Fear factor: Is routine veterinary care contributing to lifelong patient anxiety?

In part 1 of this two-part series, new research explores the dramatic impact of a single visit on a pet's long-term behavioral well-being.
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Sep 01, 2013

As clients have come to identify and treat their pets as family members, sophisticated specialty and diagnostic care has blossomed. Yet in one sector—veterinary behavior medicine—routine evaluation for prevention of and early intervention for common problems is often nonexistent. Instead, veterinarians often operate in reactive mode, addressing behavioral concerns only when they become a problem for clients, the veterinarian or the practice.

Recent research suggests that veterinarians may be missing their best opportunity to prevent relinquishment and suffering in pet dogs and cats. The secret to boosting their quality of life: implementing a fear and anxiety assessment at each veterinary visit.


GETTY IMAGES/JAKUB WAJTOWICZ
It's time that we address behavioral concerns when they become a problem for a patient. To do this, we must assess and recognize fear and anxiety when signs first appear.

Fighting an uphill battle

The bad news: Most veterinary schools still don't have full-time programs or full-time faculty members in veterinary behavior medicine, and even fewer support behavior-based research programs. As a result, most veterinarians in practice haven't been exposed to veterinary behavioral epidemiology, so they may not know what issues are common. And without training in veterinary behavior medicine itself, veterinarians may misread canine and feline signaling or be unaware of advances in neurodevelopment, leaving them unsure of when and how to treat a developing behavioral problem in a way that will benefit everyone.

While these patterns are pretty disheartening, new research shows that the situation might be even worse—veterinarians may not even realize when clients are actively seeking behavioral guidance. Two researchers looked at 17 client-patient visits with six veterinarians.1,2 During these visits, clients told veterinarians of 58 concerns they had about their dogs' behaviors. Only 10 of these 58 concerns (less than 20 percent) were discussed at all during the consultation, and none were fully pursued. Had the clients complained of finding 58 enlarged lymph nodes (3.4 per dog), it's hard to believe that only 17 percent of them would have been explored.

The good news: Veterinary behavior medicine is the only specialty in which any degree of accurate knowledge can save lives and change the course of an outcome from relinquishment, euthanasia or regular restraint to a full and happy life with clients vested in enduring, compassionate and sophisticated care. The single biggest impediment to growth in general and specialty practice may be the loss of a large proportion of young pets annually because of their behavioral challenges. Dogs and cats that don't live past 2 to 3 years of age don't eat therapeutic diets, don't need maintenance medications and don't require the types of sophisticated veterinary services that help specialty fields and practices grow.

With respect to fear and anxiety, there are two modes of intervention in which veterinarians can have a huge effect with very little practice: 1) identifying a puppy or kitten that is fearful, anxious and uncertain early in life, and 2) minimizing the role of veterinary care in inducing and maintaining fear.