Veterinarians Need Behaviorists and So Do Pets
I was the only feline behavior consultant attending last year’s American Animal Hospital Association conference, as far as I knew. I was neither a vet, nor a vet tech. After the four days, I left with a notebook of interesting bits to pass on to my clients, yes, but also confirmation that feline behavior was still low on the vet’s priority list.
The “feline track” was small. Very doggist. Even a talk on fear and aggression handling for clinic staff was 90% dog. (The lecturer, the late vet-behaviorist Sophia Yin, admitted there was “too little known about cats” and that she didn’t know ‘all that much.’) One of the biggest names in veterinary medicine, Niels Pedersen, author of the book on feline infectious diseases, advised me, “Behavior? It’s either sex or stress. If it’s sex, castrate ’em. Stress? Drug ’em.” Oh, well that’s all right, then.
It’s a common attitude. After speakers’ talks on non-medical feline matters at several conferences, I asked the same question: How can we get more vets to use behavior consultants? Nobody had answers. In true displacement gesturing, I (metaphorically) scratch my head in frustration. Story thus far: many vets aren’t very interested.
Vets prefer dogs. According to Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, spokeswoman for the excellent “Cat Friendly Clinic Guidelines”, only 17% of vets even prefer cats. (48% prefer dogs). Cats being most popular domestic pet in the US, it would be financially viable to consider a more cat-seductive practice, yet almost half aren’t interested in adopting even those Guidelines for their clinics. In an admittedly unscientific survey, I asked 31 vets at the AAHA conference if they used cat behavior consultants. Twenty-nine said they didn’t.
The majority of vets here in Arizona said no. Why not? “We don’t think about it.” “I don’t know any.’ “I can handle that sort of thing.”
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Fact: most cats are dumped at shelters and killed or just plain dumped, because of behavior issues, not medical ones.
You could be hard-pressed, looking for “feline behavior” as part of DVM curricula. Most vets have admitted they’d gotten “one or two lectures” in their three-year program. No classes in feline behavior, but perhaps one or two in animal behavior. An online look at what some of the major vet programs offer: some prominent universities have behavior clinics; however, there is only one general animal behavior course in its three-year program, and it’s an elective. Another has three courses, two of which are elective. (They have a course every year in raptors, swine and goats. Lots of info on sugar-gliders.) “No book required nor recommended.” A third has one elective course, two others have none, although, again, they have their own behavior clinics.
How much of these courses cover, specifically, feline behavior? Department spokespeople: “We don’t know, but if the professor is covering dogs, horses, and other animals, it would be little.”
The assumption is, you can learn more in graduate and postgraduate work; after the DVM has been achieved. (The American College of Vet Behaviorists has a respected program for vets, as one example.) There is no feline behavior journal. According to Elsevier, ‘There is no money in it.’
No feline behavior lecture at the American Board of Vet Practitioners conference in the fall, nor at other conferences coming up this year. The vets who feel they don’t need a behavior consultant would benefit greatly not only for their clients, their clients’ cats, but for their clinic credibility, if they change their minds. ( The others can find a good list from the AAFP, IAABC or other organizations.) My clients tell me that when they mention their cat’s problems to the doctor; on soiling inappropriately, for example, they get general advice: “Change litter. Clean around the box with an enzymatic cleaner, or move it”, without understanding the reason behind the issue. Is it due to box issues or stress or hormonal issues, if there’s no medical cause? Makes a difference in terms of treatment. Aggression toward other house pets? “Drug him or remove him” is often the offered answer. Or Feliway pheromone plug-in. Sometimes the honest vet explains that s/he doesn’t know.
Good behavior consultants understand cats’ issues that exasperate the owner. They know how to help and advise through protocols and suggestions, learned through years of personal and clinical experience. They can answer questions and solve issues that many vets can’t. Spraying, soiling, scratching, avoidance, aggression toward people or pets, the reasons behind such behavior, the triggers involved, learning about as much background as is possible, learning the home and outside layouts, relationships between cat and owners, family, more. Habituation, desensitization, types of learning and conditioning, taking a thorough history.
It’s not just a matter of reading books. Strong experience in reputable institutions can replace academic training, if that’s all there was if there was so little. TV programs and web blogs about cats (excluding the cute picture-laden ones) have never been so hugely popular as they are now. Sure, there are good tips on the internet, but there’s also a lot of simply wrong advice. (Still reading about using vinegar to clean boxes? Pushing the cat’s head down onto the urinated-upon surface? Cats don’t sweat? Amazing.) No blog, website or column can solve every case; how many cats are “relinquished” because a net tip didn’t solve the problem? If a vet couldn’t solve a behavior problem, are cats dumped, too? A jazzy site and a claim to be “an expert” isn’t enough. One so-called “professional animal behavior association” outside the US isn’t even credible among true experts, from my understanding.
Sure, homework is needed, as it would be for any profession. I never pretend to be a vet, but recommend the client check with the vet first, to rule out possible underlying medical issues. That vet should also be able to recommend a good behavior consultant if the cat is physically healthy. People should examine the background of any professional who’s considered. Those certified in animal behavior should have a lot of experience in specifically feline issues. There are also superb, renowned behavior consultants who are not certified, but have had enormous wealth of experience, written for good journals, participated in major projects and programs sponsored by responsible institutions.
Until recently, one couldn’t get certified in feline behavior; now a few established and respected organizations offer it. I hope this is a sign of more to come, that feline behavior is taken every bit as seriously as canine and equine. Vets, vet-behaviorists and behavior consultants need to share. We could learn so much from each other. After all, we’re doing it for the cats, not for our own egos.
For vets, for behaviorists, for the cats. Win-win-win.