Your veterinarian’s role in behavior modification

Greta Kaplan, CPDTVeterinarian

Ultimately, behavior starts in the brain, and the body must carry it out. The dividing line between “mental” and “physical” problems has become more and more blurred as scientists illuminate the functioning of brain cells and chemicals.

When you bring us your dog who is having a problem, sometimes our first instruction is to have your dog examined by a veterinarian. We may suggest a specialist, such as an ophthalmologist or a neurologist. Why do we do this, especially knowing that veterinary testing can be expensive — especially if done by a board-certified specialist?

Most behavior problems can, in some cases, result directly from a medical issue. In some cases, no amount of behavior modification will help. For example, if your dog has a serious urinary tract infection and is unable to stop herself from urinating urgently, and sometimes in the house, no amount of remedial housetraining is going to help her choose different behavior. Only treating the medical condition and reducing that physical urgency will allow her to return to her good habits (with or without remedial behavioral intervention). If we believe your dog might be sick, we will ask you to have her urine and blood checked. We try to educate ourselves about other medical conditions that may present themselves first as behavioral problems so that we can refer you to a veterinarian when veterinary care is needed.

Often, an animal will do best with simultaneous veterinary and behavioral intervention. For example, if your dog’s housetraining was shaky to begin with, that urinary tract infection may revive and reinforce some old bad habits. We can help you design a remedial housetraining plan to get her back on track.

Many of the dogs we see with behavioral problems are suffering from anxiety. In fact, a great deal of problem behavior is anxiety-driven. We can teach you how to structure your animal’s environment, provide consistent feedback, and teach your dog coping skills to reduce anxiety. But in some cases, because the problem is severe, long-term, or highly genetic, some kind of medication to reduce anxiety is either a good idea or truly necessary to make headway with the behavioral manifestations. Veterinarians’ familiarity with behavioral drugs for dogs and cats varies widely, depending on the vet’s education and areas of interest. We can often help guide you with questions to ask your veterinarian so that your dog or cat gets the medical, as well as the behavioral, help he needs and deserves. We are not veterinarians, and cannot prescribe medications, so we value our working relationship with many vets who see our clients. Most veterinarians are aware that behavioral drugs will work best, and should only be prescribed in conjunction with, a behavioral modification program. Our role is to help design and implement that program, coaching you in skills you may need to learn and helping troubleshoot management challenges.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *