The Importance of Veterinary Referrals
When owners contact an animal trainer or behaviourist for help with their pet, they are sometimes surprised that the behaviourist asks for a vet referral. Although most owners tend to agree to this and understand the reasons, some are reluctant to take their pet to the vet before a consultation.
Causes of a behaviour can often seem obvious to the owner, so taking their dog to the vet (and likely incurring a cost), seems like an unnecessary task. For example, if your dog is barking every time someone knocks at your door, then we just need to fix that, right?
Other owners have a stressful experience when taking their pet to the vet. Many cats, for example, don't like being put in a carrier and taken to a strange environment. This can put an owner off from bothering with what they feel is an unnecessary trip to the vet.
While these are understandable reasons for not wanting to visit your vet just for a referral, there are some very important reasons why doing so is essential before any behaviour modification is started.
Imagine this: you wake up one morning and notice that your back is stiff. No big deal – it'll probably wear off during the day. But then it lasts for a few days and gets sore; it begins to affect your mood. You start noticing you're being short with other people; you're grumpy and generally fed up with having to put up with the pain. A friend asks if you'd like to go for a run the next day.
Although you usually enjoy running, you put it off because your back is hurting.
It's easy enough for humans to explain to a friend or family member why we don't want to do something when we're experiencing pain. Unfortunately, for our pets, this isn't the case. They can't tell us if their hips are getting stiff or if something just doesn't feel quite right with their leg.
Pain can be a huge factor in the behaviour of an animal; it alters motivation (much like it alters our own), causes avoidance of normal behaviours, and can even cause defensive behaviours. You'll have seen an example of this if you've ever seen a dog who is usually gentle snap or growl when a human touches an area they are experiencing pain in.
With this in mind, we can start to see why a dog that has always been friendly with other dogs might begin to become aggressive or snappy with them if they are experiencing arthritic pain, for example. You might not have seen the physical effects of something like arthritis before your dog starts showing the behavioural signs associated with the condition.
Cats are also great at concealing their discomfort. A common cause of a cat avoiding its litter tray (when previously it always used it) is feline idiopathic cystitis – essentially a urinary tract infection. The cat will start to avoid the litter tray because, upon peeing, it experiences pain and starts to associate the litter tray with that pain. In this case, treating the litter tray avoidance would only be helpful to a certain extent because the underlying symptom needs veterinary treatment.
A recent study shows that pain was the cause (or influence) of 28–82% of cases presented to veterinary behaviourists in dogs taking part in the study.
Advice before treatment
Any advice a behaviourist gives before a veterinary referral can actually do more harm than good if the problem behaviour is due to a medical issue.
As an example, say that a behaviourist tries to help introduce a new puppy to a client’s household. The owner already has an older dog who may have arthritis. The older dog starts avoiding the places he usually feels comfortable in the house and becoming more withdrawn, because the new pup is running around (like puppies do!) .
So, a behaviourist advises the owner to make being around the new puppy fun for the older dog, not knowing that he's suffering from arthritis and will probably always be unwilling to give the new pup a chance when he finds it difficult to move around. No amount of treats in this case will fix the pain being caused by his stiff joints.
Situations like this can lead to even more problematic behaviours because the main cause of the behaviour is medically based and not being appropriately dealt with.
Veterinary treatment alongside behavioural advice
If a behaviour has arisen in your pet due to a medical issue, your vet might prescribe medication.Your behaviourist can then help solve any behaviours that linger after the medical issues have been treated.
For example, pets suffering from arthritis or other painful discomfort which alters their movement(having difficulty walking etc.) can often show adaptive changes in their normal behaviour.
Your cat might start learning to climb/jump in a different way, or your dog might learn to handle the stairs a little differently than he used to. These types of"adaptations" can linger long after the pain has gone away. A behaviourist who sees a pet in their home can then help offer advice on how to help your pet get back to their normal self.
With these points in mind, it's always better to both get that referral before a behaviour consultation so that the behaviourist can rule out a medical reason for the problematic behaviour AND have a vet working closely with a client, so if the issue is medical based, it can be handled from both a veterinary and behavioural side. Remember, a good animal trainer, animal behaviourist, or anyone working with pets at this level will ask you to get a referral before starting any training.