What are behaviour problems?

A ‘behaviour problem’ is any behaviour shown by an animal that the owners consider to be a problem. It is therefore quite a confusing term when evaluating animal behaviour, because different owners will inevitably vary in how much they tolerate different behaviours in their pet. What some regard as a serious issue others are quite happy to live with. This means that a ‘behaviour problem’ can range from dogs jumping up to greet their owners, aggression directed at strangers in the park, or even behaviours which occur as a result of physical disease. Even where two animals show exactly the same behaviour, one owner may define it as a problem, whereas the other may not.

Each behavioural presentation can also arise for a number of different reasons. So for example, not every dog which destroys the house when their owners go out will do so for the same reason, nor will every cat that toilets outside of the litter tray have the same reason for doing so. This means that such behaviours are ‘signs’ of underlying changes or problems rather than a ‘diagnosis’. This is just the same as in other areas of veterinary medicine. For example, a cat with an itchy skin could have a number of diseases causing the irritation, from fleas to auto-immune conditions, with the treatment depending on the disease which is diagnosed. Similarly for behaviour problems, treatment needs to be specific to the cause - because not every animal which shows aggression does this for the same reason, there is not a single ‘prescriptive’ treatment for aggression.

Aggressive cat


What do I do if my pet has a ‘behaviour problem’?

If your pet is showing a behaviour that is a problem, the first thing to do is book an appointment with your own vet. There are two reasons for this:

1. Behavioural changes can be early signs of a medical problem

There is a wide range of different conditions that can first present as an apparent ‘behaviour problem’ but which are actually indications of disease. For example, neurological problems in the brain or spinal cord, hormonal disorders, inflammation of the bladder, or reduced functioning of the liver can all become apparent first as behavioural changes. Because many of these conditions are very serious, it is important that your vet sees your pet as soon as possible so that any problems can be identified and necessary treatment started promptly.
In addition, medical or physiological factors often influence the development of behaviour even where they are not the sole cause of the problem. For example, a sore ear in a dog’s medical history may be an important factor in the development of an aggressive response to petting on the head. It is therefore important for a vet to examine your pet and ensure that a full medical history is passed on to the behaviourist at the time of referral, so that all relevant factors can be taken into account when evaluating each case.

2. Your vet will be able to refer you to a qualified behaviourist

There are many competent behaviourists around, but unfortunately also some which are of variable quality. Responsible behaviour practitioners will only work on veterinary referral, to ensure that any physiological or medical factors influencing the behaviour are identified, treated, and taken account of in the development of a programme of behaviour modification. Referral from your vet will ensure that you find a behaviourist who has both suitable training and experience to help you with your pet. Depending on the nature of the behaviour that your pet is showing, your vet may refer you to a behaviourist, or a veterinary behaviour specialist.

Here in the UK, vets who specialize in behaviour are officially recognized as such by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and/or the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine. In addition to a veterinary degree, Diplomats of the European College have considerable further training and experience in clinical behaviour. For example, the College requires applicants to complete a three year residency training programme in an approved centre, to conduct and publish research, and to show evidence of extensive clinical experience before taking an entrance examination. Veterinary Specialists treat a wide range of cases, but have particular expertise on the relationship between medical problems and behavioural signs. They are also in the best position to determine whether particular animals would be assisted by drug therapy in addition to their behaviour modification programme. In the USA, veterinary behaviourists can be found via The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB.)

Alternatively, your vet may refer you to a non-veterinary behaviourist. The term ‘behaviourist’ is not protected by statute, so can be used by anybody regardless of qualification or experience. For the welfare of your pet, it is important to seek the advice of an individual belonging to an organization that has high standards for both qualification and experience in their membership criteria. This will ensure that the behaviour expert identified is someone with the appropriate up-to-date knowledge, skills and experience to treat your pet effectively. Inappropriate or outdated advice or methods may adversely affect your pet’s welfare, and can even make their behaviour worse or lead to the development of further problems.

In the UK, the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) is an independent organization which accredits Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB) who have the appropriate skills, knowledge and abilities to treat behaviour problems. Membership includes obtaining an approved qualification at Honours degree level or above, and undertaking an extensive period of supervised clinical training, such as a three year residency programme in an approved centre.

The UK’s Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) also represents animal behaviourists. APBC members will have at least a relevant degree and two year's experience or a postgraduate qualification plus one year's experience.

CCAB and APBC behaviour experts work by identifying the factors which have contributed to the development of a behaviour. This should include sufficient knowledge about medical causes of behavioural change to recognize where further veterinary attention may be necessary. Their understanding of the range of factors which contribute to the development of behaviours enables them to develop structured treatment plans that are specific to the circumstances of each individual case. They should also have the ability to critically evaluate new advances in research and clinical practice, and are required to attend continuing education, to ensure that they provide the most up to date and effective advice for pet owners.

What is the difference between a dog behaviourist and a dog trainer?

There is some debate about the difference between what behaviourists do and what trainers do when it comes to dogs – and there is clearly some overlap in these roles. However, broadly, if you have a puppy or new dog and want to train him or her how to behave in day-to-day life, then find a good trainer who uses reward based methods. This might include, for example, teaching your dog to walk calmly to heel without pulling, sitting when asked and waiting calmly if you are busy or at the curb.

If your dog already shows a behaviour that is a problem, such as hiding during firework events, lunging at other dogs or barking at visitors, then ask your vet to refer you to a behaviourist. These behaviours are often signs that your pet is experiencing a negative emotional state (such as fear or anxiety) in particular situations, and a qualified behaviourist will be better able to develop a tailored treatment programme to resolve both the behaviour and any underlying emotional distress.

The UK's Animal Behaviour and Training Council has produced information on different activities in the area, including role standards for veterinary behaviourists, clinical animal behaviourists and animal training instructors. You can find more information about role standards at http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/practitioner-standards.html

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