My pet has a behavior problem: What do you do now? (Proceedings)


A practical guide to dealing with pet behavior problems

Behavioral practice requires

  • Gather information

  • Make a diagnosis

  • Develop a treatment plan

     o Behavior modification

     o Environmental Management

     o Medication

     o Surgery

  • What do you need to learn?

  • What is the problem?

  • What factors in the environment contribute to the existence of the problem?

  • What factors in the environment may be important to the resolution of the problem?

     o How motivated are the owners to resolve the problem? (How much time, effort and money are they willing to put into treatment?)

Collection of information

  • Communication with persons familiar with the animal

  • Client fills out history form

  • Direct interview

  • Client fills out form

     o Advantages: Time efficient for practitioner, Client has leisure to think about answers, especially if filled out at home in advance

     o Disadvantages: Client may misinterpret questions and practitioner may not realize this as reviews answers, May miss opportunities for digressions into areas that are pertinent to understanding the case

Direct interview

  • Advantages: Information is likely to come out in conversational context that will not come out during written context, Many opportunities for practitioner to explain and interpret questions as history is collected

  • Disadvantages: Most time-consuming technique, Some clients will digress at length, May need excellent interviewing skills to keep interview "on topic"


  • Review history form that client has filled out

  • Develop list of questions that arise out of initial answers

  • Short interview

  • Using blended technique in general practice

  • During routine exam you are told, "Doc, my pet does X"

  • You quickly determine that there is not a five-minute answer to the question

  • Give history form to take home and fill out

  • May also give diary sheets to be filling out until returns

  • Make appointment to return for longer behavioral consult

Separate history forms for different species/problems

  • For cats with elimination behavior problems, you will want detailed information about management of the litter and the litterbox

  • For cats and dogs with problems of aggressive behavior, you will want detailed descriptions of as many incidents as the owners can recall.

General practice

  • Have a generic history form, by species

  • Have problem-specific forms for the problems that are commonly presented to your practice and that you are comfortable working with


  • Breed, Gender, Age

  • All affect probabilities of specific diagnoses

  • Problem Behaviors

  • Chief Complaint

  • When did the problem begin?

General description

  • Client is most interested in talking about this

  • Gives you information about what will be the most important topics of discussion

Specific description

  • You need empirical information

  • Ask for specific description of multiple incidents, beginning with the most recent.

  • Subjective information (clients tend to give)

  • "Rex gets mad if he thinks I'm going to disturb his dinner."

  • "Charley is jealous of the new kitten."

  • "Chelsea gets spiteful when I leave on a trip."

  • "Puff is afraid of my boyfriend."


  • What does Rex's owner mean when she says he gets mad if he thinks she's going to disturb his dinner?

  • Clarify terms: Aggression, Spraying, Urinating, Fear

  • "My dog has a problem with aggression"

Description of an incident of aggression

  • Who was present?

  • What was the victim doing immediately prior to the incident?

  • What were other individuals doing immediately prior to the incident?

  • Exactly what did the animal do?

  • What happened immediately after the incident?

  • Body posture/Communication? Ears? Tail? Eye stare? Crouch/Stand?

Spraying vs. urinating

  • When did the problem begin?

  • When does the problem behavior occur?

  • How often does the behavior occur?

  • Under what circumstances does the behavior occur?

  • Has there been a change in the frequency or appearance of the problem?

  • Problems of long duration may have gone through several permutations.

  • Environmental changes occurring at the same time may be significant

  • If it is getting worse or better, there must be a reason.

  • What has been done so far to correct the problem?

  • Has the client already attempted treatments you might recommend?

  • If so, with what success?

  • Have they attempted the treatment accurately?

  • What medications have previously been prescribed by other veterinarians?

  • What were the results?

  • Side-effects in this animal?

  • Are there any other behavior problems?

  • Develop a problem list

  • The pet may have other problems which the owner didn't mention because they considered them less important or untreatable.

Current environment

  • Humans

  • Other animals

  • Housing and Management

  • What persons are in the animal's environment?

  • Who does the animal routinely interact with?

  • What is the relationship between the animal and the various individuals it routinely interacts with?

  • What are the people's schedules?

  • Has there been a change?

  • What other animals are in the environment?

  • Species, Gender, Age,

  • Relationship with the animal with the problem?

Housing and management

  • Is there a fenced-in back yard?

  • How is the animal exercised?

  • Where is the animal kept during various times of the day?

  • Where are the litterboxes kept?

  • How often is the litter cleaned?

  • Where is the animal fed?

Early history

  • Source of Animal?

  • Stray? Breeder? Friend gave up pet?

  • Age when obtained?

  • Previous owners?

  • Any information about behavior at former household?

  • Why was pet given up?

  • Not likely to help current treatment, but may help owner understanding and thereby improve owner motivation and compliance with treatment protocol.

  • If a dog has a history of abandonment, the owner may better accept that its destructiveness is due to anxiety/arousal when left alone, and not due to "spite"

Training and learning

  • How was the pet house-trained/litterbox trained?

  • Dogs-Has the pet been taught basic obedience? How? How well does it obey commands now?

  • Dogs and Cats-Has the pet been taught any special commands or tricks?

Other behaviors

  • Sexual

  • Mounting?

  • Ever bred?

  • Maternal

  • Had puppies/kittens?

  • Grooming-Pet's response?


  • Illness, injuries or elective surgery around the time the problem began?

  • Previously diagnosed chronic medical problems?

  • Previous or current medication for the behavior problem?

Observations during interview

  • Where does the animal go?

  • Body posture/Communication by pet?

  • To Veterinarian/Technician

  • To Owner/Family

Direct exam by veterinarian?

  • Carefully consider what you have learned from the owner and from observation of the pet's behavior during the interview.

  • Is it safe to conduct any kind of direct examination?

  • Will it be useful?

  • Direct exam by veterinarian?

  • Eye stare?

  • Have the owner hold the leash

  • Learning?

  • Demonstrate pet's ability to learn

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