GENERALLY it may be supposed that the wider an individual’s vocabulary, the greater the likelihood that she or he will have an enviable ability to communicate. In a personal capacity this will undoubtedly be helpful, but professionally it is essential. While true for veterinarians, this is even more important for companion animal behaviour counsellors. Recently, however, it occurred to me that this might in fact be one area where a single word assumes such significance that, deprived of anything else, one could still get by. This word constantly arises in conversations involving problem behaviour and neatly sums up the common themes that run through most cases. It applies to the factors that give rise to the range of difficulties owners experience with the way their animals behave, and must also apply to the solutions we recruit in an attempt to resolve them. These must be suitable for the pet, its species, breed, personality, experience and also for the owner’s circumstances. Otherwise, the likelihood is that the problem(s) will simply change, not improve, and in some cases the situation may deteriorate to the point where time and patience run out altogether. Then nobody benefits, least of all the animal that is either relinquished or consigned to oblivion, because something about the way it interacted with its environment – physical and/or social – was inappropriate. And that’s the word. Defined by Collins English Dictionary (1991) as “not fitting or appropriate; unsuitable or untimely”, this word sums up extremely well why so many people come to find living with a particular animal disappointing at best, and troublesome or impossible at worst.
Animals often suffer when people make mistakes
Whatever the problem, species or owners’ circumstances, when it comes to the reasons difficulties develop, most behaviour cases fit into a relatively limited number of categories. Some owners, for example, should never have got another pet or any pet at all simply because they do not have enough money, space, time or commitment to make things work – it was inappropriate for them to do so. Others, on grounds of their own temperament, situation or experience should have made different decisions; acquisition of an inappropriate species, breed or age of new pet in a home being a not uncommon reason for things going decidedly wrong – their choice is neither fitting nor suitable. For instance, it is never advisable for indolent people or those who hate leaving the fireside in bad weather to choose highly reactive canines with seemingly inexhaustible demands for physical and mental exercise; while large male, guarding breed dogs are not necessarily a wise choice for novice dog owners. Unfortunately, this often fails to stop such folks taking them on and later wondering why they can’t cope. And a frequent cause of despair among feline counsellors is the addition of another cat to a home with one or more, especially when their owners already know that the original pet(s) “doesn’t get on well with other cats”. In this scenario, the decision to acquire another pet is generally untimely as well as being unlikely to ever deserve the label “appropriate or fitting”. Initial diligence does not always ensure success Even people who have chosen a good time in their lives to embark upon the project and then done all the right things when it comes to selecting their new companion can still come to grief. Indeed, they may have ensured he or she has parents (they have seen) of equable temperament, whose offspring have been well-socialised and habituated to a range of domestic and external stressors so that the pet is entirely “fit for purpose” and their particular circumstances, only to find that their introduction process goes wrong or subsequent management knocks things off course. When this happens it is often because something at some point was not entirely appropriate or fitting from the animal’s point of view.
Prompt appropriate intervention is essential
But as so often happens in life, it is generally not what has gone wrong or why that matters so much as how people respond once problems have arisen. This is where we as veterinarians come in. Delays in investigation, diagnosis and treatment in this day and age really are inexcusable and it is never appropriate for professionals to discourage owners from seeking specialist intervention, something that should in fact be offered in behaviour cases with just as much alacrity as those in any other veterinary field. Neither is it fitting nor appropriate to rely entirely on adjuncts, such as pheromone products or nutraceuticals, rather than passing the case on to a behaviourallyinclined colleague unless the owner declines or is unable to fund the latter. In turn, as behaviourists we must strive to ensure we undertake appropriate investigation of the pet and owner’s circumstances.
Then if resolution seems possible, help clients construct a behavioural modification programme that is not only suitable in all respects but is also
one that they can manage well and that fits into their daily lives and timetables.
Co-operation between professionals can improve welfare and save lives
Sadly, inappropriate human choices and actions often result in people and pets paying a heavy price. Fortunately, however, when problem behaviour
arises the outlook is no longer bleak. Those with an interest in companion animal behaviour are here to help and, if the Fates smile, suitable, timely
and appropriate professional intervention can often win the day. What it takes is for us all to work together to ensure that behavioural medicine receives the respect it deserves. After all, it is just another way in which, as veterinarians, when we act appropriately we can safeguard the welfare of our patients and also on occasion quite literally save their lives.