14 March 2018 0 Comments Posted By : Dr. Rebecca Ledger

Pet Therapy: Where to find help for your pet’s behavioural health

A quick google search will reveal a plethora of help options for people struggling with their pets’ problem behaviour — dog trainers, training coaches, behaviourists, veterinarians, dog whisperers and animal communicators are among those who advertise their services to help pets that aren’t behaving quite right.

Their varied (or lack of) qualifications, and differing approaches to managing behavioural problems can make it challenging for concerned owners to know who best to consult — a decision that isn’t made easier by the professionals themselves, some of whom make negative, sometimes false comparisons in their turf war with ‘the competition.’

The reality is that, various animal behaviour professionals often have different, but complimentary roles when it comes to keeping pet behaviour on track. But, when it comes to dealing with any acute or sudden change in a pet’s behaviour, B.C. SPCA veterinarian Dr. Karen van Haaften suggests that a chat with your pet’s primary health care provider should be the first port of call.

“Changes in behaviour are often the first sign of disease in pet cats and dogs … and should be worked up by a veterinarian,” van Haaften explains. “Veterinarian involvement is necessary to rule out medical differentials for problem behaviours.”

If a pet has become unusually aggressive, anxious, irritable, more or less energetic than usual, or if he has started to urinate or defecate around the home, then disease could be the cause.

Pain in particular, is a common cause of canine aggression. Conditions such as degenerative joint disease, inter-vertebral disk disease and dental disease are common and painful conditions which can cause dogs to be irritable and snappy.

Other diseases such as brain tumours, seizure disorders, liver shunts, and diseases involving hormonal imbalances, such as Cushing’s disease and hypothyroidism, can also cause dogs to behave with uncharacteristic levels of aggression. Texts on medical differentials for aggressive behaviour contain more than 50 health-related problems, which veterinarians and some behaviourists are trained to recognize.

Likewise, various painful, metabolic and endocrine conditions can underlie why many cats become unusually aggressive or anxious.

“Cats are often very good at hiding pain from their owners, but degenerative joint disease and dental disease are common and significant sources of pain,” says van Haaften. “Hyperthyroidism is a common endocrine disorder that can also cause acute behavioural changes in cats, including aggression.”

If a medical cause for a pet’s behavioural problem has been ruled out, and an emotional disorder is diagnosed (anxiety, fears and phobias for example), veterinarians can also recommend medications, diets and supplements, which help these animals to feel and thus, behave better. The Veterinarian’s Act stipulates specifically that only veterinarians and those working under their supervision can treat animals with such emotional disorders.

However, this isn’t to say that certified trainers don’t also have an important role in improving a dog’s unwanted behaviour.

“Your veterinarian may recommend working with a trainer for some specific forms of behaviour modification, such as leash reactive behaviour, or desensitization and counter-conditioning to specific triggers,” says van Haaften. “Your veterinarian should be able to steer you towards a trainer that uses appropriate, evidence-based training methods.”

Since not all trainers and behaviourists are adequately qualified to take on behaviour cases, certifications from organizations such as the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC), can help owners to determine whether their trainer will apply humane and evidence-based training methods.

Ultimately, don’t delay talking to your veterinarian about your pet should behavioural problems arise — as soon as your pet’s behaviour starts to negatively affect your or your pet’s quality of life, a visit to the clinic is due. And, according to van Haaften, early and effective treatment of behavioural problems always produces the best results.

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