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Understanding Animal Behaviour: Essential Knowledge for Every Veterinary Practice

Posted in Client Service @ Oct 23rd 2012 4:24pm - By Gillian Shippen, Nurse Manager & Business Owner 'Pets Need a Life Too'
Gillian Shippen

I admit it, I used to do it; I used to say to any client that came in with a complaint about a pet behavioural problem (predominantly dogs) that it was all about training.

I became interested in animal behaviour after I invited a Rottweiler into my life at a time they were seriously receiving an absolute caning in the media. There had been a number of attacks attributed to the Rottweiler (or cross) and I even had to assist in the court ordered destruction of what both my boss and I considered to be a beautiful Rottweiler that had been set up to fail by its owner, after a highly publicised incident on two young girls in a public place.

We all know euthanizing is an unpleasant part of our job; it is easier when we know we are alleviating pain and suffering as an older pet has reached that time. It’s a little harder to swallow when we have to do it because the owners cannot afford treatment and even harder again when a change in circumstance means the pet has become an inconvenience. I can tell you though, euthanizing this beautiful Rottweiler had a huge effect on me, and I vowed to take a few points on behalf of the breed itself but also to all dogs!

I wanted to prove that given the right training, enrichment and environment, the Rottweiler was and is a lovely breed of animal. To the ‘old core’ Rotty people I had to prove that you did not have to use physical force to train them.  The number of people that expressed doubts over my ability to control one was amazing: “You have to be forceful with them” they said, “You have to get in their face, and punch them (in the face)” they said. I wanted to prove them wrong.

I did -  I had a gorgeous dog named Cole, he wasn’t perfect but oh so close! With Cole I was determined that he would not be a nuisance to anyone. I trained him, got involved in environmental enrichment (the next phase of my life) and really got stuck into learning about animal behaviour, body language etc. Working with such a magnificent animal as Cole I could have become complacent because he was so easy and responsive but I recognised that it wasn’t just all about training. Cole had piqued my interest in doing everything right for him, dogs and pets in general.

Enter my two main mentors: Dr’s Kersti Seksel and Robert Holmes (and more recently Paul McGreevy, Cam Day and Kim Kendall).   I annoyed them at every single seminar and conference, asking questions and probing. In the veterinary industry there really isn’t a lot of information on pet behavioural issues out there for us to sink out teeth into but, fortunately for me both Specialists were more than accommodating and encouraging!

Behavioural medicine is apparently barely touched in veterinary training and I can sense the frustration from the Behavioural Specialty over the years with the fact that Behavioural Medicine doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously or is avoided at all costs because it appears too hard. But as all the speakers at behavioural sessions love to say – behaviour is in all parts of veterinary medicine.  After all it is a change in behaviour that has brought the animal to the vet in the first place.

A clear message I have always heard is that there are two issues in behaviour medicine: Behaviour Problems or Problem Behaviour!

Problem behaviours are dog training issues and generally do not require medication. They generally are normal animal behaviours that are a problem to the owner ie: lack of toilet training, barking, jumping up, eating faeces, digging the garden.

Behaviour Problems are a medical problem and will most likely need medication – this may mean anti-anxiety medication or it may mean thyroid medication as any kind of medical problem can and does contribute to a dog’s behaviour.  This is why full blood profiles are necessary as part of the work up to ensure that there is no underlying disease.

It is also worthwhile pointing out sometimes these issues can merge together!

We are doing owners, their pets and ourselves a major disservice if we have the belief the behaviour issues are purely about poor training. We need to be careful NOT to blame the owner, no matter how subtle, because in some cases the owners have indeed done everything correctly and still there is a problem that may require medication. Interestingly I find in many cases, owners feel they have failed because their pet has to go on medication.  We need to get rid of this stigma – after all if the behavioural issue was caused by a thyroid problem, would we feel so bad about giving medication or even deprive them of it?

Anxiety is a recognised medical condition and we need to accept this. People need to remember (as we do so often forget) that animals are living breathing creatures that feel and actually do have emotions. In seminars I have attended, both Kersti & Paul have said that animals are good at hiding their anxiety and we are more often than not, lousy at seeing the signs. Even worse, we could think the animal is perfectly happy but the reality is they are not, they are merely just coping.

It’s not unusual to hear pet owners state they did not know there was anything that could be done for their pet’s arthritis and they are genuinely surprised to find we can help. Perhaps people that are ‘managing’ and living with behaviour issues are also not aware that something can be done. It is up to the veterinary industry to ask the relevant questions to draw out the information we need and change our client’s perceptions.

We are only now really beginning to recognise the complexities of animal behaviour medicine. The key message here is GET INVOLVED in behaviour medicine - it is probably the thing most people come in for.........or they don’t ask the vet the right questions when they should! So many animals are suffering because pet owners are getting their advice from the wrong people, when they should be getting it from the clinic staff and the scientist – the one with the Bachelor of Veterinary Science.


Gillian Shippen is not only a Nurse Manager, but she has also written a book: 'Pets Need a Life Too - A Guide to Enriching the Life of Your Pet - Series One: Dogs' and runs her online website 'Pets Need a Life Too' where she sells a range of enrichment toys for pets. Her aim is to "..not just to sell you products but to ensure you are purchasing the right item for you and your pet."

For more information, check out 'Pets Need a Life Too' Page in the Vetanswers Business Directory.   


Gillian Shippen @ Oct 24th 2012 9:30am
as a side note to this article - I attended the AVBIG Behaviour Seminar this weekend in Melbourne with Dr Sophia Yin. She put up a case study of an owner aggressive cat - the owner went to a "Telephone Shaman" and a "Magnetic Bead" person and on advice from a lay person, disposed of her "alergen covered couch" (twice) before she visited a veterinary behavioural specialist! Scary to think this is where and how people get their information
Judy @ Oct 24th 2012 10:00am
Oh Gillian, that's hilarious - sad but hilarious! She must have thought her poor cat was possessed!

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