Sessions address common behavioral problems

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Veterinary behaviorists say general practitioners can and should address common behavioral problems in dogs and cats, ranging from aggression to fearfulness.

The Jan. 14-18 North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando, Fla., offered two symposia and many other sessions on canine and feline behavior. The symposia, sponsored by Elanco and Nestle Purina, featured presentations by four diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

One of several presentations by Dr. Terry Marie Curtis, a clinical behaviorist at the University of Florida, covered the role of behavior in veterinary medicine. She said behavior problems are among the top reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats.

2 dogs playing
The behavior of growing puppies and aging dogs was among the topics of sessions during the North American Veterinary Conference in January.

Pet owners expect accurate and useful information on behavior from veterinarians, Dr. Curtis said. General practitioners can start addressing behavior by arranging for in-house training, and they should know when to refer cases to a behaviorist.

Dr. Curtis said common feline behavioral problems include inappropriate elimination, destruction, and aggression. Common canine behavioral problems include aggression, unruliness, and separation anxiety.

"If you're going to do behavior in general practice, it needs to be given the time and attention that it deserves," Dr. Curtis said. "There aren't a lot of quick answers for some of these problems."

Canine aggression was the topic of one of multiple presentations by Dr. Debra F. Horwitz of Veterinary Behavior Consultations in St. Louis. She said most veterinarians know how to recognize and respond to aggression in dogs but lack the vocabulary to share their knowledge.

Aggression is part of the normal canine behavioral repertoire, Dr. Horwitz said. Dogs often bite when a human initiates an interaction that makes them uncomfortable.

The ladder of canine gestures indicating stress or aggression, from least to most aggressive, is as follows: yawning, nose licking, blinking; turning the head away; turning the body away; walking away; putting the ears back; standing crouched; lying down, leg up; stiffening up and staring; growling; snapping; and biting.

"Think about what they're saying to you, translate it into English, and share it with someone else," Dr. Horwitz said.

One of several presentations by Dr. Martin Godbout of Daubigny Veterinary Group in Quebec City covered behavioral concerns with puppies.

Dr. Godbout conducted a study to determine whether excessive mouthing in puppies is a predictor of aggressiveness in adulthood. At 1 year and 3 years old, dogs that exhibited excessive mouthing as puppies had no significant difference in aggression scores, compared with scores for a control group of dogs.

In another study, Dr. Godbout studied puppy behavior during the first veterinary examination. The research included observation of puppies free on the floor, during examination on a table, and during manipulations on the floor.

In some puppies he observed extreme behaviors such as vocalization, active avoidance or greater locomotion, panting, lip licking, and yawning repeatedly. Additional research found these behaviors persisted into adulthood.

To increase their quality of life, "these anxious dogs need a real specific environment and specific communication that are always the same," Dr. Godbout said.

The behavior of aging dogs was the topic of one of multiple presentations by Dr. Kersti Seksel of Sydney Animal Behaviour Service in Australia. She said canine aging is a complex process that includes behavioral changes.

Dr. Seksel showed videos of dogs with a person and with toys. A young dog interacted energetically with the person and toys, and a healthy old dog interacted somewhat less energetically.

An old dog with cognitive dysfunction syndrome did not interact at all. Dr. Seksel said treatments for cognitive dysfunction syndrome include behavior modification, environmental management, medication, and diet.

"I think when we have these older patients, it really is important that we look after them right through their life," Dr. Seksel said.