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All too frequently, behavioural issues in dogs lead to the animal being euthanised. Two pet behaviour vets are working hard to reduce these occurrences. By Kerryn Ramsey
Behavioural disorders are extremely common in pets, and particularly in dogs. It can make living conditions between pet and owner difficult and in some cases, impossible. In fact, behavioural problems can be a terminal illness for dogs.
“Euthanasia due to behaviour reasons is the leading cause of death in canines,” says behaviour veterinarian Dr Elle Parker. “Behaviour problems degrade the human-animal bond, placing pets at risk of neglect, abuse, relinquishment and euthanasia.”
Dr Parker runs and owns Pawly Understood, a veterinary consulting service in Adelaide that helps pets suffering from behaviour issues. These can range from simple training problems to complex psychological issues and psychiatric disorders. A large proportion of her work revolves around dogs that are stressed and anxious.
“Psychiatric disease is the most prolific illness we face in the veterinary industry,” she says. “It’s at epidemic levels. It’s also the facet of veterinary medicine that veterinarians receive the least amount of formal training in. This has created a disconnect that needs to be rectified. Vets need to be competent recognising and treating behaviour issues and mental illness in pets. Stress and anxiety disorders take, on average, two years off a dog’s life. It requires medical treatment in the same way diabetes or infections require treatment.”
While a large proportion of behaviour vets’ cases are referred by veterinarians and dog trainers, many are self-referrals directly from clients. Some of the most common issues are generalised anxiety, separation-related distress, storm and noise phobias, and anti-social behaviour such as reactivity and aggression to dogs and people. Some common signs of general anxiety are hyper-activity, restlessness, agitation, hyper-vigilance, fear of unfamiliar things, places or experiences; and an inability to relax, rest or sleep properly.
“Unfortunately, we first see many cases once the dog has reached social maturity at around two years of age,” says Dr Joanna McLachlan. “When looking at the patient’s medical and behavioural history, there are usually warning signs that have been missed. There may be problems with socialisation, difficulty being groomed or examined at the vet clinic, or even being kicked out of puppy preschool. We need professionals in the veterinary, grooming and training industries to be aware of these red flags and refer them for behavioural treatment—the earlier the better.”
Dr McLachlan is the owner and founder of Pet Behaviour Vet located in south-eastern Sydney. She works with three other behaviour veterinarians to create an individualised behaviour management program for each patient. The ideal situation is when the behaviour vet and the general vet work closely together to achieve a positive result.
“Our most successful outcomes are cases where clients have been liaising with us, their usual GP veterinarian, and their behavioural trainer,” she says. “We regularly send cases back to GP vets to manage health concerns that we’ve identified during our consultations. We know that pain and anxiety are intertwined.”
Drs Parker and McLachlan are both proponents of force-free training. Force-free trainers only use progressive positive reinforcement and ethically sound training techniques. They are committed to avoiding harmful training involving fear, force, pain and coercion.
“Dogs exhibiting undesirable behaviour are often doing so as a coping strategy for their emotional state of fear and anxiety,” says Dr Parker. “If a trainer uses punishment to suppress the dog’s coping strategy this causes escalating distress, conflict and anxiety. This can lead to a new coping strategy that may be even more undesirable from the client’s perspective.”
The dog training industry is unregulated and many people who market themselves as dog trainers are unqualified. Some give misguided and harmful advice that damages dogs and drains people of their financial resources.
A way to help minimise behavioural problems is to use force-free training from the outset. “Ensure that puppies are raised in an enriching, yet safe environment,” says Dr McLachlan. “Enrol in a puppy preschool run by a qualified, force-free trainer—not just someone who is ‘good with puppies’. Continue seeing them for any future training or when problems arise.”
When behaviour vets work and collaborate with regular vets, positive patient outcomes are much more likely. By working together, they create a mental health support team for each patient and client.
“Together we can help patients live longer and better lives,” says Dr Parker. “It’s essential that regular vets have completed a thorough check-up, and haematology and biochemistry work-ups to rule out medical issues that can cause or contribute to behaviour problems. Before referral, patients should be thoroughly checked for orthopaedic pain, skin disease, dental disease, hormonal imbalance and metabolic disease.”
Unfortunately, in Australia, anyone can legally call themselves a behaviourist, dog psychologist or a behaviour specialist even if they don’t hold any behaviour certifications.
“There’s no professional body that regulates those claims,” says Dr McLachlan. “Of course, this makes choosing a trainer or behaviourist very difficult for dog owners. This is where general vets can help guide clients to accredited behaviour vets with qualifications.”
Due to the complex biological nature of behaviour, a cure to mental illness can never be guaranteed. Dr McLachlan points out, “Some conditions have better prognoses than others, but as a general rule, we talk about managing these conditions. Our goal is to reach a point where the patient and owner can live a happy life together.”
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for clients to be reluctant to seek help for their pet, worried that psychotropic medication might harm them or change their personality. They may also have unwarranted guilt, shame or embarrassment associated with their pet’s behaviour, after encountering judgement from others.
“There are many myths and biases about general dog behaviour and the clinical treatment of mental illness in pets,” says Dr Parker. “Most of these need to be outright debunked. Education and exposure are key.”