What is Veterinary Behavioural Medicine?
Alterations in behaviour can be a great source of distress for companion animals and their owners.
It is often those behaviours that cause most inconvenience to people which are brought to the attention of the veterinary practice, but routine questions at annual vaccination appointments can also be used to detect more “acceptable” behaviours which may still be indicative of distress for the animal. For example, fear of fireworks is considered by many owners to be normal behaviour, due to its very high incidence in the domestic dog population, but it is far from normal and can be successfully treated to the benefit of pet and owner alike.
Veterinary behavioural medicine is a branch of internal medicine and is a mainstream aspect of veterinary practice. The approach is the same as for any other branch of internal medicine and relies on accurate history taking to reach a diagnosis of the underlying emotional drive for the unwanted behaviour. In some cases that emotional drive may be normal but triggered by inappropriate stimuli due to problems of early development or subsequent learning (for example fear of strangers or fear of other dogs) but in others, such as phobias and compulsive disorders, the underlying emotional motivation is abnormal.
Veterinary behavioural medicine is a vital discipline as it is essential to look for potential interplay between physical disease and emotional states and to accurately determine the potential contribution from physical illness in the development and maintenance of unwanted behavioural signs. In addition it is important that behavioural signs are taken seriously within a general veterinary practice context from a welfare perspective. Whether the behaviour is manifested during the veterinary consultation or hospitalisation stays or the client describes behaviour which is only shown at home or out on walks, it is essential that the problems are adequately investigated and the owners are offered appropriate advice either in house or through appropriate referral. Behavioural signs are an outward expression of underlying emotional drives in response to a range of social or environmental stimuli and their presence can be a significant factor when evaluating animal welfare.
What characterises a Veterinary Behaviourist?
In many European countries there has been a tradition for non-veterinarians from a background of psychology, ethology or training to be involved in the management of undesirable behaviours. These people have played an important role in the development of the companion animal behaviour field and it is in the best interests of pets and their owners for a multidisciplinary approach to be maintained. Indeed this is a multidisciplinary field in which the interplay between animals and their environment, both physical and social, is an important factor.
However, behaviour is also a vitally important veterinary subject and veterinary surgeons specialising in behavioural medicine (Veterinary behaviourists) offer a unique blend of skills which offer owners support on many levels. They are able to evaluate the physical and emotional health of animals in a unique way and this leads to a deep understanding of the factors involved in the initiation and maintenance of behavioural signs. They can prescribe behavioural management programmes based on an understanding of learning theory and emotional drives and combine this, where necessary, with the use of pheromone and pharmacological agents to assist in the treatment process. In addition they can understand the potential contribution from past medical history in the development of behavioural sjgns and then evaluate and treat underlying or concurrent physical illness. In short veterinary behaviourists have a vital role to play in the prevention, detection, diagnosis, management and treatment of behavioural disorders which are sadly so prevalent in the domestic pet population.