Pet therapy and behavioural medicine for animals are on the rise. Are such services right for your practice? By Rachel Smith
Once upon a time, veterinarians who suggested that animals might have feelings like humans do, or even suffer mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, would be laughed out of the room. These days? Not so much—in fact, such notions about animals and their behaviour are considered increasingly outdated. You only have to look at the popularity of shows such as My Cat from Hell or Harry’s Practice to see just how important an animal’s emotional health is for pet owners.
And it seems vets are starting to get the memo, with animal behavioural lectures some of the most well-attended sessions at veterinary conferences nationally and internationally, says registered veterinary specialist in behavioural medicine Dr Kersti Seksel, from Sydney Animal Behaviour Service in Seaforth.
“I think it’s just the natural evolution of understanding that veterinarians have always looked after physical health, but now we recognise that an animal’s emotional health and wellbeing is really important,” she explains. “More animals get euthanised every year because people have unrealistic expectations about a pet’s behaviour—but now we’re able to treat them more. We’re able to manage a lot more of these animals than we used to.”
Melbourne-based animal behaviourist Dr Robert Homes agrees. “Although the traditional setting [of a veterinary practice] has been dealing more with the medical side of things, the clients are the drivers in this: they want and need us to provide answers. When I first started out, I wouldn’t dare to use the word ‘emotion’—I’d be told to go and wash my mouth out for being anthropomorphic! Now, there’s a whole swag of neuroscientific evidence for emotional systems in the brain. Behaviour is really the basis of veterinary practice, and a window into the animal’s feelings.”
Australian pet owners spend a whopping $12 billion annually on their pets, according to a 2016 report by Animal Medicines Australia—so it’s no surprise the demand for behaviour and mental health services is on the rise. That said, is there an argument that such services wouldn’t be cost-effective at many practices? Dr Holmes says no. “I don’t think the socio economics are as important as the bond. Some people who are really struggling to make the consult fee are just devoted to their pets and will do whatever is necessary.”
What do animal behaviour services involve?
There’s a range of behavioural services a vet practice might consider offering—from pre-pet selection counselling and workshops on behaviour modification, to individual training sessions with qualified trainers. Puppy Preschool and Kitten Kindy programs, which were developed by Dr Seksel in the early 1990s, are also worthwhile options.
“An American study several years ago found that the average veterinary practice which doesn’t incorporate things like puppy pre-schools and kitten kindies or offer behavioural advice, are losing up to a quarter of a million dollars a year,” says Dr Seksel. “I think vets recognise it as a growth area, because you’re actually looking after the wellbeing of that puppy or kitty from the minute it walks into your hospital. We can recognise anxiety and fear in puppies as young as eight weeks of age, and they don’t grow out of it, so if we can step in at the early stages of an animal’s development, it can make a huge difference to their quality of life.”
Integrating behavioural services into your practice
The American Animal Hospital Association suggests veterinarians make the animal’s wellbeing key in the practice’s culture, implementing systems such as low-stress handling of animals and having separate waiting areas for cats and dogs, if possible.
“When I first started out, I wouldn’t dare to use the word ‘emotion’—I’d be told to go and wash my mouth out for being anthropomorphic.”—Dr Robert Homes, animal behaviourist
It’s also about proactively looking for signs of anxiety and managing the emotional wellbeing of that animal better, says Dr Seksel. “People often feel their pets are part of the family and want the best healthcare for their pets—both physically, and in terms of their emotional wellbeing.”
She advises a team approach, where everyone—the receptionist, animal attendant, veterinary nurse, vet—is looking after the animal. “Also, it’s important to ask questions such as ‘how does the animal behave at home?’”
Bringing a specialist in on a regular basis or expanding your practice with a full-time behavioural specialist are also options, says Dr Holmes. “You can offer behavior in different contexts. I’m very happy to be an adjunct to veterinary practices, and although I don’t travel as much as I used to, I offer a brief behavioural consulting service with practicing vets. I also think vets with membership from the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) would be a very useful part of a progressive practice team.”
The education side of things
There’s also something to be said for expanding the training of veterinary students, adds Dr Holmes. “It’s usually once you finish your training and start handling a problem as a vet or a nurse or a dog trainer that you realise, ‘Hey, this behavior is important. What’s driving it?’ Of course, what’s driving it is the emotional side for the animal. The feelings, the pain. I think this should be part of the whole practice, from a holistic point of view.”
Dr Seksel agrees. “Veterinary students are taught husbandry and maybe a bit of animal behavior, but they’re not taught behavioural medicine, so they struggle when they graduate.”
For vets in practice wanting to know more, she’s a huge fan of conferences. “As well as giving lectures, I also go to a lot of lectures and listen to other specialists in the field. Lots of vets I’ve talked to say this can be life-changing. It can really make you think about how you’re going to practise medicine.”
Vets who are serious about specialising in behavioural medicine can also look at doing an internship or a residency and become fellows of ANZCVS. The American College of Veterinary Behaviour as well as the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine also offer residency program. “The average residency takes between three and five years,” says Dr Seksel. “You have to see at least 300 cases under the supervision of the registered specialist, and you also have to do research and publish in peer review journals. It’s a lot of work, but worth it.”
Especially if that adds up to a stress-free veterinary team, more loyal clients and a lot of happier pets.