AAHA releases new canine and feline behavior guidelines

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​The American Animal Hospital Association has released the new AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines to offer tools for veterinary practices to assess and manage behavioral issues in dogs and cats that often lead to relinquishment and euthanasia. 

Tabby catHelping pet owners cope with behavior issues and moderate their pet’s behavior can be a lifesaving act that strengthens the human-animal bond, said Dr. Karen Overall, chair of the task force that developed the guidelines.

“These behavior guidelines are likely to be among the most important and used of AAHA’s guidelines because there is so little training in veterinary behavior and veterinary behavioral medicine in veterinary schools,” Dr. Overall said.

“These guidelines provide practitioners with a compendium of basic information, culled from the most recent research, that can allow them to immediately utilize new developments in this field and provide their clients with the most modern, humane guidance in the field.”

According to the guidelines: “Most dogs and cats relinquished to shelters, euthanized for behavioral problems, or abandoned are 1–3 yr old and in the midst of social maturity. Changes in pet behavior are potentially life-threatening, yet many of the problems emerging during that time can be addressed with simple intervention.”

The guidelines address the common behavioral problems of aggression, elimination disorders, separation anxiety, noise phobia, and cat-to-cat aggression.

“Veterinarians are now recognizing that their patients can be fearful or anxious and that these conditions not only affect their ability to deliver care, but that they affect the quality of their patient’s life, the quality of the client’s life, and possibly whether their patients live or die,” Dr. Overall said. “Like the infectious diseases against which we vaccinate, virtually all behavior problems respond to prevention.”

According to the guidelines: “Behavioral conditions are progressive. Early intervention is essential to preserve quality of life for both the patient and client and to provide the best chance of treatment success.”

Treatment of an animal’s social or behavioral problems should include behavior modification and medication when appropriate, the guidelines state.

The guidelines identify qualified trainers as valuable partners of a veterinary behavior management team. The guidelines oppose training methods that use aversive techniques and strongly endorse techniques that focus on rewarding correct behaviors and removing rewards for unwanted behaviors. 

According to the guidelines: “Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem-solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals.” 

Dr. Overall said, “These guidelines will save lives, prevent euthanasia, prevent relinquishment, and give hope to those trainers and veterinary teams in shelters who are trying to relieve the epidemic of relinquishment and rehoming that causes so much mental damage.” 

The guidelines appeared in the August issue of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. They are available here.