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What is a Veterinary Behaviorist?

By Christine D. Calder DVM DACVB | Jan 01, 2020

How common are behavior problems in animals?

It is believed that more pets lose their lives to behavior problems than any other illness. In fact, behavior problems are the number one reason dogs and cats are often surrendered to animal shelters and/or rehomed every year. Unfortunately, even with the known prevalence of behavioral problems, over 25% of veterinary schools still do not require or even offer behavior elective courses as part of their curriculum, leaving some veterinarians uncertain and/or unprepared to recognize, treat, manage, and prevent behavior problems in their patients. This is where consulting with, or referring to, a veterinary behaviorist can be helpful.

Are veterinary behaviorists veterinarians too, and why should I take my pet to one?

Yes-Veterinary behaviorists are licensed veterinarians; however, these specialty trained veterinarians receive extensive training past veterinary school to help them understand and recognize normal and abnormal behaviors in all different species of animals. Veterinary behaviorists can diagnose medical conditions that may be causing or contributing to a problem behavior and prescribe medications when needed. In addition, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist understands how animals learn, what shapes behavior, how to modify behavior, how to change emotional states through behavior modification and prevent behavior problems.

Working as a team, the veterinary behaviorist, along with your veterinarian, can help you understand what motivates your pet’s behavior, create a management and treatment plan to not only improve behavior but also improve welfare and quality of life for both you and your pet.

What does it take to become a board-certified veterinary behaviorist?

• 4 years of veterinary school

• 1 year of an internship after graduation or at least 2 years in general practice

• 3 years, minimum, of a residency under the supervision of a Diplomate, of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB)

• 400 supervised behavior cases (during their residency)

• 3 case reports that must undergo a rigorous committee review to pass

• Research published in a peer reviewed scientific journal

• A comprehensive examination that takes 2 days covering behavior topics in all species of animals.

How many veterinary behaviorists are there?

To date, only 86 veterinarians worldwide have completed the process to become a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) with the numbers growing each year.

What type of behavior problems do veterinary behaviorists treat and what are the most common problem behaviors seen in dogs and cats?

In dogs, fear-related behaviors, including aggression, are probably the most common problem behaviors that veterinary behaviorists diagnose and treat. These dogs can be aggressive on leash, have a bite history, aggressive to other dogs in the household, and/or fearful at the veterinary hospital. Other common presenting complaints in dogs include separation anxiety, house-soiling, compulsive behaviors (chasing tails, barking, shadow or light chasing, and pica), along with noise and storm phobias. In cats, elimination outside the litter box followed by aggression between familiar or unfamiliar cats, aggression towards familiar and unfamiliar people, and fear at the veterinary hospital are probably the most common presenting complaints. In addition, cats can also display separation anxiety, compulsive disorders (i.e. eating non-edible objects, wool sucking), and noise phobias just like dogs. Other species of animals can have common problem behaviors too like cribbing (horses), self-trauma such as feather picking/plucking (birds), and various fear-based behaviors that may or may not result in aggression.

What should you do if you think your pet has a problem behavior?

The first step with any behavior problem is to make an appointment with your pet’s regular veterinarian. They will examine your pet, rule-out potential medical conditions that may be contributing to, or causing, your pet’s behavior and run the necessary diagnostics (blood work, thyroid panel, diagnostic imaging) needed to properly diagnose your pet. Once your veterinarian has a working diagnosis, a treatment plan can be created and, at that time, you and your veterinarian can decide if referral to a veterinary behaviorist would be beneficial, or if your veterinarian is comfortable treating your pet himself.