if nothing else, should concentrate our minds and spur us into action.

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