Ask The Expert

October 10th 2018

(Featured in February 2017 veterinary publication ‘Companion’)

  • Fear aggression in the vet practice.   Personally I have seen how socials can make a massive difference especially in a young dog.  What is the best way to carry out a social and any top tips? 

 

When dogs are brought into the veterinary practice they experience some or all of the following: Invasion of personal space and restraint by unfamiliar individuals; unusual and aversive smells, noises and floor surfaces; pain (either delivered to them or already in pain when they are brought in); being placed up high on a table where they often feel vulnerable; separation from their owner; exposure to other stressed animals; poor recovery from GAs (disorientation etc). In other words, the veterinary practice becomes associated with a bank of negative experiences and ‘trigger-stacking’ occurs (this is when too many stimuli that a dog is sensitive to occur in a short period of time without sufficient time in between for the dog to recover).

Bringing puppies into the veterinary practice to build positive experiences and familiarity with the environment, smells, noises, floor surfaces and staff can help build some resilience to prevent the fallout from inevitable aversive situations that will arise. However, as with all habituation and socialisation experiences, it is vital that the puppy isn’t actually finding the experience negative. This will mean going at a pace specific to that individual in terms of introducing them to the veterinary practice. Attempts to introduce a puppy to the practice whilst it is finding the whole experience overwhelming or frightening will have the opposite effect to what is intended in that the pup may actually become sensitised! Likewise, socials with other puppies in the veterinary practice can be a great way of introducing some puppies to the veterinary environment, but for others it can be too overwhelming and it is vital that any puppy parties or socialisation classes held in the veterinary practice are run by appropriately qualified members of staff – these should never be a ‘free-for-all’ romp around but instead be a calm, quiet affair where puppies are setup to succeed and learn to be calm and relaxed in the presence of unfamiliar people, other puppies and in the veterinary environment. Fallout from badly run ‘free-for-all’ style puppy parties is common and some of the side-effects may be that puppies actually become too frenzied to handle or examine, or may be even more worried about the veterinary practice due to finding the whole experience overwhelming or even frightening.

 

  • Castration: What are your current thoughts on age of neutering and its impact on behaviour in dogs and cats? Why doesn’t anyone considers its effect on cats?!

 

The APBC has produced two excellent information sheets on castration risks and benefits in dogs (http://www.apbc.org.uk/system/files/private/apbc_summary_sheet_of_castration_risks_and_benefits.pdf) and neutering risks and benefits in bitches (http://www.apbc.org.uk/system/files/private/apbc_summary_sheet_of_spaying_risks_and_benefits_bitch.pdf) which I would highly recommend every veterinary practice circulate amongst staff. These handouts outline what questions to ask clients before booking the dog in to be neutered, to gauge when it might be appropriate to neuter the dog. Testosterone is a confidence-increasing hormone so in anxious or fearful individuals castration may not be appropriate – referral to a qualified behaviourist would be advised in order to address the underlying behavioural issues instead. Testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone are reported to have anxiolytic effects, possibly through stimulation of release of oxytocin and opiods – this effect may be lost with gonadectomy. In addition, the stress of the neutering process can have a detrimental effect on some individuals. So for dogs, there isn’t any one-rule that fits-all in terms of age of neutering or indeed whether to neuter at all.

The most recent research on the behavioural effects of neutering in cats suggests that there are no negative behavioural effects of early neutering (prepubertal gonadectomy) in kittens. However, the effects of stress in kittens that are homed, vaccinated and neutered within a short period of time should not be underestimated and the procedures should be separated if possible to minimize problems such as reduced immunity or increased adverse reactions caused by stress. Therefore neutering at least 2-3 weeks after the final vaccination would be sensible.

 

  • I find muzzles help prevent me being nervous around the aggressive dog. They then feel more secure as a result. Is this the right way to think? What are your thoughts?

 

Muzzles are an essential tool for safety of veterinary staff when dealing with a dog who is exhibiting aggressive signs. However, a dog will be showing such signs due to pain, fear or stress, so placing a muzzle on a dog who has either never had any experience of wearing a muzzle or whose only experience has been when already in pain/stressed at the vets will only exacerbate the dog’s stress levels. It will also condition a negative emotional response to the muzzle and this can create further problems when attempting to muzzle the dog in future. Therefore it is always preferable to train a dog to voluntarily put their nose into a basket-style muzzle, when they are in a positive emotional state (i.e. not when reacting aggressively at the vets). This is something that I always advocate as an excellent exercise for introducing in puppy classes. This also provides a great opportunity to educate owners on the benefits of muzzle-training their dog to prevent additional stress at any time a muzzle may be needed in their dog’s life. It is also worth emphasising that any dog in pain and/or frightened enough can resort to aggression in an attempt to repel the real or perceived threat. Basket-style muzzles allow a dog to pant fully, which is important when they are in pain and/or stressed.

My opinion regarding muzzles (and frightened dogs in general) is to only muzzle a dog and/or continue with examination if it is absolutely necessary. For example, if a dog is beginning to get distressed during a routine 6 monthly check, nail clip etc, muzzling a dog who isn’t muzzle-trained and persisting in restraint/clinical examination will exacerbate the dog’s behavioural response for future veterinary visits, as it will learn that its previous attempts to stop the handling were ineffective. No doubt at other times, use of a muzzle can speed up an essential process due to the clinician being more able, which in itself can make the whole procedure less stressful for the dog (and everyone else involved!).

 

  • Fireworks seem to be an all year feature – what’s the best advice? Build a den, turn on the tv, close the curtains and ignore their behaviour or drugs? What do you suggest?

 

 

In the short-term, common-sense advice such as keeping background noise high (TV or radio) and closing curtains will of course help drown out the sounds. Though when the equivalent of bombs are exploding outside your front door, there’s not a lot of drowning out that can be done.

Dogs may show a range of behaviours in an attempt to cope with fear induced by noises – some might hide, some will run around or pace, some might try to escape, some might try to seek reassurance from their owner.

One common piece of advice that seems to do the rounds near fireworks period is to “ignore your dog if they are exhibiting signs of fear during fireworks otherwise you will reinforce their fear!”. Ignoring a dog that is trying to gain comfort to reduce their stress and help them cope is counterproductive. Emotions cannot be reinforced. Imagine a child who is frightened of the dentist – if the parent reassures them and provides them with comfort this wont cause them to become more frightened of the dentist. Ignoring a fearful dog who is desperately trying to gain comfort from their caregiver may well cause them to become more stressed. The issue may be that the dog becomes reliant on the owner’s attention when it is scared, and this can create further problems in situations when the owner is not available to the dog. So in the long-term it is beneficial to teach the dog a different coping strategy (such as hiding) – but certainly in the short term, please tell owners not to ignore dogs who seek reassurance!

Dogs who choose to move away and hide, however, should be left alone. A new den has to be introduced when there are no fireworks and should be available to the dog 24/7. Dogs should also never be shut in their den (they must always have choice over leaving their safe space, otherwise it is no longer a safe place!). Ideally a den should be created in an area where the dog currently chooses to hide, but making it more comfortable and associated with a bank of positive experiences. A common human error is attempting to create a den where the owner wants it rather than where the dog does! If the dog doesn’t naturally choose to hide, then it will take time to encourage use of a den.

Desensitisation (DS) and counter conditioning (CC) to noises takes months and should not be attempted in the run up to fireworks period (this is another common piece of advice that is incorrectly given). Some dogs are very sensitive to recorded noises and react fearfully even when played at the lowest volume. Continuing to play the noises at this volume will therefore continue to sensitise the dog rather than desensitise them. Other dogs don’t pay any attention at all to the recorded noises on the highest volume, despite being incredibly sensitive to real-life noises. So even the process of DS and CC is not straightforward and is best done under supervision of a behaviourist.

Anxiolytic medication may be prescribed in the short-term for an impending firework period, but behavioural modification programme should then be implemented prior to the next firework period. Long-term medication may be required to support a dog but again this will need to be prescribed alongside behavioural advice.

 

  • What’s the best way to reduce stress in cats with idiopathic cystitis?

 

It depends on what is causing the stress! Cats diagnosed with idiopathic cystitis require a full behavioural consultation in order to identify potential stressors (which may be chronic and/or acute), which is likely to take far longer than staff have in a standard veterinary consultation. A full history needs to be obtained and a timeline produced in order to recognize triggers, which can often be complex. The home environment also needs to be explored in some detail. However, first-aid behavioural advice can certainly be provided to prevent the problem from developing further whilst the referral process takes place and until a behaviourist is able to see the owner and cat.

Firstly, ensure that there are plentiful resources for the cat and that they are well distributed around the house (resources include feeding locations, water bowls, litter trays, scratching posts, sleeping locations). The general rule to work out how many one owner may need is one of everything per cat in the home, plus an extra one. These have to be placed in separate locations, not placed next to each other. Also ensure that different resources are not placed next to each other.

Cats who have (or still are) experiencing pain when using the litter tray can often form a negative association with the tray (tray type, litter used, location etc) which causes them to avoid using the tray. Pain relief should always be considered which will help prevent ongoing negative associations with the litter tray.

Enquiring about the number of places the cat has available where they can hide and get up high, and ensuring that the cat has access to such places within each room of the house is sensible. Climbing and hiding are part of a cat’s coping strategy when they feel threatened.

Querying whether a cat has everything it needs within its core territory (i.e. within the home) so that it doesn’t need to venture outside in case of external threats is important.

Asking the client about possible acute stressors that they are able to identify may also then give you some ideas about what to advise to help the cat adjust to that particular stressor.

 

  • Do older animals become senile? Are any of the therapies designed to improve cognitive function in older animals actually help?

 

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is an under-diagnosed problem that affects a significant number of older pets. Research shows that CDS affects around 30% of cats aged between 11 and 15, and 48% of cats older than 15 years. In dogs, it has been shown that 14% over the age of 8 exhibit signs of CDS (where only 2% were diagnosed as having CDS by a vet), 28% of dogs aged between 11-12, and 68% of dogs aged between 15-16 exhibited signs. A decline in learning and memory can be demonstrated in dogs beginning as young as 7 years old, but clinical cases are seldom identified until the age of 11 years or older.

Changes in behaviour are often early indicators of medical or other behavioural problems in senior pets, so vets face the difficulty of ruling out the influence of medical problems, sleep disturbances, anxiety, concurrent medications, and pain before a diagnosis of CDS can be made.

There are several options for treatment of CDS, although many therapeutics have not been adequately researched. There are various dietary supplements, nutritional interventions and nutraceuticals that are available to help reduce ongoing decline and improve cognitive function, particularly where mild cognitive impairment is shown. One senior diet for dogs improves antioxidant defence so reduces the negative effect of free radicals, whilst another contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which has various beneficial effects on an aging brain. As far as I am aware, cognitive diets for cats have not yet been developed. Supplements containing a membrane phospholipid have also been shown to improve clinical signs of CDS, and these are also available for cats.

Early intervention is likely to be most beneficial. Greatest improvement is shown when behavioural support is provided and when diets and supplements are started prior to the onset of behavioural decline. Psychoactive medication may also help improve the animal’s quality of life alongside behavioural advice.

 

  • Do pheromone diffusers for dogs and cats work – when should we be using them?

 

Lots of research shows benefits of Adaptil in dogs and Feliway Classic in cats. Feliway have recently launched a new product called Feliway Friends which is designed for multi-cat households, to help reduce conflict and when introducing a new cat into the household. Feliway Classic is marketed at supporting cats with fear or stress, toileting or spraying issues.

As with psychoactive medication, pheromonatherapy should be used as an adjunct to behavioural therapy in order to address the root-cause of the problem. Clients will often have tried pheromonatherapy prior to a behavioural consult in the hope of a quick fix, and then be reluctant to try it again in combination with a behaviour modification programme due to the cost that has already been expended. There are also welfare issues to consider when clients have delayed seeking professional help and attempted to solve a problem solely with pheromonatherapy.

Critics of pheromonatherapy claim that we do not know enough about scent or pheromone detection in animals to be messing around with introducing it into the home environment. Certainly in my experience some dogs have been known to show unusual and concerning behaviours in direct response to Adaptil that stopped as soon as the Adaptil was removed.

Responses to Adaptil and Feliway appear to be very individual. They can be advised for preventative measures (e.g. moving home, introducing a new pet, introducing a baby etc) alongside other advice, but where advise is required for behavioural problems I would refrain from recommending it unless in conjunction with a behaviour modification plan.

 

  • What are your thoughts on the behaviour part of the university curriculum?  Are there any courses that are excelling in their preparation of young vets on how to manage animal behaviour in practice?

 

Unfortunately I am not familiar with all the veterinary schools curriculums or the quantity or quality of the behaviour units at each university. Behaviour should be an integral part of the whole curriculum, where each individual unit covers the link between physical disorders and behavioural symptoms. Information should be incorporated into all undergraduate degrees so that vets are equipped with adequate knowledge to provide appropriate first-aid advice to clients whilst arranging for referral, rather than providing no advice or detrimental advice. Animals under a veterinarian’s care should also be handled and cared for appropriately to reduce stress. Unfortunately there is limited time to cover behaviour thoroughly at undergraduate level; however, there are a number post-graduate options available for those wishing to further their knowledge in behavioural medicine.

 

  • How do we know who is appropriate to refer behaviour cases to, and how do we know when to refer?

 

There is no regulation in the behaviour industry at the moment, which means absolutely anyone can call himself or herself a trainer or a behaviourist (and they do!). This can have severe welfare implications for the animals involved. The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) is the regulatory body that represents trainers and behaviourists to both the public and to legislative bodies. It sets and maintains the standards of knowledge and practical skills needed to be a trainer, training instructor or animal behaviourist, and it maintains the national registers of appropriately qualified professionals. It promotes the welfare of animals in their interactions with humans, lobbying for humane methods in training and behaviour modification, and for the education of the animal-owning public. The Council is referenced in a Defra guidance manual as the place to find qualified trainers and behaviourists.

Excellent advice on identifying good practice in dog training and behaviour can be found at www.dogwelfarecampaign.org

Any obvious emotional disorder should always be referred to a qualified behaviourist, and the sooner the better! Encouraging owners to seek help as soon as unwanted behaviours become apparent will massively improve prognosis.