Importance Of Behavior

November/December 2006 California Veterinarian

By Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB

Thursday, September 7, in a small animal practice somewhere in California . . . .

9:00 appointment: Harley, a 3 y.o. MC Labrador Retriever in for a recheck of otitis. Harley’s owner, Mrs. Reese, says his ears are no better, but she is having a hard time applying the medicine to his ears.

10:00 appointment: Sassy and Sissy, two 8-week-old kittens in for their first vaccinations. The other cat in the house, Frumpy, is having a hard time accepting them into the household and is hiding a lot and not eating.

11:00 surgery: Monty, a 6-month-old Toy Fox Terrier, is here for his castration. His owner hopes that it will calm him down.

12:00 lunch time: Over your sandwich you evaluate a urinalysis from Monkey, a 7 y.o. FS DLH with recurrent urinary tract inflammation that is unresponsive to medical management.

1:00 appointment: Ginny, a 12-week-old FS German Shepherd mix is in for her second series of vaccinations. She is very worried about being in the office and, when questioned, her owner says that Ginny runs away from the owner when they yell at her for urinating in the house.

3:00 product representative: You need to purchase a new set of restraint equipment, including muzzles and a catch pole.

4:00 euthanasia appointment: Mrs. Jones brings in Muffy, a 10 y.o. FS Toy Poodle with congestive heart failure. She thinks it is unfair to medicate Muffy since Muffy was her late husband’s dog who often bites Mrs. Jones.

6:59 emergency hit-by-car appointment: Frodo, a MC Border Collie mix, escaped from his yard again, but this time he wasn’t as lucky and was hit in front of his house.

What do all of these visits have in common? They all involve some aspect of behavior, and all influence how you practice in some way. It is clear that behavior is an important piece of the fabric of veterinary medicine. We need to be knowledgeable about the effects of behavior on welfare, stress and medical problems, and on the human-animal bond.

Four- to six-million dogs are relinquished to U.S. animal shelters every year, and approximately 55% (2.75 million) of them are euthanized every year – 5% of the U.S. canine population!1 This number does not include the estimated 224,000 dogs and cats that are euthanized in private practice every year for behavior problems.2 Problem behaviors are the number one reason for canine relinquishment, and are the second most common reason for feline relinquishment.3 If a new infectious disease were to come upon the scene and kill almost 3 million dogs per year, there would be a huge uproar from both veterinarians and owners to fix the problem.

Problematic behaviors affect different owners in different manners. Some owners tolerate serious levels of aggression from their dog for years, while others will relinquish their dog for growling one time. Some owners will keep a cat that sprays in their house 10 times per day, while others will euthanize their cat if it urinates one time in the house.

Veterinarians are often the people that owners first approach regarding these problematic behaviors. However, if an owner does not bring up the problem during an appointment, there is often a lost opportunity for helping that family unit if the veterinarian does not open these lines of communication. This in an opportunity for veterinarians to have a direct impact on the human-animal bond, and it is our duty as a profession to take this upon ourselves.

Veterinarians have the unique ability and duty to care for animals, which includes their mental health. We are the only ones that can DIAGNOSE problems and PRESCRIBE treatment plans. Veterinarians can also physically examine animals in order to determine if a medical condition is contributing to the behavior problem. We should be knowledgeable about preventing behavior problems with strategies on housetraining and socialization, as well as treating behavior problems. As veterinarians, we all have different comfort levels in treating problems, both medical and behavioral. Even if you did not have any veterinary behavior classes or rotations in veterinary school, this should not be an excuse for not knowing about it. If you graduated 10 years ago, you are likely using a lot of medical treatments that you didn’t learn in school. Continuing education, journals, and books are available for our lifelong learning in all aspects of veterinary medicine, including pet behavior modification.

In coming newsletters and communications, we will outline resources, guidelines, and goals for promoting behavioral health and well-being in our patients.


1.   National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy. Accessed

September 12, 2006.

2.   Patronek GJ, Dodman NH. Attitudes, procedures, and delivery of behavior services by veterinarians in small animal practice. JAVMA, 1999, 11:1606-11.

3.   Salman MD, et al. Behavioral Reasons for Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats to 12 Shelters .

Examples of Behavior Problems


  • Aggression (towards other animals or people)
  • Separation anxiety/adjustment difficulties
  • Housesoiling
  • Digging
  • Destructive behaviors
  • Barking/excessive vocalization
  • Jumping up
  • Timidity
  • Repetitive behaviors 


  • House soiling/urine marking
  • Aggression (towards other animals or people)
  • Digging
  • Destructive behaviors
  • Timidity
  • Repetitive behaviors

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