Why a Behaviour Veterinarian?

Why do 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 veterinarian 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’). Dog trainers and animal behaviourists who are not veterinarians are simply not trained to deal with such 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.

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.

Mental Illness in pets

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 veterinarians (or in more severe cases, a veterinary behaviour specialist, whom we can refer you to if necessary).

If the underlying mental illness 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 (eg. 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.

Can I just see a Behaviourist who is not a vet?

Some 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 have trainers on our staff. However, if the problem in question is caused by a mental illness, a veterinarian always needs to be involved.

As a word of caution: in most parts of the world including Australia, anyone can legally call themselves a ‘behaviourist’, ‘dog psychologist’ or even ‘behaviour specialist’ (ironically, unless you are a vet!), even if they don’t hold any behaviour certifications. There is no professional body that regulates those who make such claims which makes choosing a trainer really difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Although there are many great trainers and behaviourists around, owners need to be very careful that they are not misled into believing that certain professionals are more qualified than they really are.

In complete contrast, behaviourists who are also Veterinarians are accountable to their state veterinary board and other accrediting bodies. Some (like our head veterinarian Dr McLachlan) choose to be rigorously tested by examination through institutions such as the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists to prove their level of knowledge. Additionally, in order to keep up their yearly registration with their relevant board, veterinarians are also required to complete a certain number of hours per year of continuing education, which most trainers are not obliged to do. Therefore, pet owners can be rest-assured that when seeing one of our behaviour veterinarians for their pet’s behaviour problems, they will be receiving care based on the most up to date scientific information available.

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.