He may be a newly minted, fresh-faced veterinarian at an animal hospital that serves the tiniest of towns, but that veterinarian has a voice, and a duty, that can impact the profession, says Dr. Melissa Bain. “As veterinarians, each of us can affect the welfare of our pets, by incorporating behavioural techniques in our practices, and, in turn, helping owners to provide the best care at home.”

With the importance of animal behaviour growing in private practice, Dr. Bain’s presentation, “Welfare…It’s Not Just for Animals” was a highlight at the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention August 5-9 in San Antonio. Winner of the 2016 Leo Bustad Award in recognition of her work in animal behaviour and the human-animal bond, Dr. Bain is an Associate Professor of Clinical Animal behaviour and Director of Professional Student Clinical Education at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

“It may be difficult to find a specialist in animal behaviour, someone who understands behaviour modification, medication, training issues and phobias, for instance,” she said. “There aren’t many experts available in this field. However, local veterinarians should be trained to communicate with pet owners to uncover any negative issues that might be occurring and to provide some go-to resources to resolve common issues when he or she cannot refer.”

Veterinarians must be proactive and ask about potential situations like house soiling or vocalization because the client may not think or forget to inquire about such behaviours. And the longer the behaviours go unattended, the more difficult they are to resolve. Providing a list of qualified trainers in the nearby area can be an indispensible resource to owners.

Creating proactive veterinarians is a major focus of Dr. Bain’s position at UC Davis. She is devoted to equipping her veterinary students with knowledge beyond the books, to pushing them to address current or potential behavioural dilemmas and spending time up front with owners and asking the right questions—as well as providing the right answers, or at least some alternatives.

“We need to take a holistic approach in many situations,” she explained. “We can’t say ‘Here’s your dog. Surgery went well…have a great day!'” Veterinarians can inform an owner that their pet needs to spend six weeks in post-operative cage rest, Dr. Bain said, but that advice may be difficult to follow.

“Veterinarians have to compromise and understand the ideal vs. the reality in most, if not all, situations. We understand that owners have to take a pet out of the cage for bathroom visits, or to enjoy some lap time. We just need to tell them specifically how to do these things safely. . . to educate and guide them.” Suggestions like proper handling, relocating the cage or even sleeping nearby on the floor can go a long way in producing happy people, content pets and shorter recovery times, she said.

If it were up to her, Dr. Bain would like to see crate training become part of virtually every puppy’s protocol. As for their part, veterinarians as a profession should be incorporating training tips and confinement guidelines into their initial pet visit discussions. “Crate training ahead of time will dramatically improve a dog’s ability to cope with post-surgical confinement,” she said. “If a dog is used to being crated, it will be easier and less stressful on him to be confined for any reason in the future. The owner will have additional peace of mind as well.”

While it is impossible to remove the stress completely from an office visit or a surgical procedure, a veterinarian can do a much to reduce the amount of stress a pet experiences at the clinic. When it comes to stress levels, pets are much like their owners. “Our alarm may not go off, we miss our morning coffee, and we’re late for work,” explained Dr. Bain. “As we encounter just one more negative thing, our stress now goes from a Level Five to a Level Six. We feel as though we’re just done.”

To keep anxiety at bay, veterinary staff can create a low-stress atmosphere. Lights can be lowered in the examination rooms or soothing music can be played in the office. “We need to empower veterinarians to do these little things, because these simple things do make a difference,” said Dr. Bain. “Instead of an upset animal’s stress level skyrocketing, it may only go from a ‘one to a two’.”

“A human’s interaction with a pet is a very important way in which an animal’s life is enriched,” said Dr. Bain. “Some pets prefer to just be petted and handled instead of playing, especially as their physical ability to do so is decreased due to an illness or surgery or just to the natural aging process.”

When it comes to animal behaviour, there are vital techniques that can make a difference in a pet’s life. All can be taught by a skilled veterinarian and their staff. “Without a doubt, we need to focus on animal welfare and pet behaviour in our practices,” said Dr. Bain. “We just have to remember to seek out and share our knowledge with owners and say, ‘here’s what you need to do…and here’s how you do it.'”

The AVMA, founded in 1863, is one of the oldest and largest veterinary medical organizations in the world, with more than 88,000 member veterinarians worldwide engaged in a wide variety of professional activities and dedicated to the art and science of veterinary medicine.

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