Are Behavioral Problems Medical Problems?

I’m not going to answer this question yet, because I want to know what you think. This is an issue because the veterinary practice acts in some states have been re-written to say that only veterinarians can treat “mental conditions” in animals. The argument of some veterinarians is that ‘mental conditions’ include any and all behavioral problems, that behavioral problems are thus medical problems and anyone treating them who is not a vet is breaking the law.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. After you join in, I’ll add my opinion to the mix.

Meanwhile, back at the farm: The humidity broke for a few days, and how glorious it was. Regrettably most of the time I was stuck in a skanky-smelling hotel, but Friday evening was glorious. Saturday morning I reveled in picking strawberries at U-Pick patch not far from the farm. It was heaven, I got lots of catch up time with a girl friend, we turned our fingers (and, as it turns out, the seat of my pants) a lovely hue of red, and now I have 9 quarts of strawberries in the freezer. I’ve already put up 5 batches of rhubarb, so as soon as the raspberries ripen, in a few weeks, I’ll start making rhubarb/strawberry/raspberry pie.  Yummmmmmm.

The birds continue to delight us. Here are some photos that Jim took of the birds at our new feeders (Goldfinches on the left on the Niger seed feeder, White-Breasted Nuthatch on the right):

The big black thing on the left is a baffle to prevent raccoons from raiding the feeders, which they try to do every night. One of the baffles has paw prints all the way up the top, so I’m not so sure it’s working, but it has seemed to slow them down.  Here’s a female Goldfinch on the Niger feeder and a male snarfing up black oil sunflower seeds.


  1. says

    I think that behavioral problems can stem from physical issues, but of course, many stem from emotional and spiritual trauma. From a holistic standpoint, true health is when mental, physical and emotional aspects of a being are in balance. For this reason, many complementary and alternative methods (which are never a substitute for veterinary care) can be extremely effective. Some of these include Reiki, which is a subtle vibrational practice that promotes systemic balance, and flower essences, which are created by capturing the healing properties of plants.

    Separation Anxiety is a behavioral issue – I have seen one dog who could not be contained in a crate without endangering herself and who was literally eating the furniture, rugs and walls for months stop the day she started taking a flower essence. Reiki and flower essences are not medicine, and neither can do harm – in other words, there are no bad side effects to worry about. Of course, they’re not guaranteed to work, either, although both can bring about profound changes in behavior and well being.

    I think people who are not of the mindset that pills are always the answer will continue to seek help for their animals outside of traditional veterinary care, and holistic practitioners will probably continue to make themselves available.

    I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘mental’ problem. If ‘mental’ means ‘behavior’ then I disagree that it’s exclusively a medical problem. I mean – isn’t behavior the specialty of behaviorists?

    If ‘mental’ means the dog is psychotic due to a chemical imbalance, then, yes. I don’t think it’s a clear cut issue.

    I can’t wait to hear the answer!

  2. says

    I think this is less of an etiological question, than a real estate question. The veterinary profession is notorious for such land grabs or resistance to supporting industries and professions. For example, in the late 1960s the AVMA dictated that the adjective

  3. Alessandro Rosa says

    I think that it is probably both. In humans, we treat both the brain’s chemistry with Pharmaceuticals and with cognitive and behavioral therapy, so why not the same with dogs? There is probably a role in the treatment of a dog for the Vet, the Behaviorist, the Trainer and the Owner.

    And as with any case, the course of treatment depends entirely on the needs of the individual. Unfortunately, public health policy cannot practically be written on the individual case by case basis. It has to take a macro approach which should factor in the best interests of the largest group possible.

    The problem with trying to extrapolate the human model of treatment to dogs is that it doesn’t really translate because dogs can’t speak for themselves. A dog will probably behave very differently in the vets office than they will at the dog park or in a place which they regard as their den. The observations made in the vets office won’t necessarily give you the correct differential diagnosis, which leaves the vet making a decision based in large part on the observations of the owner, who is more than likely untrained to make that differential diagnosis and may have alterior motives for making a claim for medication. What kind of abuse can you foresee from people who have dogs for the sole purpose of being an accessory seeking out meds to calm the precious pooch?

    Another slippery slope with this issue is euthenasia. You can’t kill someone legally because they are aggresive or crazy, well at least in states that don’t have the death penalty, but even there, there are limits… But a dog? There will be very few candle light vigils in front of the veterinary clinic or animal control if a dog is deemed a menace.

  4. Kat says

    It sounds to me like another effort by well-meaning bureaucrats influenced by particular industries trying to make a one size fits all law. I believe that sometimes behavior issues are the result of medical conditions best treated by veterinarians but often behavior issues are better treated by other professionals. If you wanted to draw a human parallel it would be like passing a law that only medical doctors could treat mental health problems.

  5. Crystal says

    Oh, man… I love my vets- they are very talented medically- but we do *not* agree on training issues. I somehow doubt that they would be useful to me in treating my dog’s reactivity. Is reactivity a behavioral issue? I don’t know… such legislation would need to be pretty clear on what a behavioral problem *is*.

  6. says

    I agree that this sounds like a land grab by the AVMA.

    I have one of each. MacGregor was apparently kicked in the head (evidence of a healed skull fracture) who no amount of training has succeeded with. He suffers from terrible anxiety related problems and other issues stemming from his injuries which were incurred, I suspect, standing between a man and a woman. He came into rescue after being found walking the streets and then being rejected by his owner.

    Scruffy Doodle was a puppy mill breeder who has responded (slowly) to behavioral modification. He now trusts and behaves in crowds despite being blind and starting out his life with us unable to be around other dogs or children. He was obviously kept bound up (he has muzzle and hobble scars) and is blind most likely from being a rarity – he probably survived distemper. He came into rescue when he was brought to a shelter after being dipped in used motor oil for sarcoptic mange.

    My point is that you can’t make a determination of the source of a dog’s behavioral problems without two things: 1) a complete physical examination, and 2) an understanding of the dog’s history. Some are like MacGregor, I’m sure, but most are probably like Scruffy – the results of abuse and neglect – and don’t need physical intervention in what is an emotional problem.

  7. says

    I really don’t like the idea that every “mental” problem needs to be “solved” by a vet. I love my vet and she knows a lot about dog behavior, but I know plenty of people who know more!

    The amount of time a vet student spends on behavior is very small I believe. Add to that the fact that compared to human mental issues, problem dog behaviors have had very little research. This is especially true if these problem behaviors are assumed to be the result of physical problems. That field is in its infancy.

    In the case of humans, there are the fields of psychiatry and psychology. Both fields treat “mental” problems, there are difference in what they do, but they frequently work together and specialize in slightly areas. Why can’t the same thing happen in animal care? Vets who specialize in behavior and MS or PhD in ethology or psychology focused on animals working together.

  8. RTL says

    In my experience many behavioral problems are not medical problems or caused by medical problems. However, I’ve known animals to have sudden changes in behavior when there was a medical problem. I think some behavioral issues are obviously just that, behavioral, and no vet is required (though a behaviorist or trainer might be). When there is a chance a sudden behavior change has its roots in the animal’s health, a trip to the vet is in order. I do not believe vets should get some sort of monopoly on behavioral problems in pets. I DO think pet owners need to recognize that their cat is not be peeing on the bed out of spite, but instead the new behavior could be due to a health problem (for example).

    Frankly, if my vet took on the belief that s/he should be consulted every single time my dog or cat exhibited an undesirable behavior, I would find a new vet.

  9. says

    If the behavioral problem responds to OC or CC, then no, it is not a medical problem. Those techniques belong to the world of Psychology, not the world of Biology or Chemistry.

    What is a “behavioral problem”? Is it aggression or fear-related issues that are so severe they might require medication? Or is it housebreaking problems, chasing/nipping the running/screaming toddlers, or chewing up furniture when left alone and uncrated?

    If vets want to get a monopoly on “behavioral problems,” then they need to be required to get a heck of a lot more behavioral training than they get right now. Veterinary BEHAVIORISTS *might* be able to claim some exclusive territory, but vets? No freaking way.

  10. Liz F. says

    While acknowledging that important behavioral problems can stem from medical causes, and that we should always get an opinion from our vets, it seems dangerous to say behavioral= medical for the following reasons:
    (some raised already, I’ll sum up my reaction)

    -A lacking approach to behavior that treats only symptoms instead of addressing causes… Possibly pushing pills over teaching behavioral management techniques?

    -A decline in the quality of service provided by veterinary medicine… To maintain the level of medical service we have now, wouldn’t many, many more DVMs have to take on the additional full-time job of behaviorist?

    -A decline in the quality of behavioral info and resources… How can the field of ethology advance if splitting more time and resources with medicine?

    -An increase in the chaos of a system that sounds already over-burdened with politics and legalities… Results of which are to be felt largely by existing Behaviorists/Trainers, but also felt by clients and their animals.

    -A murky area of consequence for those people breaking the law by treating behavior other than vets… For CAABs & CPDTs, would their certification be taken away? Would their be fines?

    Geeez….all seems like trouble to me.

  11. Keisha says

    Well I completely disagree with them. Some behavior problems can be caused by a medical condition, and all good trainers and behaviorists make sure the dog is checked out by a Vet. first. So my question is, after the dog is checked for medical problems, and it has none, how then will they help to change the behavior of that dog? Will they go to that person’s house and oberve the dog in it’s home? Will they work extensively with the dog and owner? I don’t think so. This frustrates me as a future dog trainer, and it bothers me now as a current dog owner. I sincerely hope this goes no further, and don’t see how it could when they look at it logically.

  12. Susan Mann says

    Can behavioral problems be medical problems? Absolutely! Must they be? Absolutely not! And how do you define a “behavioral” issue vs a “training” issue ? Is pulling on the leash a behavioral issue? How about excessive barking? Reactivity to other dogs? Reactivity to things moving fast?

    We don’t require this for humans- some parents treat their ADHD kid with ritalin and drugs, other parents make different choices, and although some parents make poor choices, it is, generally, acceptable for them to make those choices (there are cases that get a kid assigned a court appointed decision maker of some kind). Are there some snake oil salesmen? Sure. But I’d rather have to be on the lookout for snake oil, than not to have options. Neither MDs nor DVMs have all the answers- and how could they? Especially vets, who have to figure out a variety of species who can’t answer questions directly, have enough to worry about with physical disorders. My vets usually ask ME for opinions on handling behavioral issues, they don’t know the answers. In the end, it is the owner who has responsibility for his/her pet, and should be making the decisions about what care is appropriate.

    Is there a list somewhere of which states have adopted this? I’m planning on moving to North Carolina in the near future, but if they have this law, I may reconsider and move elsewhere.

  13. Sue Duffield says

    While I think any program concerning behavior should start with a complete physical, vets are not the best/most available person for a comprehensive behavioral program. Very often problems are either caused or exacerbated by the owners. They need counseling and training. A few vet visits are not going to give them the attention and guidance they need. The dog itself needs a well-designed training program, under an expert’s eye. Vets don’t have the time for this. Nor do many of them have the expertise. While some may have studied animal behavior, the majority have not seen much of it. The vet should be a consult in any major problem, particularly if a reasonable amount of training doesn’t help. But this is not their area of strength. While maladaptive behaviors have a medical component, often they respond to behavioral therapy alone. This is often the easiest, most inexpensive way to go. One should go to an expert: a trainer, or, if available, someone well-educated about animal behavior.

    Like physicians, the veterinarian’s focus has to be somewhat narrow. The best outcomes are when the physician (or vet!) collaborates with others who are better prepared to handle the wide view of things. One sign of a good physician is that he or she refers when the problems are not in their area of expertise. Vets should do the same, unless they have a comprehensive background in animal behavior, and the time to work with the owners and dog over a possibly long period of time. Can you tell I’m a Registered Nurse? LOL

  14. Donna says

    Who defines exactly what is a “behavior problem”. The owner? The vet?

    I think many things that an owner might label as a behavior problem, could be caused by, or aggravated by the owner. Who treats the owner?

    I like Carolyn’s comparison with the human fields of psychiatry and psychology.

  15. Cassie says

    As a vet I believe it should be a joint effort.

    Without going to a lot of extra effort, vets do not learn a lot in school about behavior. Even though I did take advantage of the great professors I had, and the behavior cases that came into the teaching hospital, it was something I had to go looking for.

    And while basic behavior courses are offered at most schools, not all schools have a veterinary behaviorist on staff to do 4th year rotations (our practical year when we get to see clients).

    I feel I can deal with most behavior issues that come through my practice. That said, I wouldn’t expect most of my colleagues to – and I myself also end up referring most of my behavior cases to a non-veterinarian behaviorist.

    Why? Well, for a few reasons.

    One is just cost and time. I would have to set up my appointment schedule much differently, and it would be difficult for my boss to get enough of a return on it. A regular exam fee at my clinic is $50. That appointment, depending on the severity of the case, may last from 15 minutes to much longer. But usually if it is longer I am not spending my entire time in that one room- a lot of that time is spent on waiting for results, and I can see another client while that is happening. A behavior case will take at least an hour, and I would rather them spend $200 with a behaviorist I know and like that can visit them in their home than with me, in an exam room, still going over a questionaire.

    I also think it helps for me to be able to focus on the physical, and work in tandem with someone else who can really devote their time to the behavior side. I keep myself well informed of what is happening, and ask questions if I am unsure of a technique. I can do a full exam, diagnostics if needed, and if medication is needed then I can provide that.

    I do not think it makes any sense to make anything related to the mental state of a dog a veterinary only problem. I also don’t see any legal way the AVMA could make this work. How will they decide the difference between a trainer and a behaviorist? Perhaps we just need to create a new title? It all seems very silly really. I understand the frustrations of vets who have worked hard for their board certification in vet behavior, only to find that the lay person has no idea what that means or why it would be worth while. (It’s part of the reason I myself saw no reason to persue the certification).

    I also feel, quite strongly, that understanding the physiology of an animal does not give you a special insight into the psychology of that animal.

  16. says

    doctors are not psychologist and psychologist are not doctos. In the same way, a vet is not a behaviourist. Each one has his field of study.

    Saying that all behaviour problems can be solved with a vet is like saying that all human mental problems can be solved with pills. Some times talking helps if you know what to talk about 😉

    (in spanish)
    los medicos no son psicologos y los psigologos no son medicos. De la misma manera un veterinario no es un profesional del comportamiento canino. Cada uno a lo suyo.

    Decir que todos los problemas de comportamiento pueden ser solucionados por un veterinario es como decir que todos los problemas mentales pueden solucionarse con pastillas. A veces hablar ayuda, si sabes que es de lo que tienes que hablar 😉

    Regards from Spain!

  17. says

    As a horse person, I rely on my vet for help with intractable issues such as my mare’s resistance to being saddled and mounted. Is it a result of present or former pain? Conformation? Pain in an unrelated area? These are questions my vet can treat and she is a helpful partner. Just my luck, my vet is a lifelong horsewoman who also knows a lot about training and is branching out into Chiropractic work, so I can talk to her about training issues and alternative treatments, as well.

    However, since every moment with a horse (as it should be with a dog) is about training, it seems to me that behavior is a broader term than a specifically veterinary one. If behavior were defined as strictly a veterinary concern, what would my clicker training my critters be considered? Or the consultations between me and my horse and dog friends to solve the behavior problems we all face sometimes.

  18. Nicola Brown says

    As I have posted previously, in Australia we have no accreditation between Dog Trainer and Veterinary Animal Behaviourist – a vet who has done years of extra training & has achieved the “psychiastrist” level of knowledge. My local vets refers to both a vet nurse in the practice who is a supurb animal trainer, and veterinary animal behaviourists depending on the problem. The vet nurse also will recommend seeing an vet. animal behaviourist if she feels the problem requires it. This, to my mind, is the perfect scenario – a vet (GP) checks out the physical side and refers to the appropriate specialist, either an animal behaviourist (psychologist) or vet. animal behaviourist (psychiatrist) depending on the need for medication. There is plenty of work for everyone!

    Perhaps you could push the line that mental illness involving vets requires proof of physical changes in brain or biochemistry? Until that point, you have a training problem, not a mental illness. And if the vets could find an easy test for anxiety and depression, so much the better for us humans too!

  19. Alessandro Rosa says


    Actually medical doctors are the the only people that can treat mental health problems. They are MD’s that specialize in Psychiatry. As for Psychologist, Clinical Social Workers, etc. they assist in a patients therapy. Psychologists have Ph.d’s, but in most states cannot prescribe medical treatment options; they can’t even order a medical test, however they are able to sign an order of commitment, etc. There has been a push to give Psychologists the license to prescribe medications, as most work closely with and often recommend a course of treatment for their patients with the Psychiatrist, as the Psychologist tends to have a more holistic few of the patient.

    Actually now that I think more about it, there is room for this model with dogs. The behavorist would be the “case” coordinator who would evaluate the “patient,” and the relationship between dog and owner and come up with a diagnosis and a plan of therapy (Is it a perfectly normal dog who’s owner wants a zombie?). They would then coordinate with the veterinarian who could rule out any organic reason for the behavior or behavior change (dog suddenly has housetraining mistakes, lets rule out a Bladder infection, etc.) The vet could them prescribe a medication based on the behaviorists diagnosis. The behavorist could then either work with the dog and owner on a therapy regimine or could refer dog and owner to a CPDT or other equally accredited trainer for more guided work with the dog and owner, possibly in home or at the dog park, or wherever the behavioral problems are occuring.

  20. ABandMM says

    So, where are all these vets going to find time to deal with these “mental problems”? In some places it is hard enough getting an appointment for your pets annual (or 6 month) exam and having more than 15-20 minutes of the vet’s time. That is barely enough time to go over the physical aspects of your pets health (eating habits, pooping habits etc), never mind the behavior aspects of your pet.

    I agree that if your pet does start exhibiting unusual behavior (or if the inherent “quirks” are now a problem), that any potential physical or chemical causes should be ruled out. However, once that has been done and a training program needs to be started to either eliminate the behavior or in the short term “manage it”, then you do need a behaviorist and/or experienced trainer.

    In a perfect world, the behaviorist and trainers would be part of the dogs “vet team”, however, things are not usually set up that way. Take a person dealing with depression. Ideally the person is treated by the GP to make sure there are no obvious medical problems, a pyschologist or other counselor to develop reasonable day-to-day changes in thought processes and actions so that the patient can fulfill obligations to his/her family and/or job and then either the GP or a pyschaitrist to administer and monitor any medications to help incorporate the behavior modifications suggested by the counselor. It is a long on-going process with the counselor being the week-to-week or month-to-month contact for the patient, and the other doctors brought back in when changes might be necessary.

    A major part of a behaviorist/trainers job is Training the Human! No problem is going to be treatable unless the human understands what the problem is and what they (the human) needs to do and how to do it. Do Vets today have the time to do this?

    For most people giving them a book or pamphlet won’t work; someone needs to spend the time actually showing the dog owner what to do, how to react when the dog does behaviors X, Y or Z and not the desired behavior A. In addition, follow-up appointments or training sessions are needed to make sure that the behavior modification program is working, and if not to come up with an alternative plan.

    There are more than enough unwanted animals in the world, and people (lawmakers) should be making it easier for these animals to be trained and rehabilitated, not harder. By making Vets the only people who can treat dogs with “mental” or “behavioral issues” the kill rate of animals will probably be going to go up due to lack of “legal” resources for treating problem animals.

    Also, another factor particularly in these hard economic times, if people have an animal with a behavioral issue, what would they be able to afford (and hence do)?: a 4-week $100 training clinic with a reputable dog trainer/behaviorist or 4 x $100 visits to the vet to have the behavior monitored and treated? (note: these are just guesses, my point is to say that going to a vet will be more costly and people might not have the funds for that type of treatment).

    Also, it would be interesting to know how long vet students to spend on animal behavior issues and training methods? At the Vet school I took my dog to for her care, the students only spent 2-4 weeks in the small animal clinic. Thus when my dog had prolong issue (bladder infection, or dog bite recovery) she was seen by 2-4 different students. There were two permanent staff vets on duty that also saw the animals, but I always thought 4 weeks in the small animal clinic was not enough time. So I would guess that these students probably didn’t have a lot of time dealing with training/behavior issues either.

  21. says

    Considering that last time I took my dogs to a vet they asked how I got my dogs to behave so nicely . . . no. Behavioural issues *can* be veterinary issues, but it’s not always the case. I think animal behaviourists should have some kind of licensing mechanism, since any quack can hang out their shingle and purport to fix your dog’s behaviour, but I don’t think planting it square in the realm of veterinary medicine is the answer.

    There are some really intelligent, well-written replies on this thread. I can’t wait to hear what you think Trish.

  22. Ellen Pepin says

    I think that some behavior problems do come from medical problems and are best handled by a veterinarian, but not all the time. My late dog, Nikki, behaved in a way that would be described as ADHD, if she had been a human child. We sought help from several vets. We tried her on several medications, including Chinese herbs. None of them seemed to help much. We then brought her to a CAAB in NYC. She prescribed a treatment plan and training we could do with her. Very gradually, she began to get better. I worked with her for the rest of her life and the improvement was slow, but it worked. I am certain that first you should check with you vet to see if there is an underlying medical problem. If that doesn’t help, then you should consult with a certified behaviorist. We just adopted a new dog who has some “issues”. We have consulted with another CAAB, and there is progress already. I will continue to work with her, but it will take awhile until she is better. I also think that too many people want a instant cure for their pets, the same thing they want for their children.

  23. Jeff says

    As one who does not accept the concept of a soul, I seem to be forced to the conclusion that all behavioral problems are chemistry problems. Too much testosterone, not enough oxytocin, one of the pathways through the amygdala is misfiring, etc. However, I would also suggest that not all of these chemical problems must be, should be or even can be treated chemically. Our and our dogs behaviors are not predestined by the chemistry. Manifested behavior is a blend of something on the order of 50% nature and 50% nuture.

    One of the results of the chemical process is consciousness. The ability to make choices. That our brain’s chemical and evolutionary foundation says that Twinkie is full of valuable fat and sugar eat it, does not mean we are powerless to resist.

    OC and CC work. Thus many behavior/training issues can be addressed simply by the application of learning theory and education. Vets have no particular monopoly on the ability to teach an animal how to behave. So while I think we must always first eliminate the indisputably medical (e.g. hypothyroidism), I do not think treatment must be medical. I don’t want to drug the dog to the point where he doesn’t want the tasty steak on the kitchen counter, I want to positively train the dog to inhibit that urge. That is not a job that requires a Vet.

    Viewing the issue economically, which wasn’t your question, the supply of Vet behavioral services comes no where near balancing the demand at an affordable cost and as to timeliness of delivery for such services. Many more dogs would die if that regulatory scheme were vigorously enforced.

  24. says

    I work in tandem with the veterinarians in my area: I refer to them, they refer to me. It’s a fantastic partnership. I am much happier working with a veterinarian when it comes to issues like separation anxiety, aggression, and other anxiety-related problems. Together, a good trainer and a good veterinarian make a tremendously powerful team. A team that can literally save a dog.

  25. EmilyS says

    Suzanne Clothier loves to start her workshops on “aggressive” dogs by having the demo-dog owner describe when the dog “aggresses”. Typically the answer will be something like, “when I scratch his back he snaps at me” whereupon Suzanne has the owner walk the dog up and back so everyone can see him limping or otherwise favoring a leg. So of course the dog is not “aggressive”.. it’s in pain and asking his friend not to hurt him, in the only way a dog can.

    So was this a “behavior problem”? No. It’s a medical problem. And now the owner knows to go to a vet.

    But would I trust a vet to do the same analysis an experienced loving behaviorist can? As it is, I can barely trust my vet not to overvaccinate my dog, so no.

  26. Jen says

    Just the thought of some lawmaker thinking “behavior problems are medical problems” scares me to death and tells me the lawmaker is being funded by a drug company. Vets in the US today receive squat in behavior training in vet school. Every single vet I know has told me this. The fact they are thinking about this really makes me not like what this world is evolving into. Next thing you know they will be selling to people that you have to have a pill to housetrain your dog. Gee, who’s gonna profit from that? I am just sick that this is even being considered. So no, behavior problems are not medical problems.

  27. Sue says

    I have a problem taking nutritional advice from a vet who sells poor quality dog food in the front office. It’s either a lack of credibility or lack of education relating to canine nutritional needs. Either way, I look elsewhere for nutritional advice.

    I see the behavior issue the same way. There are far too many vets who have no clue about canine body language and communication. I see dogs with no behavioral problems made uncomfortable by vets and staff. I see waiting rooms that make dogs uncomfortable, staff approaching dogs in a way dogs feel threatened, and vets who seem not to notice or care they are causing the dog stress.

    I would not take my dog with a behavior problem to anyone who is not pro-active about educating employees and setting up a practice that makes dogs feel safe and comfortable. Along with the vet, all employees need to know how to handle and manage a dog without the stress that can create a behavior problem.

    The very best vet practice would have a vet and staff that could address both medical and behavioral issues. Certainly there are cases where medical and behavioral problems are connected. I’d welcome the holistic approach to treating both components of the problem.

  28. Wendy says

    Land grab. The worst kind.

    It’s desperate times for vets. Too many people have figured out that most of them don’t have a clue, and more importantly that they don’t care that they don’t have a clue, about feeding, preventative health care, or training. The things that used to generate them tons of money – those yearly shots in particular – are falling by the wayside as owners get educated.

    When I don’t have to tell vets things like… that an antibiotic won’t work for a virus, that alpha rolling my dog “until she pees” won’t solve her food guarding, that yes, there have been changes in vaccine protocols and I will not allow you to vaccinate my senior cancer dog for anything much less a 8 way combo plus rabies ….well, then I’ll consider giving them more jurisdiction.

    Until then they need to clean up vet schools and turn out a majority product that’s of some use to the pet owners of the community. Finding a decent vet who both cares…and knows what they are doing… SHOULD NOT BE THIS HARD. Period.

    We know to raise children into socially acceptable adults we need both parents, medical providers, and TEACHERS. Dog trainers are teachers, and trainers with behavioral training are advanced teachers for specific issues. You don’t take a kid with a reading problem to just a doctor for medications – you take him for a check up to rule out medical problems, then you use a TEACHER or tutor to help with his skills.

  29. Splash's mom says

    I think this is a bit of a land grab by the AVMA. Behavior problems are pretty lucrative — they are not always solved in one visit, and can require lifetime medication. Nice as a practice builder — even better than a sweet dermatology problem.

    I am willing to be that Veterinary Schools in this country will be making this a focus area in the near future. Look for more competition, guys.

    –a retired Veterinarian who now just trains dogs–

  30. Amy says

    I would have no problem flat out saying that behavior problems are medical problems if medicinal education did something to educate practitioners about behavior. I don’t know the numbers, but I am pretty sure the number of veterinary colleges that have behavior departments and offer course studies or majors in behavior is very small. I could only ever accept behavior problems being medical problems and treatable by veterinarians (note I did not say “only treatable by veterinarians”) if there were majors available for such at every single veterinary school. Right now very few veterinarians have any background or knowledge or education on behavior. Sad, really, because as a member of the Society of Behavioral Veterinary Technicians we struggle constantly with the veterinary community’s lack of behavior education. I am always bringing seminar information to my local vet clinics and yet I so rarely see those members attending local behavior seminars.

    I was at your Portland Maine seminar and I did not recognize one single veterinarian or veterinary technician and I know quite a few in that area.

    I don’t know how this sort of law could be enforced anyway?

  31. Shalea Rhodes says

    I believe that medical issues should be ruled out when there’s a behavioral problem. There are also times when a vet’s cooperation can help fix a behavioral problem (prescription anti-anxiety meds to help reduce a fear reaction until a training and counter-conditioning program can be effective). But every behavioral problem is NOT the result of a medical issue, and to require that a vet be involved in every behavioral issue is entirely ridiculous.

  32. says

    My husband is a vet, and said the idea was pretty ridiculous. He refers his clients to dog trainers and behaviorists, depending on the problem, because it is not his area of expertise. I think at the UW they got one class in animal behavior, and all his practical experience with training has come from me and my dogs.

  33. pchorsedoc says

    Wow- great intelligent thoughts here!
    CJ’s right- this is very important: “you can

  34. says

    It seems unfair to all the behaviorists and trainers who have helped dogs with behavior problems to tell them they can’t practice. And it seems like it would take an unbelievable amount of training for a vet to be a good vet and a good behaviorist with all the experience and knowledge required for each field. Because wouldn’t it mean that all vets who weren’t affiliated with the few vet behaviorists would need to have adequate experience and knowledge with behavior, too?

    I also think that if vet clinics were affiliated and recommended vet behaviorists and other certified behaviorists that many clients would follow the recommendation.

    Thanks for your great seminar in Maine. I took up your suggestion to remember two things (teaching a U-turn and the most effective ways to break up a dog fight) and have been reinforcing everything with the Advanced Behavior DVD. So much good information!

  35. Patti says

    I agree with others that it probably is a land grab by AMVA. Having said that, I guess we’ve been lucky with our vets. Both of them have referred us to a behaviour specialist (you, Patricia) and alternative medicine specialists for physical and mental issues after or while using western medication. This was when they felt “out of their depth”, or while looking for additional help. One vet was in very rural western Wisconsin and one was in urban Wisconsin. Perhaps it’s an issue of the training the vets recieve at school? Both of these were younger vets from the University of Wisconsin. I see someone posted that UW teaches one class on behaviour, do you teach or give lectures to that class Patricia? Just curious.

  36. says

    If there were more vets who specialized in behaviour, who worked in clinics where there were also good trainers on staff who would help the client by developing detailed training plans & would run ongoing private/semi-private/and group classes for the patients – that would be a good thing.

    But that’s not how I imagine this playing out. I agree with many of the comments about this being a land grab. What I envision is just a quick consult & a lot scrips being written for SSRI’s etc. Ka ching.

  37. Claire says

    I have been to many vets (mainly due to an auto immune disorder my first dog had and working at a shelter), and I have yet to find more than 3 that even understands how to approach a dog to calm them in that environment. There are no Holistic vets in my area (there is one, but there is a mandatory $500 first appointmnet fee and a 3 month waiting period for the visit).
    I (regrettably) do not form relationships with any of the vets I have gone to due to their incredible lack of knowledge in animal behavior of all species.

    I overheard one vet tell an owner of a lab (who lived and breathed tennis balls) that she could no longer play ball with her dog due to hip dysplasia. When she protested saying that was the only thing that the dog loved to do and what else was there for him, his response was “well you can listen to me and keep your dog healthy or ignore me and hurt your dog”. He left the owner distraught and lost. No alternatives. I had to console the owner and encourage her to go to a vet that works with physical therapists so she could find an alternative or a method to “play ball”… she was in tears after he was so blunt with her. This was in the waiting room.

    They don’t have time to talk about behavior or mental health.
    I do wish there was more extensive training in animal behavior at vet schools.
    I usually have to grit my teeth and bare the ignorance when I have to go to the vet. :(

  38. Michele says

    I think that some behavioral problems have a medical or genetic component. In those cases, behavioral modification will only get you so far. On the other hand, I think that far more behavioral problems are just that, behavioral. In those cases, all of the medical intervention in the world will not help to resolve the problem. In the best of both worlds, veterinarians and behaviorists/trainers would work together to tease out the root of the problem so that solutions could be found. I think we’re all in trouble if the vet is the only legal source of advice on behavioral modification.

  39. says

    This is an interesting discussion. Some medical conditions manifest as behavioral issues. I used to teach obedience training and often found dogs that would not sit. And if you touched them on theri backs above their hips, the would wince, growl or attempt to bite. These dogs had hip displasia. But for the most part I don’t think behavioral issues and medical issues overlap. And even for lots of medical conditions, breeders and dog trainers know more than the vets. I can remember saving puppies that the vet thought were hopeless.

    And most vets don’t seem to have a good handle on dog psychology. I have been known to take in my dogs and my neighbor’s dogs. The vets and their assistants were afraid of dogs by breed, not by the signs they were giving off. Thus they were afraid of the German shepherd who was completely calm submissive and didn’t notice the beagle warning them off.

  40. Gary says

    Could someone clarify exactly how ” the veterinary practice acts in some states have been re-written to say that only veterinarians can treat

  41. Trisha says

    Gary: The practice acts only include “mental conditions” in aspects of “veterinary medicine” that only vets can practice. Mental conditions are never defined, no other details are given, and so far as I know, no one yet has ever accused a trainer or behaviorist of ‘practicing medicine without a license.’ FYI, my Ph.D. psychologist friends tell me that the term ‘mental condition’ is undefinable. “Mental conditions” never used to be in any practice acts, but they are updated every 10 years and more and more states are including the term in their practice acts. The concern of some is whether things will change now that there is a College of Veterinary Behavioral Medicine, and Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists.

  42. Alessandro Rosa says

    Dr. McConnell,

    But what would be classified as a Mental Condition in a dog?

    I live in a neighborhood with many dogs and dog owners. There is almost never a time that you won’t encounter at least one other dog out for a walk. So as I was walking I got to thinking specifically about leash based aggression. Why would a dog who can get along with others, even unfamiliar others while off leash in the dog park have a problem with dogs on leash? I came up with any number of reasons, many of which would point to the walker of the dog having the problem, especially given the fact that we tend to have to force our dogs to approach each other head on on relatively narrow sidewalks. So is the aggression really the fault of the dog?

    I guess, maybe to answer my own question, the expectation needs to be that no matter how uncomfortable the situation that the dog may be put in, they need to be able to cope with that stress and not react to it, no matter what. Anything less is a Behavioral / Mental Issue.

    Okay so that raises another question. If the owner doesn’t see it as a behavioral issue, and the greater community may not see it as a behavioral issue (its just a dog bein’ a dog), then is it actually a behavioral issue? And how do we actually educate the public to what constitues a problem in a dog and what doesn’t? We can’t even get people to stop smoking, which we have scientifically proven causes cancer and heart disease, how do we hope to cut through the noise and decades of misinformation?

  43. Jane says

    Alessandro, this head on head thing. I actually think people think this is the way to get their dog to approach another dog.

    But this must be a bad time to be a vet if they are wanting to go into the terrain of trainers and regular people. Though judging from the vet bills I have gotten lately, you wouldn’t think so.

    –Jane J

  44. Maggi Burtt says

    Yikes. How the heck do you define a “mental condition”? Even if it is a behavioural problem related to medical issues (hypothyroidism, lyme disease, neurochemical imbalances)if it can be treated with medication or behav. modification what defines it as mental?

    I do believe that most behaviour cases that are related to anxiety or aggression of an unknown cause should be referred to a vet for blood tests and xrays etc before attempting behaviour modification but to leave the veterinarian to decide how to modify the behaviour itself after medical treatment is a bit much.

    My dog has SA. Mild at first and totally under control through BM protocols. A change in the home changed that radically. After that the beh. mod simply would not work, she started losing weight, her anxiety started to generalize to outside of the home etc. After discussion with my vet we started her on anti anxiety medication and returned to the beh. mod protocols with great success. The medication reduced her anxiety to the point of being able to let the protocols work and for her to learn. My vet and I did not discuss the protocols themselves as they are not his area of expertise, though he did insist that the medication be used in tandem with beh. mod. The change I have seen in Cracker’s issues would not have been possible without the meds, but also would not have been possible without the protocols. It was a team effort..and that is the way it should be.

  45. Jeri says

    Well…just as we have to be proactive in our own healthcare, wellness, and fitness…we need to do the same for our pets. We know our bodies and sometimes our docs miss what we’re saying already having a predianostic thought, but many times I’ve been able to work with my doctor by pressing him to be reassured I’m not a hypochondriac and he agrees and then begins to listen and we’ve taken cared of much to bring me to health.

    Our pets need that from us as well…to work with our vets and give them as much info as possible to help diagnose. We just found out our pets behavior may be connected to hip dsyplasia. But, I made sure to keep a daily journal with even normal activities that helped us see something was up with him. Our vet is doing more than possible to rule out and check all angles.

    The statement being made the behavioral problems are to be considered medical problems to be treated only by vets does have pros and cons, but one pro for sure is that treament will be regulated thus saving many a pet from overcaring owners who may over do it.

  46. Susanne Bark says

    Dr McConnell,
    Who cares about the definitions?
    I feel the issue is we, the pet owners, are responsible for our own dogs and should simply be allowed to choose who treats them. If we go to a behaviourist and the behaviourist sees a medical problem they refer on to a Vet. If they go to a Vet they should be wise enough to refer on to a behaviourist if nothing medically is detected.
    We are responsible for our children and are allowed to take our children to who we see fit. Do we recieve penalties for taking our children to Yoga classes to calm their nerves! Well, not here in Australia. Many Vets in this country prescribe drugs to treat behavioural problems with no therapy plan. When the “treatment” is not successful the dog is then Euthansed by the same Vet.
    Perhaps this issue should be addressed instead.

  47. Peggy Antrobus says

    Behavoral problems can sometimes be a medical issue. I was having problems with my young dog with attention, concentration and reactivity. I tried many things:Read Patricia’s books; took classes for confidence-building, etc., which helped, but did not solve the problem.
    Dog is 3 years old, not spayed, but has only ever had 2 heat cycles, so I consulted my vet. She checked thyroid (was fine). Then she suggested a full tick panel. Turned out the dog was at the top of the scale for Lymes, but not showing the usual symptoms of lameness etc. We are treating for Lymes, and dog is improving. We are still doing confidence-building and other fun classes to help her.

  48. Ann-Marie says

    My experience with my dogs has shown that it is always a good idea to check medical issues before assuming a behavioral problem is simply that. My instincts have been sound thus far, and I have a phenomenal vet.( I wish he and Patricia could meet. He had his lab tech Annie really want to attend one of his seminars, but he is a single practitioner and thinks he can’t spare the time.)
    My latest experience occurred when we added our one year old adopted corgi Skippy to our pack. Our quiet alpha sheltie Dodie accepted him without complaint, but the corgi Queen B alpha wannabe, Faye was not so happy. She snapped, she fussed, she drooped, she complained, etc.
    I wondered if her arthritis, which she has had in her two front elbows since she was three could have something to do with it. The vet x-rayed her, and found no significant problem there, but that she was developing additional arthritis in one of her hips.
    We added another anti-inflammatory to her treatment, and watch the puppy to make sure he doesn’t run into her on that side as much as I can.
    They are now down to only one fight every three days or so, and it is all mostly for show, and it generally stops when I speak sharply to them.

  49. Lexi says

    We humans do not rely on only one doctor to treat our various ailments – we seek the best practitioner in a given specialty. I believe the same standard of care should be applied to our animals. Vets are not behaviorists nor are they trainers. I recently had a very negative experience at the vet when we got into an argument over my choice to use food as a distraction and reward for my dog at the office. I would never ask this vet for advice on behavioral issues although I respect her wisdom and expertise as a vet. There is an ever growing need for animal specialists and I dread to see the day when vets govern all aspects of animal care.

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