An Interview with Dr. Jacqueline C. Neilson


This behaviorist sees a need for more education on animal behavior. "Abnormal or unacceptable behavior kills more pets each year than any other disease process...We need to make behavioral medicine part of the curriculum at every veterinary college."

Jacqueline C. Neilson, DVM, DACVB, is the owner of Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Ore., and a Veterinary Medicine Editorial Advisory Board member. She is the president of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association and is the coauthor of Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion: Canine and Feline Behavior.

What is the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?

The advancement in diagnostic and treatment options for companion animals. Tests and procedures that used to be experimental or reserved for special cases are now readily available to typical pet owners in their own communities. The availability of advanced imaging studies of the brain (e.g. MRI) is of particular interest to me in the field of veterinary behavior.

Dr. Neilson and her 5-year-old miniature dachshund, Sophie Rose. Sophie Rose's former owners relinquished her because of biting due to fear-related aggression. She now has her own fan club in the neighborhood and travels all over the country with Dr. Neilson.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

Two pieces of professional advice have served me well: "Never pass a dirty cage without cleaning it" and "Ask for forgiveness not permission." The first piece of advice reminds me that nothing is more important than providing for the basic welfare of the animals under my care and that everyone on the veterinary team is responsible for that care.

The second serves me well in situations in which I have to break outside the confines of the system to effect change. For example, once when I was caring for a dog with terrible separation anxiety, I had to attend some meetings in a building that didn't permit pets. I discreetly took him with me into the meeting hall in a carrier, and he spent the entire meeting quietly content at my feet inside the carrier—no one knew he was there, and he didn't experience a terrible treatment setback.

Who was your most memorable patient?

I tend to recall my most extreme patients, for example the dog with severe aggression, the dog with separation anxiety that actually ate through a wall, or the cat that saturated the home with urine. I also have special memories of patients I fostered and then rehomed, such as Archer, a 2-year-old neutered male miniature poodle with a housesoiling problem. He failed to respond to treatment, primarily because of a lack of owner compliance, and instead of opting for euthanasia, the owners relinquished him to me. After a month of successful remedial housetraining, I was able to place Archer with a lovely retired couple who adored him.

Who inspired you most in your career?

Dr. Ray Calkins of Wilsonville, Ore. He was my first boss, and he embodies what it means to be a veterinarian. He is skilled, enthusiastic, and dedicated, and he truly loves practicing veterinary medicine—both the animal and human components of the profession.

What would you advise a new graduate?

Always perform a thorough physical examination, regardless of the presenting complaint. There is no substitute for listening to, looking over, smelling, and palpating the entire animal carefully.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

Because of allergies to cats, I grew up only having dogs, which I adored. I managed to avoid most cat cases in veterinary school, and it was only in my first job that I started handling cats and adopting them. I fell in love. So now my home is full of cats, Kleenex, and a dog. Professionally, I am most intrigued by cats and their behaviors.

What book would you recommend?

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin because it is an insightful journey into the minds of animals.

What book are you reading now?

I just finished Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning, and I'm about to start A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena De Blasi. Novels are a great way to unwind after a hectic day.

What is you favorite film?

Lost in Translation because it is a delightful and beautiful story about the power of human relationships. Bill Murray has great comic sequences in it as well.

What part of your work do you enjoy most?

I love lecturing and conducting clinical research. Lecturing is satisfying because it is an opportunity to provide information to people who can make a difference in the lives of many pets and their people. Clinical research is rewarding because it allows you to pose a question, collect data, and discover the answer. Currently, I'm working on several projects regarding cats' litter box preferences.

What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?

One threat is a lack of participation in our professional organizations. Organized veterinary medicine provides an avenue for us to significantly impact public policy as it relates to animals. A lack of leadership or participation at every level (local to national) could have a deleterious effect on animals and our profession.

Which animal health needs are currently unmet?

Providing diagnostic and treatment advice for behavioral problems in many pets. Abnormal or unacceptable behavior kills more pets each year than any other disease process, yet there are fewer than 50 board-certified veterinary behaviorists in the country. We need to make behavioral medicine part of the curriculum at every veterinary college.

What changes in veterinary medicine do you hope will occur in the next 100 years?

I hope we continue to extend the expected life span of dogs and cats and we take some bold stances in the arena of animal welfare, such as outlawing cosmetic surgical procedures.

What is your sci–fi prediction for veterinary medicine?

We will be able to hook animals up to a machine that reads their thoughts.

What is the greatest achievement of your career?

Probably my greatest achievements occur in my behavioral referral practice when I restore a fractured pet-owner bond.

What makes a good veterinarian?

Good veterinarians never forget that they must treat both the animals and their owners.

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