Why a Behaviour Veterinarian?

What exactly is a Behaviour Veterinarian?

A behaviour veterinarian is a qualified and registered vet who has a very keen interest and further training in the field of Behavioural Medicine (animal psychiatry). They also have good knowledge of common medical and surgical conditions as they will have spent many years working in the field of General Practice.

There are many ways to become a behaviour veterinarian. Our vets have chosen to complete a formal year-long postgraduate course in Behavioural Medicine through the Centre for Veterinary Education at Sydney University. They have then chosen to prove their knowledge by being tested by examination (2 x 3 hour exams plus an oral exam) through the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists.

Additionally, in order to keep up their yearly registration with the NSW Veterinary Practitioners Board, they are also required to complete a certain number of hours per year of continuing education to say abreast of the latest in their field. You can read about some of the courses that our vets have attended on their individual profiles.

Click here to read more about what the Australian Veterinary Behaviour Interest Group has to say about the difference between Veterinary Behaviourists and dog trainers.

Why would I need to see a Behaviour Veterinarian?

Like many of our clients, you may have been referred to us because you have been told by your GP vet or dog trainer that your pet needs to see a behaviour veterinarian (commonly referred to as a ‘veterinary behaviourist’ by some). These professionals may have identified that you pet is likely to be suffering from a fear or anxiety disorder which cannot be treated with training alone.

During a consultation, one of our behaviour veterinarians will assess your pet to determine whether the undesirable behaviour you are seeing is a training problem or if it is due to a physical dysfunction of the brain (‘mental illness’) or some other medical cause such as pain, dementia, endocrine disease or other cause of discomfort. Dog trainers and animal behaviourists who are not veterinarians are simply not trained to address this aspect of these cases. In fact, it is actually illegal for a non-veterinarian to diagnose and treat medical conditions like mental illnesses. This includes telling an owner whether or not their pet needs behavioural medication or medical treatment.

Mental illnesses such as phobias and anxiety must be treated by a registered veterinarian as they are medical conditions, not just training issues. Just like in humans with mental illness, some (but not all) of these animals may require medication to correct the chemical imbalance in their brain before behaviour modification (including training) can even be attempted. Similarly, patients with other physical causes of behavioural change such as chronic pain must be treated for this in order for them to be able to learn effectively.

Some experts estimate that up to 20% of all pets will have some type of mental illness at some point in their lives. This echoes recent estimates in humans. Examples of mental illnesses in pets include separation anxiety, noise and fireworks phobias, storm phobias, panic attacks, generalised anxiety, dementia, and obsessive compulsive disorders.

Mental illnesses such as these, as well as many behaviour problems are more likely to be successfully managed if done so under the supervision of a behaviour veterinarian (or in more severe or refractory cases, a veterinary behaviour specialist, whom we can refer you to if necessary).

Can’t I just see a Trainer or a Behaviourist who is not a vet?

Many behavioural problems can successfully be dealt with by a trainer or a behaviourist who is not a veterinarian. In fact, we share many of our cases with such professionals and also have an animal behaviourist on our staff. However, if the problem in question is caused by a mental illness or other medical problem, a veterinarian always needs to be involved.

If the underlying medical problem is not treated, then you are only treating the symptom rather than the underlying illness if you use training alone. For example, aggression may be a symptom of a phobia (irrational fear) of strange people, tall men, honking traffic, scary visits to the vet, other dogs or noisy children. Sometimes an owner may be referred to a dog trainer for this, who may choose to treat the problem with obedience training (e.g. ask the dog to sit still and accept a pat, or by punishing the dog for lunging), but not acknowledge that the underlying emotion (fear or panic) is what needs to be addressed first.