When to refer patients to animal-behavior specialists

Great resources are available for those particularly challenging behavior cases.
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May 01, 2010

You may come across behavior cases that need an expert's touch or more attention than you're able to give. Here are some ways to find that expertise.

Trainers
Trainers are especially helpful for a pet that needs basic training such as learning to sit, come, or stay on command. A good trainer uses primarily reward-based training, doesn't insist a pet owner do anything unsound or dangerous (e.g., trying to force a dog over in an alpha roll), and is willing to work with other professionals to develop a plan that suits the individual. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) offers position statements regarding behavior professionals and how to choose a trainer.

Board-certified veterinary behaviorists
A pet with an anxiety-related problem (e.g., barking or housesoiling) or that poses a public-health threat (e.g., aggression) should be referred to an appropriate professional, preferably a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Behaviorists are licensed veterinarians who have undergone extensive training in behavior science, psychopharmacology, learning theory, and behavioral development. They're in the best position to recognize the complex ways in which medical conditions affect behavior and have a good understanding of how genetics and environment interact to contribute to behavior problems.

Although there still are too few veterinary behaviorists to serve every U.S. community, it is your professional duty to tell clients where the nearest diplomate is and allow clients to make informed decisions about their pets' treatment. Many clients readily will drive several hours to get the best possible care for their pets. Visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist's website at www.veterinarybehaviorists.org for help in finding a diplomate.

Veterinarians interested in behavior
Clients who cannot see a board-certified veterinary behaviorist should be given a list of nearby veterinarians who have an interest in patients with behavior problems. The AVSAB website (www.avsabonline.org) lists member veterinarians willing to see patients with behavior problems. Although the AVSAB is not a certifying organization, the individuals who join it are interested in veterinary behavior and have the opportunity to seek continuing education that provides them with the most up-to-date knowledge about pet behavior problems.

Certified applied animal behaviorists (CAAB)
A CAAB has two to five years of formal postgraduate training in animal behavior and has attained either a master's degree or a doctorate in the field. These professionals are well-trained to help counsel owners about pets with behavior problems, but because they're not veterinarians, they cannot make medical diagnoses or prescribe medications. They'll expect a pet has had a thorough physical examination before seeing it and will refer a pet back to its veterinarian if they think medication may be needed. Visit CAAB's website at www.certifiedanimalbehaviorist.com.

Technicians specializing in veterinary behavior
The Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians is another great resource for finding individuals dedicated to improving animal behavior. Visit their website at www.svbt.org, which also details what steps to take if you're a technician interested in specializing in behavior.