Ethology and veterinary practice: Those confounding variables!
Wednesday, August 08, 2018
If you read a lot of animal behavioral studies, you quickly discover that researchers and veterinary practitioners live in two different worlds.
Researchers have the luxury of eliminating or ignoring all but a single variable. They also can limit their study to a small population of carefully selected animals.
Sometimes these animals are laboratory animals; in older studies, often these animals were all males unless the researchers were interested in specific female behaviors such as those related to maternal care of the young.
Study environments may include laboratory settings that involve only those elements essential to the study. When studies are conducted on animals living in human households, all the variables in that household are disregarded except those the researcher deems important.
It is assumed that all animals in behavioral studies are physically healthy as are their bonds with their owners.
On the other hand, veterinarians in private practice encounter a dizzying array of variables during the average day, and they must determine which ones are relevant to the medical or behavioral problem at hand.
This picture may be hilarious or horrifying to you.
For decades, I’ve used the same picture to sensitize practitioners and veterinary students to the animal health/behavior/bond/One Health world in which they and their clients and patients live. When the slide appears on the screen, most didn’t know whether to laugh or cry because the subject falls into the black humor category at best.
It depicts a snarling older, overweight chihuahua with dilated pupils and a thin hair coat with an insulin syringe clamped between its gnarly teeth and gums. It appears that the dog sits in a person’s lap.
Veterinarians want to laugh because they’ve all had cases in which an animal’s behavior wreaked havoc with their carefully developed treatment plan for diabetes or some other chronic disease. Some practitioners also recognized how the animal’s behavior could contribute to the medical problem’s existence or aggravate its symptoms.
Other veterinarians mention the thoughtless people in these animals’ households who deliberately irritate the edgy animal so they can take similar pictures to show their friends or post on social media. Still others mention cases in which baiting the animal with concurrent behavioral and medical problems by one household member sparked family arguments that further stressed the animal.
In these situations, what seemed like a medical and behavioral problem to the practitioner soon became a bond problem with all its attendant variables that could influence the animal’s well-being.
Then the coup de grâce, the veterinarian who asks, “What if that’s the owner’s insulin? Or there’s a diabetic dog and person in the same household?” The gaggle of confounding variables inherent in that scenario takes us into the realm of human-companion animal medical, behavior, and bond-generated One Health problems with implications for dog and owner alike.
Although some may think that such scenarios would cause any practitioner considering a more ethological approach to companion animal behavior to abandon that route, that hasn’t been my experience.
Admittedly, this exercise rarely inspires those with little or no interest in behavior (or the bond) as it affects animal health to abandon their practice of either ignoring these variables or referring such clients to those with more interest in them. However, for those troubled when the animal’s behavior and its effect on the client negatively impacts the treatment process, this more comprehensive approach makes sense.
Relative to any scientific support of this physiology-behavior-bond interaction, we need look no further than the ongoing fur fox domestication studies begun by geneticist Dmitry Belyaev in the late 1930s. All Belyaev and his team did was selectively breed those animals displaying a behavior they referred to as “tameability.”
Put another way, they chose their breeding animals based strictly on the animals’ display of a behavior that signaled a willingness to form a closer bond with humans.
However, in the process of doing that, all sorts of changes occurred in the progeny’s physiology and physical appearance. These persistent changes, which approximated those found in young animals, were collectively referred to as a neoteny.
Among these was how the more domesticated animals handled stress hormones such as cortisol and serotonin differently compared to their wild counterparts. Like most young animals in secure environments, the neotenized foxes physiologically were more prepared to eat, sleep, play/learn, and grow.
This would seem to explain why domestic dogs and cats may experience problems when placed in human physical, behavioral, and bond environments that impose demands that exceed the animal’s capacity.
However, people unmindful of these connections may perceive their pets’ lives as idyllic. They speak lovingly of the arthritic dog who hogs their bed or the “finicky” cat who eats better than they do.
If these animal behaviors and accommodating them pleases these people, they make no connection between these and the dog’s attempt to bite the child who merely reached out to pet the dog on the bed. They make no connection between the exotic meals they lovingly prepare and the cat’s obesity and related medical problems.
Consequently, when it comes to successfully treating these problems, it pays to be mindful of the physiology-behavior-bond connection instead of being blindsided by it when one component sabotages the treatment of another.
For example, a surprising number of dogs can move relatively freely with a fair amount of rear-end instability. Consequently, it’s easy to forget that the one place a dog needs a stable rear end is for defensive or offensive displays.
In physically sound dogs, this normally involves a freeze — weight shift to the back legs — lunge and bite sequence. But if arthritic dogs concurrently experience behavioral pain related to human-canine role-reversal that throws the dog into an unnatural and stressful protective mode, it may override any physical pain if the animal’s status is challenged.
Some of these animals may aggress sooner and with less provocation than their more physically sound cohorts. I recall several dogs with deplorable hips who could launch themselves from lateral recumbency into a full-blown lunging attack without warning.
If preparing that human food for her cat signifies the owner’s love of the animal, putting the cat on special diet and environmental enrichment program isn’t going to cut it unless something is done addresses a common companion-animal bond reality: special food and her preparation of it carries a potent emotional charge that defines her relationship with her pet.
In these situations, the practitioner must address the bond component or the client either won’t feed the food or will feel like she’s emotionally abandoning her beloved cat if she does. The cat very well may feel the same way and refuse the new food and instead beg relentlessly for food from her plate.
The take-home message? There’s no such thing as just an animal medical or behavioral or bond problem.
The environment in which our clients and their animals live invariably includes all three. Recognizing that upfront may take some practice. But it can save client-animal relationships and animal lives in the long run.
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