Recently I attended the Western Veterinary Conference, one of the largest gatherings of veterinary practitioners in the world, for some continuing education. My focus was Behavior, where I went to all 20 hours of scientific programming by some of the best in the industry. Some of the speakers (DVMs) talked about therapeutic behavioral drugs and self-traumatic or neurological disorders while others focused on canine aggression issues. I will touch on a few of the more interesting and applicable sessions.
The first session I attended was titled “Is all bad dog behavior dominance or something else?” Dr. Sophia Yin spoke about how many of the commonly held beliefs about dog behavior were influenced by wolf behavior. That today we must recognize the effect of domestication on the evolution of dog behavior. Also, that leadership is important in developing a relationship with a dog, but it does not equate to dominance. Dominance is a “relationship between two or more individuals, established through force, aggression and submission in order to gain priority access to resources” and it is not a personality trait. We cannot say “that is a dominant dog” to describe bad dog behavior. She noted that “traditional dominance-based methods of training ignore the underlying cause or emotional state driving the undesirable behavior and instead focus on stopping the outward signs.
Another session focused on destructive behavior in dogs and cats and the importance of environmental enrichment. Confined animals are often under-stimulated because choices aren’t available to them or are made for them. These destructive behaviors are often normal behaviors deemed unacceptable. Dr. Gary Landsberg spoke about how when owners punish and suppress these behaviors, they contribute to anxiety and more destruction. Giving dogs and cats acceptable outlets for these behaviors can decrease anxiety, bad behavior and provide mental stimulation. Indoor cats especially need to perform their normal behavioral repertoire. He mentioned that cats play with increased intensity when hungry. He recommended small play sessions prior to multiple small meals throughout the day, mimicking their predatory behaviors of chasing mice.
There was a kitten kindergarten session which raved about the benefits of socializing kittens. Two of the top behavior problems reported by cat owners are urinating outside the box and aggression, which often result from poor socialization. Their socialization period starts and ends sooner than dogs (between 3-12 weeks) so it is important to expose them to as many people, pets and situations as possible (positive situations). Socialization should continue throughout their first year to ensure the learning sticks.
The most interesting sessions I attended were “Managing fearful and aggressive pets in the veterinary clinic” and “Low stress handling and restraint of fractious dogs and cats”. Both spoke of the importance of early socialization and how it can prevent many future issues in the clinic setting. Desensitization and counter conditioning pets to unpleasant and stressful situations can create a better environment for all. However for those already severely aggressive, certain precautions must be made to keep both animal and veterinary staff safe such as basket muzzles, towels for fractious cats or possibly even sedation. Taking the time to make veterinary experiences positive is an investment for future visits.
I will be sharing what I have learned with the staff at my clinic as well as friends and family to improve our standard of care, prevent relinquishment of misbehaved pets and the euthanizing of pets that could have had a chance with better knowledge.