What is a vet behaviourist?

Ever find yourself scratching your head at some of your pet's behaviours? Why are they eating grass all of a sudden? Why are they barking at the postie every day?

Every behaviour has a reason, and as pet owners, it's our responsibility to understand and address these behaviours as effectively as possible. But it's not always so simple.

In the world of veterinary medicine, there's an unsung hero who's all about getting into an animal's head – the vet behaviourist. 

But what sets these professionals apart from the traditional veterinarian or a pet trainer? Dr Rachel Davis and Dr Leigh Davidson, two prominent figures in the veterinary community, elaborate on the remarkable role of vet behaviourists and why they deserve prominence in every pet owner's mind.

What is a vet behaviourist? 

A veterinary behaviourist is a specialised veterinarian who dedicates their practice to understanding, diagnosing, and treating behavioural issues in pets, primarily dogs and cats.

According to Dr Rachel Davis, a key distinction sets veterinary behaviourists apart from dog trainers or general animal behaviourists. While dog trainers focus on teaching pets basic behaviour cues and animal behaviour consultants offer insights based on varied education and experience, neither is equipped to handle complex behavioural problems or prescribe medications

Only a vet behaviourist with extensive training in animal behaviour and who has passed an examination process set out by ANZCVS Veterinary, and is qualified to diagnose serious behavioural issues potentially rooted in medical conditions, distinguishing them significantly from other pet professionals.

Echoing this sentiment, Dr Leigh Davidson emphasises that veterinary behaviourists possess advanced training to tackle a range of pet behaviours.

Their unique qualifications allow them to approach animal behaviour holistically, blending medical knowledge with behavioural science to improve the lives of pets and their owners.

What does a vet behaviourist cover? 

According to Dr Davis, vet behaviourists treat a wide range of behavioural problems in pets, including:

  • Separation anxiety 
  • Phobias
  • Aggression
  • Compulsive disorders
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Inappropriate soiling
  • Destructive behaviour

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as vet behaviourists are equipped to handle many behavioural issues that may arise in pets. They also work closely with other veterinarians and pet professionals to ensure comprehensive patient care.

Dr Leigh highlights the comprehensive care that vet behaviourists can provide beyond behavioural issues, such as:

  • Preventative advice: Vet behaviourists can guide how to prevent behavioural problems from developing.
  • Medication management: If necessary, vet behaviourists can prescribe medication to help manage underlying medical conditions contributing to a pet's behavioural issues.
  • Collaborative care: Vet behaviourists work closely with pet owners and other professionals to develop a personalised treatment plan for each case.
  • Lifelong support: Vet behaviourists are committed to providing lifelong support for their patients and their families, helping them navigate any challenges that may arise throughout the pet's life.
  • Education: Vet behaviourists also play a crucial role in educating pet owners and the public about animal behaviour, promoting responsible pet ownership and strengthening the human-animal bond.

In short, vet behaviourists are highly skilled professionals who go above and beyond to provide comprehensive pet care to improve their behavioural health. 

The knowledge and experience of vet behaviourists extend beyond primary pet care services. Dr Leigh explains that their role in the pet industry can have rippling effects, such as reduced pet surrender and euthanasia, improvement to quality of life for pets, contribution to animal behaviour research and public education, and service as a resource for veterinary professionals.

How are vet behaviourists beneficial for dogs? 

Vet behaviourists play a crucial role in enhancing the well-being of dogs by addressing and treating behavioural issues that can significantly impact their quality of life and their relationships with their owners or other animals in the home.

According to Dr Rachel, behavioural problems are among the top reasons pets are euthanised or given up by their owners.

Vet behaviourists can be game changers for dogs struggling with behavioural issues, or experiencing a sudden change in behaviour. Here's a look at some common ones they help with:

By tailoring behavioural modification strategies and integrating medication, vet behaviourists can significantly improve a dog's quality of life. They empower owners with the understanding and tools needed to support their pets effectively, enhancing the bond between dogs and their humans.

How are vet behaviourists beneficial for cats? 

Vet behaviourists can also offer significant benefits for cats. These professionals are exceptionally skilled in diagnosing and treating a range of behavioural problems, such as:

  • Inappropriate urination or spraying 
  • Aggression
  • Excessive grooming
  • Anxiety
  • Destructive scratching
  • Litter box issues
  • Fighting between cats in the same household

The expertise of vet behaviourists is particularly crucial because many behavioural issues in cats can be symptomatic of underlying medical problems. With their veterinary background, behaviourists are equipped to perform comprehensive evaluations, ruling out or treating medical conditions that could be contributing to the observed behaviours.

They can also provide guidance on environmental enrichment, which can significantly improve the overall well-being of indoor cats.

In essence, vet behaviourists play an indispensable role in enhancing cats' mental health and overall well-being, ensuring they lead happier, healthier lives as valued members of their human families.

What is covered by SPCA Pet Insurance? 

By partnering with vet behaviourists, SPCA Pet Insurance aims to promote pets' overall health and well-being across Aotearoa. SPCA Pet Insurance is there to help with those surprise vet bills you can't really plan for and helps to cover treatments for underlying medical conditions that may contribute to behavioural issues, relieving pet owners of the financial burden and allowing them to focus on their pet's recovery.