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Insights from a veterinary behaviorist

News
Article
Downtown Charlotte, NC

Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC, gives his expertise on canine and feline behavior cases

Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC, is the owner of Animal Behavior Clinic and co-owner of Instinct Dog Behavior and Training both located in Portland, Oregon. He sat down with dvm360 in an interview during the Fetch dvm360 conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. Pachel received his veterinary degree from the University of Minnesota in 2002 and became board certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists in 2010. While at the conference, Pachel gave several lectures focusing on veterinary behavior, as well as, a couple joint lectures in collaboration with neurologists, general practitioners, and animal care operators.

During this exclusive interview, Pachel shared his insight on behavioral cues for discomfort, medication for aggressive patients, and more. Learn more about Pachel in this Q&A style interview.

What got you interested in veterinary behavior?

Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC

Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC

I love this question. Truthfully, I got into veterinary medicine because of dogs and animals and a love for [all] critters. I got into veterinary behavior because of my clients. It was something I realized in hindsight, probably 10 years after I made the transition into specialty, that it was my clients and their needs and the human–animal bond, as well as, those families in crisis for behavioral reasons that really prompted me to start digging a little bit deeper and learning more. I started pursuing some additional continuing education and I got hooked and that was the beginning of the end of my general practice career.

What are some common body language cues indicating discomfort in dogs vs cats?

I love teasing apart body language, especially when we're looking comparatively between the species because in some animals, thinking about that comparison between dogs and cats, the same body part could be used to communicate something completely different. So as an example, if I'm looking at a cat, who is really comfortable in their environment, their tail is typically held straight up in the air with that little bit of a bob in it with almost like a little question mark hook at the top when they're comfortable. If we see a dog whose tail is held straight up in the air, especially if it's straight up vertical and relatively stiff, that's the opposite. Whereas with the cat, it typically means a willingness to interact and engage and social comfort. For the dog, it's often more associated with threats, or more of an assertive, maybe even hostile, sort of an emotional state. And so those 2 things, same body parts, same physician could need something very, very different.

And yet in other ways, if we look at things like a lowered posture, a bit of a crouch, maybe more of a slink with a lowered tail, for example—especially if we see those things in combination—those are actually relatively similar between dogs and cats. And both of those species indicate more of an emotional state of fear, anxiety, stress, often associated with avoidance or trying to move away from something that's making them uncomfortable.

So we've got similarities and differences, and you really need to understand the species that you're working with, in order to interpret those accurately.

How can certain medical factors impact behavior in dogs?

Medical factors can show up in a lot of different ways and they can be very, very specific in some cases. For example, if we have a dog that is developing Cushing's disease, and we're seeing that increase in cortisol and steroid hormones within the body, we often see that showing up as an increase in drinking water or an increase in appetite. So that is a direct physiological effect of that underlying medical concern.

Whereas in other cases, let's say osteoarthritis, or physical pain or discomfort, we may not see in all cases, an obvious change, but it may be an animal that's not sleeping as well overnight, and they're generally more irritable and their fuse is just a little bit shorter than it otherwise would be. And so it's more of a nonspecific behavior change—still very much occurring secondary to that underlying physical issue—but without that direct cause and effect correlation. So as veterinarians, we need to have that full understanding of both the direct and the indirect correlations, so that we know what to look for in our patients.

Can you give an example of a case in which you’d recommend medication for aggressive behavior modification?

If I'm thinking about an animal that shows up in my clinic showing aggression in some context—let's say it's a dog that is lunging, and barking at other dogs out in public, a very common condition. If we were using a label, we might call that leash reactivity. And for some of the dogs, if they were to actually have the opportunity to make contact with that other dog, there may be overt aggression and injuries as a result. Now, just looking at that particular pattern, I'm not going to automatically assume that medication needs to be involved in treatment. Medication is a part of what I consider to be the 3-pronged approach. We need to start out by saying, 'what do we want that animal to do in that situation? Or how do we want them to feel so that those aggressive behaviors are less likely to occur? How do we manage that dog in their environment, not only from a safety standpoint, but also so they're not practicing and rehearsing those patterns that are problematic for them and potentially even dangerous?'

Assuming we've done that to the best of our ability that's going to allow us to figure out is this an animal who's flexible in their behavior and how they show up in the world such that medication really doesn't need to be utilized?

Or do we have a dog who is refractory to some of those interventions? Maybe they've got really big feelings about that scenario and so they short circuit really quickly in that situation. Or maybe we're doing the work with management and training, but because of some underlying emotional influence, we're making really, really slow progress. So, in those cases, we may choose to use medication to mitigate some of that emotionality, not because that automatically changes the animal's behavior, but it's another way to get our foot in the door to reduce some of the effect of that emotionality so that the training and management is more likely to be effective.

How can behaviorists work with neurologists on complex cases?

I love collaboration with other specialists. One of the things that I love about being a behaviorist is that I get to know a lot about a narrow slice of what we see within veterinary medicine. And my narrow slice looks different from [Fred Wininger, VMD, MS, DACVIM (Neurology)]'s narrow slice. And it would look different from a dermatologist or an anesthesiologist or even from a general practitioner's. But we're focusing on different elements of the profession and so working in collaboration allows me to say to my eye, based on my case population, these are the things that stand out to me. Dr Wininger, as a neurologist, is going to say, 'and, you're not wrong, but here's another piece that you may not be thinking about because of this little motor pattern, or because of the the conditions under which this particular pattern is occurring. You may not know it, but here's a neurologic condition that's really common in toxins, for example, or in French bulldogs, that would really help us to understand why that behavior is changing, or why that's occurring in that scenario.' So I get to be an expert, he gets to be an expert, and together we get to add multiple layers to those conversations.

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