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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Educating About Behavior

Diana wrote me some questions, and I'm going to answer them in two parts.  Here's part one...

Firstly, I'm interested to hear about whether you advise owners on behaviour problems very often. I'm a prospective vet student in the UK and have seen many consults (It's mandatory in the UK to carry out work experience if one wishes to pursue this career)  and have yet to see many owners come to their vets with sole behaviour problems, and I am unaware of many people seeking advice from behaviour specialists which seems to be less common than vets! Does your training as a vet in the US include behaviour issues to any extent (out of curiosity)? 

Since I've only visited the UK, and that was about 20 years ago, I honestly can't say how veterinary training may be outside of the US.  Here in America there is some behavioral training in veterinary school, but probably not as much as we really need. When I was in school in the late '90s we had part of a semester.  It was around that time that board certification in veterinary behavior first became available. 

Most vets end up picking up some behavior training simply through necessity.  I commonly get questions about basic behavior, such as housebreaking, barking, bringing new pets in the household, and so on.  However, the truly difficult behavioral cases are a different story and many vets aren't adequately trained to handle them.  Sure, some will, but effective behavioral therapy can be very complicated and requires much follow-up for the owner and the doctor.  This kind of treatment always involves extensive commitment from the owner to do appropriate training and conditioning, and is never solved merely by medication.  The length and difficulties of treatment can be overwhelming for both the vet and the client, so many vets aren't comfortable with it.

There are currently 50 members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.  This is actually a very small number compared to the veterinarians in the US, and ends up being few enough that there isn't one in every state.  These behaviorists are highly trained vets, comparable to human psychiatrists.  For truly complicated behavioral cases general practitioners can refer to a behaviorist just like they can for complicated surgical or medical cases.  Diplomates of the ACVB have years of additional training beyond veterinary college and must pass rigorous training to receive the title.

I have a lot of respect for behaviorists, but not every problem needs to be sent to them.  I personally have a strong interest in animal behavior, and so have taken it upon myself to attend continuing education over the years specifically targeted at behavioral issues.  I feel very qualified to handle most behavioral problems, including separation anxiety, storm and noise phobias, and elimination disorders.  However, I will refer severe aggression cases to a behaviorist due to the severe risk of harm to people or other pets.  I would say that I have better than average skills in behavioral issues, though nothing beyond what a typical vet could have the opportunity to learn.

 So, Diana, I hope that answers your question about behavioral training for vets.  In a few days I'll respond to the other part of the email.