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What Does a Veterinary Behaviorist Do?

By Linda Cole

Pets find themselves in animal shelters for a number of reasons, but too often, they're surrendered because of behavioral problems their owner couldn't or wouldn't deal with. Qualified veterinarians are applying their specialized knowledge in animal behavior and working with pet owners to help them solve bad behavior so a pet and his owner can stay together. Like an applied animal behaviorist, veterinary behaviorists are helping to solve behavioral problems and keeping pets out of shelters.

Dealing with a pet that has a behavioral problem is extremely frustrating for an owner who has no idea why their pet's behavior has suddenly changed. When a once quiet dog barks insistently for no apparent reason, it can drive a loving pet owner, and their neighbors, up the wall. However, the dog does have a good reason and to him, it isn't an unnatural behavior. A cat refusing to use her litter box may have a medical problem or is upset because of a change in the home. A veterinary behaviorist can step in to help a pet owner solve the mystery of why their dog is barking or why the cat isn't using her litter box.

The difference between an applied animal behaviorist and a veterinary behaviorist is education. Animal behaviorists are people who specialize in a particular field of study like wild animals or pets. They come to your home and observe a pet in their environment and watch how owner and pet interact with each other to help them make recommendations to correct behavioral problems. However, you need to make sure the applied animal behaviorist you call is someone with expertise in dealing with your pet's specific behavioral problem. Animal behaviorists need at least a B.S. or B.A. Degree.

Veterinary behaviorists are vets who have at least a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree (DVM) and have spent a year as an intern. Upon graduating, they then go into a behavioral residency training program for two or three years. While in the program, they're required to do a research project and publish their findings. As a veterinary behaviorist, they are then able to help pet owners with behavioral problems.

The advantage of working with a veterinary behaviorist is that they can treat your pet's physical conditions along with behavioral problems. They can perform tests to find out if your pet's behavioral problem is due to a medical condition, and prescribe medication. If the bad behavior isn't due to an illness, then the veterinary behaviorist can work with the pet owner to determine if the behavior is from a lack of training, poor communication between pet and owner, or an owner who is unknowingly contributing to their pet's behavioral problem.

When dealing with a behavioral problem like barking, it's important to consider your dog's breed. Even mixed breeds will exhibit characteristics of one or more of the breeds in their makeup. For example, a Beagle barks and a mixed breed dog with some Beagle in him may also bark at everything he sees. Border Collies herd and Siberian Huskies love to run. Understanding who your dog is can help you determine if he has a behavioral problem. Sometimes, a dog just needs an owner who understands him and can provide him with proper training.

Pets don't do things to annoy us on purpose; there's always a reason why they do what they do. Most pet owners don't have the expertise to recognize and correct issues we consider to be bad behavior. As responsible pet owners, it's up to us to take an active role in helping our pets by educating ourselves on minor behavioral problems we can handle. More serious issues like any kind of aggression, are best dealt with by an expert. The next time your pet needs a check up, ask your vet if they are a veterinary behaviorist. Solving your pet's behavioral problem may be easier than you think.

Thanks to continued research into why pets act in certain ways, people who love animals and care for our pets can give us assistance in dealing with behavioral problems before they become unmanageable. If you have a pet that has any kind of behavioral problem, the solution is to find out what's bothering them and correct the problem with the help of a veterinary behaviorist, an applied animal behaviorist or a qualified trainer. A pet belongs in a loving home, not in an animal shelter. You picked out your pet for a reason, so give him the same unconditional love he gives you. Seek out the help you need to correct behavioral problems that can be eliminated with a proper diagnosis or dedicated training.

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