"Dogs chase their tails because they are bored."
This statement is a dangerous oversimplification of a problem that we still have much to learn about. Repetitive behaviors
such as tail chasing and pacing have long been noted and studied in confined domesticated and wild animals. A commonly held
belief is that these behaviors are a response to a barren or somehow inappropriate environment.28 However, the etiopathogenesis is probably much more complicated. Evidence suggests that what initiates these behaviors and
what maintains them may be two separate mechanisms.28
In addition, these behaviors are often a response to an underlying medical condition. Recent studies have documented that
at least two problems (psychogenic alopecia in cats and acral lick dermatitis in dogs) previously thought to be primarily
behavioral have a good probability of being primarily medical problems.29,30 In my experience, pain-related discomfort is an often overlooked cause of behavior problems such as tail chasing. Since
our patients cannot talk to us and we do not always have the diagnostic capability to identify the presence of pain or altered
sensation, it is imperative that we not dismiss these possibilities too quickly.
Clinicians also need to understand the role that learning may play in behavioral conditions. An animal that discovers that
its behavior results in attention—whether good or bad (e.g. being yelled at)—from its owner may continue to perform the behavior even after the inciting cause is alleviated. This situation
is similar to a cat that quits using its litter box because of urinary tract disease yet continues housesoiling after treatment
because of a learned substrate or location aversion.
When confronted with dogs or cats performing repetitive behaviors, first diligently rule out underlying medical causes for
the behavior. Collect a complete and detailed history, and perform appropriate diagnostic tests, preferably before referring
the patient to a behaviorist.
The fact is, the cause of repetitive behaviors can be a complicated combination of physiological, environmental, and learned factors.
"Any trainer can handle all behavior problems."
Sending a dog with a behavior problem to the wrong person can be as dangerous as not recommending any treatment. Not all trainers
and behaviorists are the same. Explain to your clients that anyone can call himself a behaviorist or a trainer without having
any education in the field. Making the wrong choice can have potentially devastating consequences to their pets' health and
Referral to a trainer
Veterinarians need to have a basic knowledge of learning theory so they can tell the difference between a trainer using appropriate
techniques and one using dangerous, outdated techniques. Even if you have the interest and the knowledge, if you are in a
busy practice you may not have time to demonstrate training methods. So it is critical that you know which trainers in your
area you can safely send your clients to.
Trainers are especially helpful for a pet that needs basic training such as learning to sit, stay, or come on command. A good
trainer uses primarily reward-based training, doesn't insist that a pet owner do anything ethologically unsound or dangerous
(e.g. trying to force a dog over in an alpha roll), and is willing to work with other professionals such as a veterinarian to develop
a plan that works for the individual. The AVSAB has an excellent position statement on behavior professionals and how to choose
a trainer (
Referral to a veterinary behaviorist
Be prepared to refer a pet that has a problem that may be anxiety-related (e.g. barking or housesoiling) or that poses a public health threat (e.g. aggression) to an appropriate professional when you do not feel comfortable handling the case. The ideal first choice would
be a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Veterinary behaviorists (diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
[ACVB]) are licensed veterinarians who have undergone extensive training in the science of behavior, psychopharmacology, learning
theory, and behavioral development. They are in the best position to recognize the complex ways in which medical conditions
affect behavior and have a good understanding of how genetics and environment interact to contribute to behavior problems.
Although there are still too few veterinary behaviorists to serve every community in the United States, it is your professional
duty to tell clients where the nearest diplomate is and allow clients to make informed decisions about their pets' treatment.
Many clients will readily drive several hours to get the best possible care for their pets.