by Soraya Juarbe-Diaz, DVM, ACVB
What does it mean to be a board-certified veterinary behaviorist?
A Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) has attained specialist status in veterinary behavior. He or she is a doctor of veterinary medicine who undertook additional training in clinical veterinary behavior and who has satisfied the certification requirements of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
How is a veterinary behaviorist different from a trainer?
Most trainers deal with behavior problems in dogs only, while a veterinary behaviorist can deal with problems in most companion animal species, so cats, ferrets, rabbits, and birds can be helped, too. Additionally, a veterinary behaviorist does not rely on obedience training alone for treatment of behavior problems in dogs. Obedience training is meant to be a way of teaching manners and rules to dogs. If a dog is unruly, obedience training is likely to help.
If a dog is very confident and intelligent, he is likely to excel in obedience classes yet could still be problematic. If the patient is timid or anxious, the wrong kind of training is likely to worsen the problem. For these patients, obedience training is not the answer.
Medical conditions, which trainers may be unaware of, can sometimes create or intensify behavior problems. Veterinary behaviorists will take into account all contributing factors, including underlying disease, and devise a comprehensive treatment protocol. For some patients, this will include the use of medication along with behavior modification, much like treatment devised for a person with a psychiatric disease.
How are cases typically referred to a veterinary behaviorist?
Since behavior changes may be the first sign an animal shows due to illness, pets with behavior problems should have a physical exam, a complete blood count (CBC) and a serum chemistry panel. Some additional tests that could be performed if warranted by clinical signs include a urinalysis, a thyroid function evaluation, radiographs and an ultrasound examination. Further diagnostics can be performed based on any abnormal findings. In some cases, a neurologic evaluation is also indicated. Once underlying organic problems are ruled out, a behavioral diagnosis can be pursued.
What type of cases does a veterinary behaviorist see routinely?
Cases can vary widely, but a typical day can include aggression problems (a very large category that includes aggression directed at people or other animals, within or outside of the home), anxiety disorders (including stimuli-specific fears and phobias, separation anxiety, and thunderstorm phobia), compulsive disorders, and species-specific behaviors that are unacceptable to people (such as urine spraying/marking). Treatment is a combination of behavioral and environmental modification, and medication, if appropriate. While medication has its place in the treatment of some behavior problems, it is seldom given by itself but in conjunction with behavior modification. Established behaviors take time to be modified and owners should expect a minimum course of treatment to be about 6-8 weeks.