Every species adapts to its habitat in three ways: anatomically, physiologically, and behaviorally. Historically, the science of medicine has been devoted to the first two. It was only a little over a century ago that physicians started to establish the discipline of psychology. And it was just over a half century ago that the discipline became part of all physicians' training.
Robert M. Miller, DVM
Veterinary medicine has lagged behind human medicine. It was only 15 years ago that we established a boarded specialty in animal behavior, and even now, not all veterinary schools have mandatory courses in behavior. This is a problem. Behavior is as vital to veterinary practice as anatomy and physiology are. I think every U.S. veterinary school should require students to take a basic animal behavior course, and behavior should be on every state board exam. Why is behavior so important?
Happily, most major veterinary conferences now offer continuing education on behavior. These are usually small-animal sessions. Equine behavior is largely ignored, despite the fact that the horse is now primarily a companion animal. Moreover, misbehavior in horses may seriously injure or kill both the animal and people.
- We cannot fully understand our patients without knowing their innate genetically programmed behavior.
- The financial base for our profession is no longer the working horse nor food animals. It is now companion animals, in which an understanding of our patients' innate behavior is even more important.
- The most common questions asked by companion-animal clients pertain to behavior. We must be prepared to answer these questions. And by answer, I mean offering techniques to properly shape and modify behavior. Of course, the wonderful behavior-modifying drugs that have become available since I graduated have a vital place in practice. But if these drugs are used, they must be used in conjunction with behavior modification.
- Clients judge us by our skill in handling our patients (our bedside manner). If we are inept, it creates a bad image of our profession.
- Behavior problems are a principal reason for companion-animal abandonment and subsequent euthanasia.
Basic animal behavior training is beneficial to all practitioners, even food-animal practitioners. Such training would help us understand our patients and prescribe appropriate preventive or therapeutic measures.
Knowledge of animal behavior would also help us better understand our clients. Biologically speaking, Homo sapiens is just another animal species. No professional is more aware of this than the doctor of veterinary medicine. Our multispecies education gives us a unique perspective. In practice, I often had medically educated owners ask in surprise, "Dogs get heart disease?" or "Horses get cancer?" or "Cats get asthma?"
My answer was, always, to feign surprise and respond, "You mean people do, too?"
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at