Now that we’ve discussed veterinary nutritionists, it’s time to discuss what I consider to be the second the most underutilized specialty group in veterinary medicine: veterinary behaviorists.

But first, the obvious question: What exactly is a veterinary behaviorist, and what does such a human do?

Think of this kind of veterinarian as essentially the equivalent to a human psychiatrist. Here’s a doc that can identify physical issues and distinguish them from psychological problems. A behaviorist can also identify courses of treatment that include behavioral remedies and provide pharmacological alternatives.

A veterinary behaviorist is typically not a great "trainer." Just like human psychiatrists are not always great at sitting you down for a series of long talk therapy sessions (most just won’t do this anymore), veterinary behaviorists are more adept at recognizing and treating problems by prescribing courses of action––but not necessarily by doing it themselves. What they can tell you is what type of training program your pet needs.

Common conditions for which veterinary behaviorists are sought include the more severe forms of the following behavior problems/diseases:

  • Separation anxiety (especially of the destructive variety, but all forms qualify)
  • Obsessive compulsive disease (where animals may literally lick, chew, or scratch the flesh from their bodies, or run in circles till they drop)
  • Aggression (between dogs/cats, towards humans and/or against prey of all sorts)
  • Phobias (such as storm or noise phobias)
  • Cognitive dysfunction (old pet "senility")
  • Elimination disorders (pets with house soiling or litterbox issues)

As most of you are aware, the majority of these are extremely routine pet issues that general practitioner veterinarians deal with all the time. So why bother seeing a specialist for a teensy little housebreaking problem?

I guess you’d have to be in the shoes of either the unfortunate pet owner (whose house smells like a urinal) or her frustrated regular veterinarian (who’s tried every trick in the book and still can’t solve the problem) to know that intractable behavior problems often require the kind of skill you don’t easily find without an additional three years of residency and a practice that is 100 percent dedicated to solving them.

I’m not saying a behaviorist is always capable of curing every behavioral disease. They’re not. But in my experience, I’ve found they have a much better track record than I do. Too bad not every veterinarian considers their work worth informing you about.

So here’s where I ask you to arm yourself with this basic information and keep it in mind the next time Fluffy’s thunderstorm phobia means an entire night of quivering fear. Because diseases don’t have to be obnoxious or destructive to merit this kind of specialist’s attention.

Any behavior that leads to discomfort or a decreased quality of life is worth exploring through a veterinary behaviorist––that is, once your own veterinarian has already done all she, or he, can.

Dr. Patty Khuly