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My pet's misbehavin': Assessing behavior problems (Proceedings)


Behavioral practice requires many components.

Behavioral Practice Requires

Gather information

Make a diagnosis

Develop a treatment plan

Behavior modification

Environmental Management



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?

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

Communicate with persons familiar with the animal

Direct observation of the animal

Communicate with persons familiar with the animal

Client fills out history form

Direct interview

Client fills out form


Time efficient for practitioner

Client has leisure to think about answers, especially if filled out at home in advance


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


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


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

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

Specific categories of information


Problem Behavior

Current Environment

Early History


Other Behaviors



Breed, Gender, Age

All affect probabilities of specific diagnoses

Problem Behaviors

Chief Complaint

When did the problem begin?

When does the problem behavior occur?

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

What has been done so far to correct the problem?

Are there other problems?

Chief Complaint

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.

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?

When did the problem begin?

As a general rule, problems of long duration will be more difficult to resolve than problems of recent onset.

Problems of long duration are likely to have undergone progressive change. These changes may reveal pertinent information.

When does the problem behavior occur?

How often does the behavior occur?

You need to know the current rate in order to assess whether the animal is improving or getting worse.

Under what circumstances does the behavior occur?

Can the circumstances be avoided?

Does specific treatment of those circumstances need to be conducted?

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


Current Environment


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?




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?



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



Ever bred?


Had puppies/kittens?


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

Body posture/Communication by pet?

To Veterinarian/Technician

To Owner/Family

Where does the pet go?

Owner's lap?

Under/behind chair?

Investigates curiously?

Keeps walking towards you? (with tail up and direct eye stare?)

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


Demonstrate pet's ability to learn

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