In general practice, as veterinarians, we often use changes in behaviour to assist us in diagnosing illness. For example an increase in drinking and urinating can point to kidney disease; a reduction in mobility might indicate back pain or arthritis.
Mental health disorders also result in behavioural changes. Often these changes are seen as undesirable to the owner and can impact on the human-animal bond.
The consequence of failing to treat these pets is serious, with more animals losing their life to euthanasia due to ‘unacceptable behaviour’ than anything else.
Many pets are relinquished to shelters because their owners cannot tolerate their behaviour. Sometimes this is simply because the pet was not trained appropriately or the owner had unrealistic expectations, but often it is due to the animal being mentally ill.
It is estimated that 1 in 5 dogs have some level of mental health disorder.
Other animals remain in the home environment, but have a poor quality of life because their behaviour prevents their owners from having a fulfilling relationship with them.
An animals’ behavioural response is based on many different factors – its genetic make-up, its early life experiences (including its mothers’ mental and physical health whilst she was pregnant with the animal) and the current environment it lives in.
The complex interplay between these components results in a behavioural repertoire that is unique to that particular animal.
So how do we tell what is driving the animal to behave in a particular way?
A vet is clinically trained to investigate the potential causes of your pet’s unwanted behaviour in order to determine whether it is a medical, psychological or training problem.
And for those pets whose unwanted behaviours have a medical component, such as pain, anxiety or cognitive decline, vets are clinically trained to treat them.
Problem Behaviour versus Behaviour Problem?
Problem behaviours are behaviours that are normal for the animal but are unwanted by the owner.
Examples include dogs digging in the garden and cats killing wildlife. They can also be seen due to inadequate training – a dog that jumps up on the couch is not asserting its dominance, it just hasn’t been trained that this may be an unacceptable thing to do.
Behavioural problems, in contrast, are abnormal behaviours that are secondary to the presence of a mental health disorder in the animal, commonly anxiety. Some behaviours are obviously abnormal such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD) like tail chasing and ‘fly’ snapping syndrome as seen in some dogs.
However, it is more often the context and/or frequency of the behaviour (and not the behaviour itself) that defines it as being abnormal.
For example, urine spraying in cats and barking in dogs are both behaviours that are seen, to varying degrees, in neuro-typical animals (i.e. those without a mental health disorder).
BUT they are also VERY commonly seen in mentally ill animals such as those with anxiety. The difference in these cases is the CONTEXT and the FREQUENCY with which the behaviours occur.
**Only a registered veterinarian is qualified and able to diagnose and treat mental illness in your pet**.
Mental health disorders are medical conditions like diabetes or kidney disease. They are not simply deficits in the dogs training.
You cannot simply ‘train them better’.
Expecting a dog to be ‘trained’ out of its mental illness is akin to telling someone with depression ‘to just snap out of it’.
This type of response is unhelpful at best; it also has the potential to result in serious welfare issues for the patient.
The majority of behaviour problems seen at BBVS are anxiety based.
Anxiety is not a training problem. It is a medical condition that involves anatomical and chemical abnormalities of the brain, nervous and hormonal systems.
Animals with anxiety disorders do not have normally functioning brains.
In order for an animal to be receptive to learning new, more appropriate, behavioural responses; its anxiety must first be addressed.
What does an anxious pet look like?
In dogs the consequence of anxiety includes the following behaviours:
- Separation related issues (used to be called Separation Anxiety);
- Storm and noise phobias;
- Excessive barking;
- Fearful behaviours;
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorders;
- Destructive behaviours.
Cats have their own unique way of dealing with the world and the secondary behaviours we commonly see in feline anxiety include:
- Urine spraying;
- Fearful behaviours;
- Excessive scratching or marking behaviour (urine and faeces).
Each species, and every individual within that species, is unique in how it deals with anxiety and stress.
That is what makes the field of veterinary behaviour so exciting but also very challenging. No two cases are ever the same!
At BBVS we are happy to consult on any species, not just cats and dogs, because we believe that every animal deserves to be happy and have a good quality of life.
Please contact us for more information if you think we can help you and your pet.