Ethology and veterinary practice: Companion animal behavior-related vocabulary
Monday, October 16, 2017
In Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," Alice and Humpty Dumpty become involved in an unproductive discussion of semantics during which Humpty Dumpty scornfully notes, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." While it may seem that his philosophy has nothing to do with companion animal behavior, the status of companion animal behavior vocabulary suggests otherwise.
Why, you may ask, should you care how clients and others define their terms? It matters because, as in all aspects of companion animal veterinary practice, quality client-clinician communication forms the foundation on which the success of everything else depends.
If you and your client are using the same words but aren't talking about the same thing, at best you're wasting each other's time. At worst, it may lead you to make recommendations that exacerbate the animal's problem.
And if only it were that simple! One of the challenges facing those with an interest in companion animal ethology is sorting through all the behavior-related vocabulary that arises from multiple sources.
Although some of this possesses a strong academic lineage, describing the same behavioral display may vary from discipline to discipline. Other times, the same word may be used to describe different behaviors depending on the source. Simultaneously, vocabulary contributed by a training community comprised of those with a wide range of educational and experiential backgrounds may add to the confusion.
As with medical terminology, behavioral terminology may change within the public realm, too. For example, in the past and regardless of its actual etiology, almost every aggressive springer spaniel I saw came prediagnosed with "springer rage." During that same period, others referred to their animals succumbing to "rottie rage," "Scottie rage," "calico cat rage" and other rage spin-offs.
Clients with backgrounds in the human behavioral sciences were more likely to refer to bouts of aggression in their cats as "psychotic episodes," whereas dog owners and others referred to comparable canine displays as "psycho" or, if they were fans of Stephen King's writing, "Cujo-dog."
Some behavioral terminology, such as separation anxiety (SA) starts out with one definition that changes over time. Initially, SA referred to the human-canine version of the distress experienced by some canine parental figures and pups when separated from each other.
Over time, though, it became a catch-all term meaning "anything the animal does when left alone that I don't like." An alternative version defines SA as "anything negative the animal does, but only when a specific person is gone." In all these situations, which terminology a person prefers depends on whom they perceive as a reliable source of canine or feline behavioral information.
During the past 12-18 months, another word increasingly has popped up in the companion animal lexicon: idiopathic. Idiopathic anything, by definition, isn't a definitive diagnosis. It simply reflects ignorance of the cause of the problem/pathology.
Moreover, in its purest sense the prefix "idio-" refers to one's personal view. Thus, something described as idiopathic could reflect a highly personal view that roughly would translate, "I don't have a clue what’s causing this problem."
Inherent in the use of such terminology in science also is the awareness that, as studies reveal more about the problem and diagnostic tests become more refined, conditions once referred to as "idiopathic" will gain more definitive labels.
Unfortunately, for those lacking a scientific background, the adjective "idiopathic" may take on a different meaning. When used to describe certain problem companion animal behaviors to those unfamiliar with the term, it can give them an air of scientific legitimacy that may interfere with their resolution.
For example, some people firmly believe little dogs cannot be house-trained. They feel so certain about this that, if a trainer or someone else who had similar experiences with little dogs were to refer to this as "idiopathic small dog inappropriate elimination" (ISDIE), they readily would embrace this as a legitimate diagnosis.
Unfortunately, this can create a dilemma for Dr. Doolittle who knows that little dogs can be house-trained. On the one hand, if her client yearns for a house-trained little dog, then Dr. Doolittle's assurance that ISDIE represents a faux behavioral diagnosis will endear the client to the veterinarian. On the other, if the client seeks to excuse rather than resolve the problem behavior, then the veterinarian's assurance could be greeted with suspicion and even anger.
The rise of "idiopathic canine aggression" poses an even thornier problem, thanks to the nature of the human-canine bond. I understand some people's desire to protect themselves by creating as much emotional distance between themselves and their aggressive dogs as possible. It's a rare person who instantly accepts that his dog attacked him or another person or animal, let alone caused serious injuries.
And fortunately for those veterinarians with an interest in ethology, most people aren't like the Greens, who want and need to know why the aggression occurred. They want to know even if they opt to euthanize the dog because they don't want this to happen again. They want to replace their emotion-driven approach to their pets with a more behavior and bond knowledge-based one.
By providing them with this knowledge, Dr. Doolittle can do a lot to help her clients through this difficult time.
On the other hand, suppose another of Dr. Doolittle's clients, Ms. Blue, latches on to the diagnosis of idiopathic canine aggression suggested by a friend like a life-preserver thrown to someone drowning. In this situation, Dr. Doolittle's attempts to educate the client once again will be unwelcomed.
Further complicating matters, the Greens and Ms. Blue may opt to respond as they do for the same reason: They all seek to lessen the pain associated with facing the sometimes-limited options available when serious canine aggression occurs.
As if this weren't challenging enough, Dr. Doolittle may not share her clients' ideas of what comprises an acceptable option. And that, in turn, may not bode well for her own well-being and bond with the client.
As with behavioral problems in companion animals, preventive behavior and bond communication takes less time and energy than trying to play catch-up after the fact. Don't assume that others define even the most commonly used behavioral terms — e.g. dominance, submission/subordination, aggression — let alone less familiar ones the way same you do.
When you use these terms, define how you're using them as well as provide real-life examples of dogs or cats displaying that behavior. When your clients use them, politely ask them to define the terms so you're talking about the same thing.
The goal is to exchange quality information about the animal's behavior in a timely manner to ensure the resolution of any problems. It's not to argue about whose terminology is wrong and whose is right.
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