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Improving the Ounce of Prevention

Report concludes veterinarians can do more to help clients with pet behavior problems

Report concludes veterinarians can do more to help clients with pet behavior problems

They vaccinate pets to prevent rabies. They dole out strong medicine to fight heartworm and other parasites. But a recent report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association concludes that veterinarians can and should do more to prevent and combat a different kind of animal epidemic: pet relinquishment and euthanasia.

“The role of veterinary practitioners in reducing dog and cat relinquishments and euthanasias” (Vol. 220, No. 3) focuses on how veterinarians can help clients deal with behavior problems before they lead to relinquishment. The authors write that the human-animal bond should be of great importance to veterinarians for both ethical and economic reasons, but that vets could do more to help preserve that bond. After all, they often have the most contact with those whose relationships are on shaky ground: A recent regional study of shelters indicated that 70% of surrendered dogs and 50% of surrendered cats had been taken to veterinarians at least once during the year before relinquishment.

Veterinarians are uniquely positioned to intervene in problematic human-animal relationships, the researchers argue, not only because they counsel pet owners on a daily basis but because they have what sociologists term “Aesculapian authority.” Named after Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, the term is used to describe the influence that accompanies the ability to heal in human cultures.

“Counseling clients about pet behaviors perceived as problems by owners and continuing the emphasis on neutering are probably the most effective means by which veterinarians can influence the number of dogs and cats surrendered to animal shelters today,” the researchers write.

The top behaviors listed as reasons for surrender in the regional study were inappropriate elimination and aggression; researchers note that veterinarians may be able to help in this area and provide clients with good information about housetraining because they are trained to distinguish between medical and behavioral reasons for elimination. A study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy—conducted in 12 animal shelters and published in the year 2000—indicated that nearly 32% of people surrendering dogs believed that rubbing a dog’s nose in his own mess would help housetrain him. Those with veterinary contact in the past year were slightly better informed, but “there was much room for improvement,” the researchers note.

Veterinarians should not assume that pet owners are knowledgeable about successful housetraining, the researchers write, adding that while performing puppy and kitten vaccination series, veterinarians should repeatedly inquire about the progress of housetraining. And since multi-cat households are more likely to experience problems with cats urinating outside the litter box, the researchers also suggest that vets proactively inquire whether the owners have or intend to acquire more than one cat.

© Bonnie Nance
The researchers also cited studies indicating that dogs with aggression problems who had been to a veterinarian in the past year were considerably less likely to be surrendered than aggressive dogs who had not seen a veterinarian. (But while the report suggests that this indicates veterinarians have been successful in helping owners deal with aggression problems, it fails to mention the possibility that owners willing to invest in vet visits also may be more willing to address behavior issues; in that case, the lower relinquishment rate would have more to do with owner commitment than with veterinary assistance.)

Neutering continues to be a factor in behavior-related relinquishments, the researchers write; the risk of relinquishment for sterilized animals is one half to one third that of sexually intact animals. And in the 12-shelter study, surrendered animals who had seen a veterinarian within the year preceding surrender were substantially more likely to be neutered. “Veterinarians clearly influence neutering decisions, but there is room for further improvement,” the researchers conclude.

The report also suggests other methods veterinarians can use to help their clients hold on to their animals, from offering puppy socialization classes to discouraging potential adopters from choosing a pet prone to certain health or behavior problems that may conflict with the owner’s lifestyle. The researchers also encourage the further incorporation of shelter medicine training into veterinary school curricula, and suggest the desirability of having veterinary behaviorists on staff at veterinary schools.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the report is the writers’ treatment of the sometimes troubled relationships between veterinarians and animal shelters. “The attitudes of some veterinarians toward animal shelters must change,” the researchers write. “Criticizing the local shelter ... because shelter cats have a higher frequency of upper respiratory tract infections is unhelpful to the shelter, its animals, and to prospective owners who may acquire wonderful companions from the shelter. ... Instead of criticizing the shelter, veterinarians ... can assist the shelter to minimize disease. Working with shelters, explaining the nature of these illnesses to clients, and treating these usually mild self-limiting infections will result in healthier pets and can save lives.”


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