Is it only a behaviour problem? - Veterinary Practice
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Is it only a behaviour problem?

DESPITE the continued efforts of the BBC’s Radio 4 to attract younger listeners, most of us “grow into” its audience with age and unfortunately I reached that stage some while ago!

But on the upside, I’m not alone in learning a great deal from its wide range of programmes. Nevertheless, when our planet is under assault from a wider variety of biological and man-made threats than ever before, and at last we have our first Green MP, it’s an abiding disappointment that science forms such a small part of the total output.

Every now and again, though, a real gem turns up, whether it expands a known theme, introduces something completely new or re-emphasises an issue that deserves more recognition.

Recently, on the engaging and frequently emotionally moving Between ourselves, presented with skill and empathy by Olivia O’Leary, such a case arose. Ostensibly it had nothing to do with our profession, and animals other than the human variety did not feature at all, but a couple of points were made so relevant to behaviour counselling that, despite only half listening initially, it immediately caught my attention.

Important resonances despite species’ differences

Two notable child psychologists were discussing parenting, a topic of which I am completely ignorant. But we were all children once and, as one of them, Oliver James was using personal experience to illuminate the discussion, something that is often very helpful when dealing with clients and their behaviourally challenging pets, I started to listen more carefully.

He explained that, despite the fact both his parents were psychoanalysts, due to difficult family circumstances he became an aggressive youngster, troublesome to others and generally hard to manage.

Point one, therefore: there is always a reason behind behavioural issues – we just have to make the effort to find out what it is. Thus, pets are never fundamentally “bad, nasty or a waste of space”. They do what they do because of an often complicated mix of genetics, experience, environment and circumstances.

Knowing why they behave as they do doesn’t always take us that much further forward but it is the first step towards finding a solution, even if that is ultimately negative, as in rehoming or euthanasia.

Illness and injury usually affect behaviour

This distressed youngster was apparently rescued by a particularly understanding house master at his boarding school. However, he recounted an incident which occurred before he was shipped off there which serves as a good life lesson to us all, and provides an especially pertinent reminder for anyone in general practice.

Suddenly, it seemed from the perspective of those around him, this difficult child became more monstrous than ever. But his outrageous behaviour simply being an extension of all that had gone before, or so it appeared, no one thought to consider otherwise. It was therefore a day or two before a fractured collar bone, the result of a previous minor and easily over-looked incident, was detected.

Point two: pain tends to make us all more irritable, self-protective and difficult to handle. This is generally more easily and quickly detected if it results in a change of behaviour in a normally unassuming person or animal, but just because an individual already
has a reputation as an unpredictable, irascible and challenging pet and patient, it doesn’t mean that whatever happens behaviourally is just a behaviour problem.

The issue is especially tricky when the case is referred to a non-veterinary behaviour counsellor.

The good ones will be placed in the embarrassing position of contacting a friendly, and hopefully non-judgmental, veterinary colleague to ask relevant questions and advice about the best way to proceed.

Others may fail to recognise the possibility of a contributing clinical problem, perhaps putting everyone at greater risk, and ensuring the struggling animal never gets the help it needs and deserves, no matter how unpleasant it is to deal with.

Clinical work-up must precede behavioural consultation

But, of course, the application of good practice doesn’t just apply to aggression, commonly seen or out of character. Everything that an animal does has the potential to make it troublesome to its owners. Therefore, it stands to reason that any change in anything an animal does has the potential to worry caring owners and to undermine its value as a pet.

For instance, increased thirst which alters the rate and nature of elimination also commonly affects house training; appetite changes, one way or the other, may lead to raids on bins and kitchen worktops, while pica comes in many forms. Damage to homes and possessions not infrequently results.

The list is long, with a particular issue that’s easily overlooked when busy veterinarians reach for the pharmacopoeia being the potential sideeffects of prescribed medication. It is especially important to bear this in mind with elderly animals, where compromised detoxification mechanisms may well increase such risks.

The double whammy is that they are also likely to be struggling with hearing and/or sight deterioration and possibly anxieties, which generally increase with age – all factors that may contribute to the development of problem behaviour.

So in everyday veterinary practice, where does this leave us, what is the take-home message that a casual encounter with a radio programme on an unrelated topic highlights?

“Assume nothing, diligently observe everything and always, but always, do a thorough clinical work-up before deciding a pet’s behavioural issues have nothing to do with you,” seems to say it all.

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