Offer basic behavior counseling for every pet at every visit - Veterinary Medicine
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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.



Advice from the Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board
Behavior problems are easier to prevent than they are to correct, says Wayne Hunthausen, DVM, a Westwood, Kan., veterinarian nationally known for his work in behavior management. And the exact time you most frequently see pets—during their first year—is the biggest risk period for dogs and cats, he says.

"What veterinarians need to do is take advantage of puppy and kitten vaccination visits to get good solid information in the owners' hands," Dr. Hunthausen says. "If we can get clients off to a good start, then puppies and kittens are less likely to develop destructive problems, housesoiling or aggression, which may get them booted out of the house."

Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB, executive vice president of the ASPCA, puts it succinctly: "When veterinarians are seeing young animals and going through their vaccination procedures to save them from life-threatening diseases is the time to vaccinate them against the behavior problems that kill more pets than anything else."

Behavior topics to cover in the first puppy or kitten visit
John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB, is a small-animal practitioner in the Chicago area who also handles referral cases on behavior. He says the initial appointment with a new puppy is critical. In his practice, this visit focuses on several key topics including housebreaking, diet, destructive chewing, handling techniques, puppy socialization classes, use of the yard, food bowl issues, and collar choices (see "Behavior topics to cover in the first puppy or kitten visit"). His practice schedules 40 minutes for every new puppy or kitten appointment.

He recommends new puppy owners begin by teaching their dogs to go to a spot. "The front door is one of the areas people have a real problem with," he says. "You can train the puppy to automatically go to a spot a few feet from the front door. Put a mat down. Do a lot of sit and stay exercises. Use rewards. Eventually convert to somebody coming through the door from the outside."

Veterinarians must also practice model behavior in the examination room, Dr. Ciribassi says. For example, don't hold puppies upside down to examine them, and don't scruff them. And be liberal with treats. "How often would you go back to work without a salary?" he asks.

Advice from the Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board
For Dr. Ciribassi, the second and third visits also include behavior counseling, and his practice typically schedules neutering between 4 and 6 months of age.

Drs. Hunthausen and Ciribassi agree that one of the biggest problems in talking to owners about behavior is having to counter a plethora of bad advice. From television to the Internet to Uncle Charley, clients are surrounded by bad information. Saving animals from relinquishment means cutting through the static with knowledgeable, accurate advice on preventing or managing behavior problems.

Management options include pharmacologic therapy in appropriate cases. In the 1999 study by Drs. Patronek and Dodman, most veterinarians responding to the survey reported "seldom" or "sometimes" using pharmacologic agents for behavior problems.3 The most frequent use of drugs was to treat inappropriate elimination in cats.


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