Early consultation is key to preventing behavioral issues

Risk of relinquishment reduced by DVM counseling
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Sep 01, 2008

There are a variety of behavioral services that should be provided by every veterinary clinic, including pre-selection counseling, preventive counseling, castration and spaying, puppy and kitten classes and obedience training, behavior screening, behavior counseling and the sale of behavior products.

This article is the first in a continuing series on behavior medicine, and is intended to provide an overview of these services. Future columns will explore how you can integrate these services into your practice.

Most pets relinquished to shelters in North America are there because of a poor pet-owner bond resulting from undesirable behavior. A weak bond will have a negative impact on the level of veterinary services that owners are willing to provide. Therefore, a focus on behavior provides not only an opportunity for expanded clinical services, but most importantly can increase pet retention, improve the bond and increase the owner's commitment to health care.

Pre-selection counseling

Advice given to prospective owners can help determine the best selection of pet for the household, including breed, age, sex, sources for assessment testing (which is of little value in young puppies and kittens), and prepare the home for the arrival of the new pet. Insufficient knowledge of the expectations of pet ownership is a major risk factor for relinquishment. Although finding cases may seem challenging, each phone call your clinic receives from people preparing to obtain a pet is an opportunity to schedule a preselection consultation.

Preventive counseling

The most common age for relinquishment of dogs and second most common for cats is between 6 months and 24 months. Therefore, the first few visits with new pet owners provide the best opportunity for preventing behavioral problems and strengthening the bond. In fact, relinquishment risk is reduced for dog owners who have two or more puppy visits, and for cat owners who are provided with reading material. Lack of obedience training in dogs, house soiling and lack of neutering in both dogs and cats are additional risk factors for relinquishment. Therefore each of these subjects should be addressed.

Castration reduces or prevents male sexual behaviors such as roaming and marking in cats; marking, mounting and roaming in dogs; and may reduce some forms of aggression. Spaying will eliminate hormonally influenced female behaviors, such as estrous behaviors of dogs and cats and false pregnancy in dogs.

The veterinarian and staff should work together to provide pet owners with appropriate information and guidance on socialization, learning principles and reinforcement-based training. Avoid punishment-based training techniques, but encourage ways to best meet each of the puppy's or kitten's needs for enrichment.

Training classes

Advising pet owners to keep their pets away from other pets until after all vaccinations are complete might be prudent to avoid illness. However, this is a time when primary socialization and habituation to new stimuli are critical. In fact, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) position statement on socialization recommends that classes begin well before the end of the primary socialization period at 12 to 14 weeks of age.

Puppy classes provide an opportunity to introduce and socialize puppies with other pets and people in a controlled environment. They help owners identify and address emerging problems and can greatly improve training skills. Two sessions of kitten kindergarten (one without kittens and one with kittens) can demonstrate valuable information on feline behavior, handling, socialization, training and play. With sufficient space and trained personnel, puppy, kitten and obedience training classes might be held within the clinic.

Behavioral screening

Behavioral screening and history-taking should be an integral part of every veterinary visit. Not only does this demonstrate the interest of the veterinary clinic in providing behavioral guidance, but it is an essential part of each medical screen, since behavioral signs may be the first or only indication of illness, pain and degenerative diseases such as cognitive dysfunction and sensory decline.