In veterinary practice we know that prevention is better than cure. But cure is a questionable term even with the most successful intervention in companion animal behaviour problems, so efforts aimed at prevention are especially valuable.
This is also an area where helpful attitudes, interest in specific difficulties, an individual pet’s welfare and their owners’ enjoyment of the relationship offer unique bonding opportunities; whilst the whole practice team can be involved, which enhances job satisfaction and enables those who find the topic stimulating to expand their individual skill sets.
What can we do and when?
Getting to clients and prospective owners before they leap in is the best chance we get to ensure that only suitable pets for individual circumstances are acquired in the full knowledge of what is entailed in their care, now and into the future.
Pre-pet counselling could play a significant part in reducing the disappointment many people experience when reality turns out to be at odds with their expectations – too often simply because they haven’t thought things through, had meaningful information to help them, or their hearts ruled their heads.
Making it clear by whatever means – posters in the waiting room, flyers sent with vaccine reminders, open evenings where we advertise our services – that we are prepared to advise before decisions are made could help reduce the number of recycled pets and ensure that when help is needed with management, handling and training, or behaviour problems arise, struggling owners think first of their veterinary clinic.
Otherwise, they generally come our way in desperation when application of anecdotal solutions, web surfing and watching TV gurus, with few if any reputable qualifications, has failed to resolve their difficulties.
Socialisation and information evenings
Once pets are selected and brought home, our role includes more than health checks and vaccinations, although such appointments provide us with the chance to ask searching questions.
This is particularly important when it comes to ensuring that the individual animal has been acquired from a reputable source, bred from temperamentally sound as well as healthy stock and given the correct early experiences to become a satisfactory, well-balanced pet in this particular household.
Warning sirens should sound when puppies changed hands in a motorway car park, any animal was “bred on the premises” but the mother can’t be produced or it is being sold for a friend who lives in a far-flung area.
There may be valid reasons for these circumstances but they often indicate a lack of attention to such important issues as socialisation to a range of people, especially children, and other pet species, habituation to a domestic environment and preparation, such as exposure to recorded external stimuli, for the sort of populated area in which the animal will spend its life.
Deficiencies identified at this stage can often be rectified before they seriously undermine the animal’s welfare and blight the owner-pet relationship.
Evidently some situations will prove so problematic that they need immediate qualified behavioural intervention. Then it is incumbent upon the veterinarian involved to be aware of the level of education necessary to adequately address each case; who is available; what qualifications they have; and what these actually mean.
This being an unregulated field, it is of paramount importance that owners receive good quality recommendations from professionals who have done their homework and treat a behavioural referral with the same diligence as any other.
For many newly acquired pets, however, sound management strategies from someone in-house with a specific interest in behaviour and/or this particular species will be enough to set them on the right track to systematically and appropriately fill in their pet’s experiential gaps.
Introductory sessions and socialisation experiences
With canines, well-run puppy groups can greatly assist in this process and provide reassuring support for novice owners or anyone who feels their knowledge is lacking or outdated.
Kitten, rabbit and small furry information evenings can fulfil the same function for the other common pet species, and they all offer the opportunity for creating positive associations with staff and the veterinary premises for both clients and pets.
The prerequisite for all such sessions is that enthusiastic, wellinformed, senior and experienced staff members help plan and supervise them. Otherwise, the laudable aims motivating these initiatives can easily be undermined by stressful, aversive experiences that too readily have the opposite effect from that intended, whether this is handling of individual pets by veterinary staff or social encounters where shy puppies are mobbed and intimidated by uncontrolled, bolder conspecifics.
Educating breeders is part of the process
It’s obvious that there is a great deal we can do once we have young animals in our hands. However, many practices have the truly golden opportunity to ensure that only pets fit for purpose are produced; prospective owners are interviewed for their understanding of what’s involved and suitability as guardians before individuals change hands; and everyone including the animal is set up to succeed, not fail.
Breeders may not always be the easiest group to influence but anything we as a profession can do to educate them about the importance of behaviour and enlist their help is to be welcomed in the continuing fight to reduce pet problem behaviour statistics and improve the welfare of animal companions.