Ethology and veterinary practice: Client perceptions of animal behavioral problems
Friday, August 07, 2020
When veterinarians begin integrating the treatment of behavioral problems into their practices, it may surprise them how client perceptions of these problems may differ compared to medical ones.
Consequently, these client perceptions may blindside practitioners and sabotage problem behavior resolutions. Here are some of the most problematic ones I’ve encountered.
Problematic Client Perception 1: Animals with behavioral problems are healthy.
In addition to being problematic in and of itself, this perception also lays the foundation for others that may complicate the behavior problem treatment process.
Superficially, perceiving animals with behavior problems as healthy may seem like a reasonable client response. Unlike when those same animals are vomiting or limping, many animals with behavior problems do appear physically healthy. This limited view also may be shared by the client’s family and friends as well as some in the medical community.
This perception may generate a host of challenges for practitioners treating behavioral problems. Consider how the Guyettes’ different perceptions of their animals’ medical and behavioral problems influence their responses to their animals. They wouldn’t dream of denying their dog or their cat whatever support is needed to address the animal’s medical problems. When their highly territorial dog leaps the fence, ignores Ms. Guyette’s come command, and gets hit by a car, the owners feel nothing but compassion for him. They willingly rearrange their lives during the months it takes to ensure the successful healing of their dog’s multiple injuries.
But if one of their animals develops a behavior problem that requires a comparable amount of owner support and commitment and they perceive that animal as healthy, mustering those vital attributes may be difficult for them. While their responses to their dog’s physical problems elevate the Guyettes to near saintly status, they don’t hesitate to label their cat spiteful and mean when the timid animal signals her willingness to protect them and herself by peeing on their bed.
Whereas they didn’t hesitate to rearrange their lives temporarily to help their physically injured dog, they don’t hesitate to condemn their cat for displaying a behavior that signals a comparable amount of behavioral distress. But if they spot a bit of blood in that urine, that instantly would change their perception of their cat. “Because then,” explains Ms. Guyette, “We could know she’s not feeling well.”
Problematic Client Perception 2: Animal behavior is static.
Most people acknowledge that their companion animals go through physical developmental stages. They also acknowledge that different nutritional and medical changes that warrant their attention may accompany these. However, a fair number of pet owners believe their animal’s behavior is — or should be — static. Once their canine additions complete a basic puppy class or two, they think their pets are set for life.
Consequently, when some of these the once well-trained canine youngsters suddenly start ignoring commands or aggressing toward others who approach them and their people, some owners truly do believe their dogs must have a brain tumor.
It’s often beneficial to remind clients that animals, like people, have different behavioral needs as well as health needs over their lives. Contrary to Ms. Lyda’s belief, her Shih Tzu didn’t start snarling at the letter carrier “for no reason at all.” It’s possible he merely reached maturity and, lacking any cues from her and her son that disproved the need for this, assumed a protective role by default. Or perhaps their move to a new home with a larger population of free-roaming dogs, cats, and wild animals overwhelmed the now-middle-aged dog. Or maybe her son’s departure for college left the aging dog feeling more vulnerable.
This brings up the related, but sometimes overlooked awareness of how any changes in the human half of the bond may affect an animal’s behavior. Each one of the changes that affected their dog’s behavior also had the potential to alter Ms. Lyda’s and her son’s. For better or worse, we also in a society in which animal companionship often is marketed as a 24/7 antidote for what ails us.
If moving, loss of loved ones, unemployment or other events leave us feeling vulnerable, we inadvertently may interact with our companion animals in ways that communicates our neediness. This may increase some dogs’ need to protect us as well as themselves. If they feel vulnerable in this role, they may devote more energy to any protective displays than if they would if they felt more secure.
Problematic Client Perception 3: Resolving animal behavioral problems should be fast and fun.
This surprisingly common perception probably is an unintended consequence of training programs that incorporate these words into their marketing strategies. This results in a population of people for whom taking their dogs to class was more of a human social event than a human-canine learning one. Unlike those clients with the previous behavioral problem perceptions who often embrace learning more about the ethology and bond dimensions of their animals’ behaviors, those in this group take a more anthropocentric view.
This creates several problems for practitioners. If the animals belonging to these folks develop behavioral problems that will take time and commitment to resolve, their immediate response may be to seek the fastest and easiest treatments. These may include multiple treat-based training classes in hopes of finding the magic one.
If these don’t resolve the animal’s problem, a subset of these folks may switch to punishment-based approaches — often shock collars or other electronic devices. These animals also may be taking an array of supplements and natural and not-so-natural remedies and drugs, seeking an instant magical cure. Some of these may not have been given as recommended or prescribed.
If these clients’ relationships with their animal depends on shared activities with other pet owners — play dates, shows, competitions, etc. — they may resist even temporarily limiting their animals’ environment to facilitate learning.
Although their approaches to animals may seem like the fastest and most fun for them, sorting through all this can be anything but for the practitioner who wants to help their animals!
Often clues to the presence of these perceptions and other counter-productive perceptions may show up in pre-consultation histories or in conversations or emails with the client before the consultation. As with questionable perceptions regarding medical problems, those related to behavioral ones are best addressed upfront.
Taking these clients from their medical knowns to behavioral unknowns using appropriate analogies can be helpful. So can recognizing that this view may be endemic in certain segments of the companion-owning population. Fortunately, most companion animal clients are willing to let go of these perceptions to help their animals.
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