A trend to teams
In veterinary medicine, recognizing and addressing the behavioral health of animals has gradually become more common. As veterinary behaviorists have educated the veterinary organizations and general practitioners about the importance of behavior health, we are seeing the inclusion of behavioral health in practice guidelines, including the AAHA Canine Life Stage Guidelines and the AAFP/AAHA Feline Life Stage Guidelines. Dr. Marty Becker is pioneering the Fear Free Veterinary Visits and Practices movement. The late Dr. Sophia Yin’s passion for spreading the value of low-stress handling and care has not only sparked many veterinary hospitals’ interest, but has also provided the knowledge and tools to apply low stress techniques directly into their daily routine.
Many veterinary facilities, although interested in incorporating behavior wellness and low-stress handling into practice, find themselves ill-equipped, lacking the knowledge and skills to put the new information into practice. This is where qualified trainers can help!
The benefits of preventive behavioral care
Approximately 15% of a veterinarian’s clients are lost annually due to pet behavioral issues. The loss could be due to relinquishment, re-homing, or euthanasia. A veterinary hospital that loses a conservative 5% of its patients due to unaddressed behavioral concerns can experience a significant financial loss.
Early intervention and preventive behavior services may increase pet retention and decrease the financial loss that results from unresolved behavioral concerns. Pet owners whose pets enjoy visiting the veterinary hospital are likely to visit more often. Integrating low-stress interactions, handling, and restraint creates a positive experience for the pet and owner. Similarly, satisfied clients will tell their friends and family about the compassionate care received, potentially increasing the hospital’s clientele through referrals. Dogs and cats are easier to examine when they have had repetitive positive experiences in the veterinary hospital. This pattern can be launched by offering puppy socialization and kitten classes in the veterinary hospital. Positive experiences associated with handling and restraint decrease exam time, and the need for extra staff assistance with restraint.
Roles of the veterinarian and animal trainer in animal behavior
The idea of a team approach is not to take business from the trainer or the veterinarian, but to actually increase referrals to each other. Each profession has a crucial role to play on the dynamic animal-behavior healthcare team. The veterinarian is responsible for the clinical assessment of all patients presented to the veterinary hospital. A veterinarian rules out health issues, diagnoses behavior disorders, gives prognoses, prescribes treatments plans and medication, and determines when to refer cases to specialists. The mental welfare of animals and the treatment of mental illness are included in many state veterinary-practice acts. Only by evaluating the patient’s physical and neurological health and obtaining and reviewing the medical and behavioral history can the veterinarian establish a diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatment. Dealing with the behavior of animals, the challenge is to determine whether the behavior is normal, abnormal, the manifestation of a medical condition, an inappropriately conditioned behavior, or simply related to lack of training.
The veterinarian and veterinary staff can be instrumental in recognizing behavior issues when a pet is presented for an underlying medical problem. All medical diseases result in behavior changes, and most behavioral disorders have medical indications. A behavior disorder may lead to the clinical presentation of a surgical or medical disease. Surgical repair of wounds from a dog bite may prompt the veterinarian to recommend behavior treatment for inter-dog aggression. A cat or dog that has self-inflicted wounds may indicate a panic disorder or compulsive behavior. Dental disease, including fractured teeth, could be an indication of anxiety-related conditions such as separation anxiety or sound phobias. Frequent enterotomies (intestinal surgery to remove foreign material) may indicate pica or some other anxiety-related condition.
Skilled veterinarians use a multimodal approach, combining a behavioral questionnaire with medical testing to determine specific (and nonspecific) links to behavioral disorders. Medical disease may be the direct cause of a behavior disorder. Feline lower urinary tract disease may lead cats to continue inappropriate elimination even after the cause has been treated. Many behavior disorders require and benefit from both medical and pharmacological treatment.
The rationale that the problem is only either medical or behavioral is flawed. Neurophysiologically, any medical condition that affects the normal function of the central nervous system can alter behavior. For example, lethargy or depression may be caused by several factors including pyrexia (fever), pain, anemia, hypoglycemia, a congenital abnormality such as lissencephaly or hydrocephalus, a central nervous system disorder involving neoplasia, infection, trauma or lead toxicity, endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism or hyperadrenocorticism, metabolic disorders such as hepatic or uremic encephalopathy, and cognitive dysfunction or sensory deficits. Behavioral signs are the first presenting signs of any illness.
As a general rule, veterinarians should do a physical and neurological examination and a basic blood analysis for all pets with behavioral changes. The practitioner may then decide to perform more specific diagnostic tests based on the exam findings. The additional diagnostics that are ordered will vary on a case-by-case basis.
Animal trainers and veterinary technicians offer prevention and manners training (group and private training), triage, and assessment, as well as assistance with implementation of a prescribed behavioral treatment plan (advanced). In a veterinary hospital that employs both a trainer and a veterinary behavior technician, the trainer and technician work closely together. The veterinary behavior technician may take the role of the “case manager,” acting to keep everyone informed (veterinarian, trainer, and client) and orchestrating the follow-up and communication cycle.
How to team up with a veterinary hospital
For most trainers, teaming up with a hospital will involve stepping outside your comfort zone! Amazing things rarely happen in your comfort zone. With some preparation and the setting of realistic goals, searching out this partnership may be the most rewarding move you can take, both professionally and personally.
It is important to realize that although you know how valuable you can be to the veterinary hospital, not everyone will be convinced. Expect to approach at least 10 veterinary hospitals before you find one that will be interested in you—and you in them. Think of this process as a series of job interviews. Not only is the hospital deciding if your services will fit their facility, you are also determining if their hospital would be a good fit for you.
Possible trainer roles teamed up with a veterinary hospital:
- Be a referral source for private and group training
- Work with the veterinarians and technicians on behavioral-disorder cases
- Provide group lessons at the hospital for the hospital’s clients (puppy preschool, kitten kindergarten, manners classes)
- Provide private training lessons at the hospital for hospital clients (new puppy/kitten appointments, fun veterinary visits, prevention services)
- Staff education and workshops
For your initial contact with a veterinary hospital, schedule a time to meet with the office manager. You might even offer to pay for an appointment slot. Keep the appointment short: 15 minutes or less. Come prepared with information about the detrimental effects that pet relinquishment has on the hospital’s bottom line, and what services you are able to offer to help enhance the human-animal bond for their clients and pets. Offer to provide a 30-60 minute presentation to the staff about the benefits of incorporating behavior and training into their practice—or provide free enrollment in one of your classes to some of their staff members. For their convenience, you could also offer to provide a “private” introductory class for staff members and their pets after hours at the hospital.
Once you have established a relationship with a veterinary hospital, continue to foster that relationship through follow-up. With behavior cases, it is especially important to keep the veterinarian abreast of progress. However, even with basic training and preventive services, track referrals and send a short progress report to the hospital. The progress report will not only educate the veterinary staff about your training techniques, but also remind them of your services.
The future is now
There is a movement toward veterinary hospitals incorporating behavioral wellness into their practices.Now is the time to team up with those hospitals so that you can help pioneer this change! Working together as a team, pet-care professionals can provide the most complete care for the pet, enhance the human-animal bond, and decrease relinquishment. Ultimately everyone benefits—the trainer, the veterinary hospital, the pet owner, and the pet! Learn more about how you can create a partnership at my Sessions The Future Is Now: Creating Powerful Trainer/Vet Client Teams and The Welcome Mat: Create More Pet-Friendly Vet Hospitals at ClickerExpo 2016 in Reno, NV (January 22-24) and Cincinnati, Ohio (March 18-20).