Offer basic behavior counseling for every pet at every visit


Offer basic behavior counseling for every pet at every visit

By preventing behavior problems or catching them early, practitioners can fortify the human-animal bond.
Oct 01, 2007

What Works for Dr. J.C. Burcham
Misbehaving is the most dangerous thing a companion animal can do. A study of a dozen shelters nationwide in 2000 found that 40% of dogs and 28% of cats were surrendered because of one or more behavior problems reported by the owners.1

Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, PhD, the director of the Maddie's Shelter Medicine program at Cornell University, thinks these findings underestimate how many animals are likely surrendered for behavior problems.2 Many owners are reluctant to admit that their pets have behavior problems when they bring their pets to shelters because they believe their pets will be euthanized.

"If you look at the dogs who are relinquished to shelters, you find that the single largest group is young adolescents, 6 months to 25 months of age," Dr. Scarlett says. "Why? They're unruly. That's where the veterinarian enters. Between the time a dog finishes its puppy shots and the time it reaches 6 months of age, the bond either never cements, or the bond is formed but the dog's behaviors are so obnoxious that the owner no longer wants to keep it." These problems include digging holes in the backyard, chewing up shoes, or pulling too hard against a leash on walks.

"The problem with behavior," Dr. Scarlett suggests, "is that most veterinarians are not well-trained in and have a level of discomfort with behavior issues. Few have a behaviorist on staff." But veterinarians can learn behavior basics that will help them identify annoyances before serious problems develop and lead to relinquishment.


Behavior Assessment Checklist--Download this form at, and have your clients fill it out at each visit.
Prevention is always key. Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, MS, DACVB, a past AVMA president, says, "Behavior problems are the number one cause of euthanasia for dogs and cats, resulting in a loss of approximately 10% of the total population each year. This is not acceptable for any reason. Prevention is the only way to stop this horrific loss."

In 1998, Gary J. Patronek, VMD, PhD, and Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, DACVB, DACVA, conducted a mail survey of 2,000 randomly selected veterinarians.3 Their study's objectives included determining the number of dogs euthanized in practices for behavior -related reasons and assessing practitioners' attitudes about behavior services. Extrapolating from the survey's results, the researchers estimated that in 1998 as many as 224,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in small-animal practices for behavior problems. Significantly, four in 10 veterinarians reported discussing behavior infrequently during office visits for new adult pets, and half discussed behavior infrequently during annual checkups. Drs. Patronek and Dodman were surprised by the disconnect between the willingness of veterinarians to discuss behavior and the emerging emphasis on behavior in the veterinary literature.

Dr. Patronek, a clinical assistant professor at Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy and the director of animal welfare and protection at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, suggests veterinarians ask clients to complete a short behavior checklist in the waiting room at every visit. "A one-page sheet where you can ask how frequently certain behavior problems are occurring will help you systematically assess behavioral risk factors for relinquishment," he explains. "You might ask if there are situations coming up that could be a problem—acquiring another pet maybe. All the red flag questions. With that you could start working early to prevent relinquishment." (For a sample behavior assessment checklist, see the form top right created by Veterinary Medicine.)