What Can a Veterinary Behaviorist Do For My Cat?
Dr. Nicholas Dodman
Before you can begin to ask what a veterinary behaviorist can do for you, you need to know what one is! The term is a very specific one that is reserved for those entitled to use it by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). But there are many vets who have a special interest in veterinary behavior and who promote behavioral medicine in their practice. The difference between vets with a special interest in animal behavior and veterinary behaviorists is one of training. Been inducted into the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) on the basis of founder status (so-called "grand-fathering")
To be a Veterinary Behaviorist You Have to Have Either:
Successfully completed an approved residency training program in veterinary animal behavior, and subsequently passed a certifying examination approved by the examinations committee of the ACVB. The successful candidate is then a diplomate of the ACVB – a formally certified specialist.
The minimal qualification for a would-be veterinary behaviorist is the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree (or equivalent). After graduation, a year of internship is necessary before entering a behavioral residency training program. Residencies are two or three years long (depending on the residents prior experience and coursework) and are conducted under the watchful eyes of an already boarded veterinary behaviorist. During the residency program, the trainee is required to complete a research project and publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal plus having certain caseload requirements met.
What You Stand to Gain
So now that you know what a veterinary behaviorist is, we can start to consider what one can do to help you with your pet peeve. Quite a lot, as it happens:
If you are one of the 42 percent of pet owners whose pet is displaying some kind of problem behavior, a veterinary behaviorist can quickly assess the problem and provide viable treatment options. Bear in mind that many behavior problems are actually normal behaviors for the animal but are being performed inappropriately, from the owner's perspective. For example, cats' urinate marking on furniture is not really an "abnormal" behavior - but it can be so troubling for the cat's owners that they consider surrendering their beloved pet to a shelter or pound.
"Urinating inappropriately" is not a diagnosis; it is a description of a behavior. A diagnosis must include some reference to the reason for the behavior.
It's essential to know exactly what you're dealing with before appropriate and effective treatment measures can be employed. Although non-veterinary behaviorists (e.g. applied animal behaviorists certified by the Animal Behavior Society) may suspect the cause of inappropriate urination problems in cats, they need to work hand in hand with a veterinarian to confirm or deny possible medical contributions to the problem. Veterinary behaviorists are qualified to handle both aspects. A veterinary behaviorist will usually perform a physical examination of the cat and order relevant laboratory tests to support the diagnosis. This is a unique function of the veterinary behaviorist. Infections, hyperthyroidism, and partial seizures are examples of medical conditions that can muddy the diagnostic waters.
Once an accurate diagnosis has been made, the veterinary behaviorist moves into the next stage, a full explanation for the behavior. This is an important aspect of behavioral case management. For cat owners to know exactly what's going on and why removes a huge weight from their shoulders. In addition, understanding the condition helps owners when it comes to treatment by enhancing their understanding of, compliance with, behavior modification strategies. Although non-veterinary behaviorists supply such information, too, where medical problems are involved, a veterinary behaviorist (or at least some veterinary input) is necessary.
Behavioral Management and Treatment
These days treatment is holistic in the sense that it embraces all aspects of the cat's life and lifestyle. Subjects that would be addressed include:
The opportunity for exercise (the more the merrier)
Communication, or the ability to "instruct" your cat what to do by means of specific cues or signals
Environmental enrichment (measures to make your cat's life interesting)
Specific behavior modification programs (such as a desensitization program to help fearful cats)
Medical treatment (when necessary)
Psychopharmacologic treatment (where indicated)
Only a veterinary behaviorist can address any or all aspects of the above treatment.
Not everyone requires a veterinary behaviorist to help resolve their cat's behavior problems. Certified applied animal behaviorists (CAAB) are well suited to handle non-medical behavioral issues. Their psychology background makes them ideal when it comes to managing disturbed cats that have suffered psychological trauma. The human medical equivalent of the certified applied animal behaviorist is the psychologist.
Veterinary behaviorists also have some background in learning theory and are able to counsel on psychological problems, but their input if vital when medical problems are involved or when psychopharmacologic treatment is indicated. Veterinary behaviorists, whether they like the analogy or not, function as animal psychiatrists.
In the past, there were arguments in human mental health counseling over who was qualified to do this or do that. Psychologists would sometimes deride psychiatrists as "pill pushers," and psychiatrists were concerned that psychologists would fail to appreciate when medical input was necessary. None of these concerns has turned out to be valid.
Psychologists do seem to be able to recognize curve-ball medical involvement. When they see behaviors that don't fit a usual paradigm, they know when to refer a patient. Conversely, psychiatrists understand quite a lot about counseling and don't always rush to medicate.
The same mutual concerns have existed between veterinary and non-veterinary behaviorists. Certified applied animal behaviorists, as it happens, do a stalwart job and veterinary behaviorists have a key role to play in those difficult end-of-the-road cases where nothing that has been tried has seemed to work.
Considering the huge annual feline mortality in the nation's shelters and pounds due to "unmanageable" behavior problems, it is time that non-veterinary behaviorists, vets with a special interest in animal behavior, and "boarded" veterinary behaviorists pull together help keep families and their pets together.