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.


Behavior Resources
If a problem seems beyond your capabilities, many behavior resources can help you gain expertise, or you can refer the case (see "Behavior Resources").


Two behavior problems, in particular, lead to the most relinquished pets—aggression and inappropriate elimination.

For dogs, aggression is a killer

A clear danger sign for dogs is aggression. Olathe, Kan., practitioner J.C. Burcham, DVM, reports that when people call about a dog that has bitten someone, the conversation is often one-sided. "They're not even in negotiation mode," she says. "They're saying, 'I need to get rid of my dog right now.'"

The concurrent problem is that fixing aggression issues takes time. Dr. Burcham says clients must be willing to spend the time and make the commitment to at least a year's work to turn around aggressive behavior. "There is no overnight fix," she says.

Again, prevention is key. Dr. Burcham takes the unusual approach of holding classes to teach children and adults how to handle a dog so they won't be bitten.

"Play biting is one of the reasons dogs are unnecessarily relinquished," Dr. Ciribassi says. He suggests distinguishing between play biting in puppies and aggressive biting in adults. Pay attention to posture. If biting is done "in a playful manner, in a calm happy-go-lucky way, tail wagging, mouth relaxed," it is normal, and the trick is to channel it to socially appropriate behaviors. If the ears are back and the tail is tucked, something more serious is happening.

In either case, he points out, visiting a behaviorist is a good recommendation for the owner. So are puppy socialization classes. "People think of puppy classes only for dogs 6 to 8 months old," Dr. Ciribassi says. "For the most part, the open window of socialization is over at 14 weeks. Formal training can occur later, but puppy classes are meant for those young puppies."

"The important thing is to recognize behavior problems early and get the owner some help before he or she gives up," Dr. Hunthausen says. "A lot of owners don't know there are people who can help aggressive pets."

Inappropriate elimination: Also a deadly sin

The primary reason for relinquishment in dogs and cats is elimination. In a report in 2002, Dr. Scarlett and others stated that "dogs and cats urinating at least weekly in the home were approximately two to four times and two to six times, respectively, more likely to be relinquished to a shelter, compared with animals occasionally or never displaying these behaviors."2

Jacqueline Neilson, DVM, DACVB, who owns her own behavior practice in Portland, Ore., says, "If I'm focusing on making the most impact on relinquishment to shelters, I'm discussing the litter box with cat owners. Cats like you to keep it clean. You have to scoop every day. It seems simple, but it is critical."

Dr. Neilson thinks just impressing this single point on cat owners could save many cats from relinquishment. She also says to tell owners not to be deluded by the advertising on litter products. "Nothing really does the job like getting waste out of there," Dr. Neilson says. "Product developments may help control odor, but nothing replaces the simple act of scooping out the waste."


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