What is Veterinary Behavioural Medicine?
Animals have mental health disorders, just like people.
Behavioural medicine is everything to do with understanding how dogs communicate their emotions, then altering our human behaviours and their environment to improve their wellbeing. It can also involve using medication to treat any illnesses that may be contributing to the undesired behaviour. Just like the liver or kidneys can have a disease, so can the brain and it’s not just limited to tumours or meningitis – we are actually talking mental health disorders, just like in people. Dogs can have fears and phobias, anxieties, compulsive disorders and even hallucinations. If you think about human mental health, veterinary behavioural medicine is counselling, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, neuropathology, social sciences and linguistics all rolled into one and tailored to animals and not people! But that’s only the start of it.
It’s ok for animals to bite, growl and scratch as that’s just animals talking. We just need to listen.
Animals do not have a verbal linguistic language (no alphabet and no written word) and therefore they use other ways to communicate with each other and with humans, to indicate how they are feeling. Therefore, when they are sick from an illness elsewhere in the body (not necessarily in the brain), we rely on looking at their behaviour to help determine where to start looking for the cause. It may not provide all the answers, but it’s a great start. For example, just like humans, animals get grumpy more easily when they are feeling unwell. They might growl or snap when they normally would not have, even to stimuli that aren’t painful. Have you ever had a bad day out and about or even suffered low grade back pain all day, and then snapped at a friend or family member later on in the day for something totally benign and unrelated to the cause of your stress? Animals do that to. So – a biting dog is not a bad dog, and a hissing cat is not bossy. They are just communicating some sort of discomfort, and it’s up to us as owners and vets to work out what that is. The reality is that every veterinary consult has a behavioural medicine component – it can’t be avoided!
Vet clinics can easily become scary places, but they don’t have to be.
Some animals also don’t like coming to the vet clinic and that is totally understandable given what they might have experienced at previous visits. Even those who haven’t had a painful or clearly unpleasant experience just might think we smell funny, look funny, and do weird things they’ve never seen before – a bad experience doesn’t have to be physically painful, they just need to think it’s a threat to their comfort or safety. Confusion (“Where are my owners?”), frustration (“I wish I could get out of this cage”), and fear (“What on earth is that big monster of a dog over there?”) are incredibly common. It perhaps helps to think that mental distress is just another type of ‘pain’. And since we cannot explain to them in long verbal sentences what is happening, we have to employ other methods to try to help them relax and relieve them of this distress. This can involve desensitising through regular happy visits or the use of short-term anti-anxiety medications. Puppy school is also a great way to help prevent this fear.
Practice makes perfect and prevention is better than cure.
We all know these sayings: “Practice makes perfect”, and “Prevention is better than cure”.
These are extremely true for veterinary behavioural medicine and are why as good behavioural vets we educate our clients on the importance of a well-run puppy school, teaching a kitten that their carrier is a great place to be, that the vet clinic is a nice place to visit and how to pick a trainer who uses current force-free techniques. Practice to perfection means that regular practice of desired behaviours and happy behavioural responses makes them good habits, while regular practice of undesirable behaviours and unhappy emotional responses become bad habits (but they are not bad animals!). Once undesirable behaviours become well practiced, they are much more difficult to change and so the more effort put into prevention, the better set up for life we are!
The importance of appreciating what is normal.
As behavioural vets we also help owners to understand the difference between a normal behaviour of an animal which is annoying to humans and what is abnormal for the animal (which humans may not have even recognised). Sometimes it’s incredibly hard to determine which is which and this is one of the purposes of dedicated behaviour consultations. Assessing the genetic, learned and environmental components of a behaviour problem takes a lengthy and detailed consultation, and an even lengthier treatment program (it takes a lot of time and effort to change habits that have been well practiced!).
Veterinary behavioural medicine helps promote a stronger human-animal bond.
At the end of the day, we all own a pet because of the way they behave – that’s what makes them so endearing to us and if that wasn’t the case, we’d all be out buying statues instead! Unfortunately, the most common reason for animal relinquishment to shelters and euthanasia of domestic pets is for a behavioural reason. So, it’s obviously very important for us as pet owners and vets to promote mental well-being from the start and addressing any problems that may arise over their long life.
We are here to help you when you need it!