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What Is a Veterinary Behaviorist?

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Who you gonna call when your pet won't behave? Veterinary behaviorists help with pet aggression and behavior modification.

Before calling an animal trainer, first consult your veterinarian. Depending on the problem, your vet may refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, especially if aggression is the culprit.

"I see aggression cases in dogs and cats primarily,'' said veterinary behaviorist Gary M. Landsberg, DVM, of the North Toronto Animal Clinic. Speaking at the American Animal Hospital Association conference in Tampa in March, he said anxiety and phobia disorders can be seen in dogs, and compulsive disorders in both dogs and cats.

Ask about qualifications

With animal trainers, dog whisperers and pet psychics vying for attention, it can be difficult to cut through the fog of different designations. People in "many different groups call themselves animal behaviorists,'' Landsberg said. "Some behaviorists may have one year of community college or take an online course. Others may have a Ph.D. in animal behavior.'' He advised obtaining qualifications and referrals from trusted vets.

When the problem is more difficult than the vet can handle, a referral to a Vet Behaviorist may be the best answer. "We are the higher line call,'' he said. "A vet behaviorist is a board-certified specialist like any other specialist in veterinary medicine.''

As veterinarians, these behaviorists are able to distinguish the medical from the behavioral. After vet school, behaviorist training includes:

  • Comparative animal behavior
  • Learning and behavior modification
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Effects of disease on behavior
  • Drugs vs. behavior modification

As with people, nature vs. nurture considerations apply. Behavioral problems in animals can be caused by:

  • Genetic differences
  • Early development - nutritional and behavioral
  • Unstable environment

Diagnosis and treatment

After a thorough assessment, the vet behaviorist will make a diagnosis and devise a treatment plan. A prognosis will help determine what might be achieved and how to accomplish it. A treatment plan might include more stimulating activities or creating a more stable environment.

Sometimes the vet behaviorist will prescribe medications. "As behaviorists, we do prescribe drugs - the important thing is to diagnose and use drugs if they are necessary,'' he said.

In studies conducted with a partner, Landsberg found that when cats lick off hair it can be caused by food intolerances, flea intolerances and allergies. "Over 50 percent of the cats had a medical problem,'' Landsberg said. Some cases of canine aggression may also benefit from drug therapy, he added.

Unlike therapy for people, a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist may require only one to three sessions. Before a consultation, Landsberg asks the client to fill out a comprehensive form on his website about the pet's lifestyle and home life. When possible, videotaping and recording the problem can help assess the pet's problem along with the owner's interaction.

Finding solutions

Armed with this information, along with medical records, the vet behaviorist can zero in on causes and suggest solutions. Follow-up support on what can be done at home can be facilitated with handouts, internet site referrals and phone consultations.

"Who you gonna call?'' Well, it depends on the problem.

In some cases, consulting an animal trainer can provide an answer. Some animal behaviors, like jumping up on people, "may be quite normal but the owner doesn't like them,'' Landsberg said. For those types of issues, a trainer is needed rather than a behaviorist.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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