Do veterinarians have a behavior problem?
The more our society turns to pets for comfort and caring, the more pet owners identify problems with their behavior. That’s why veterinarians who specialize in behavior are becoming an increasingly popular addition to the cache of specialists at our disposal.
Meanwhile, many veterinarians in general practice seem to reserve a certain level of barely grudging respect for those who elect this “softball” field of practice.
A surgeon? Worth referring my patients to for things I can't do.
An internist? If I can’t figure it out I guess my patients deserve another set of eyes.
A behaviorist? Puh-lease.
Now, this is a sweeping generalization, of course, as not all vets roll their eyes in response to behavior medicine (even fewer would admit to it). But the number of vets entering this specialty speaks to the reality of the demand for it: low. As a service that relies on referrals from general practitioners, that means low interest from within the profession.
And that would be OK as long as our clients were getting the services they needed. Instead, it’s my opinion that few of us provide good comprehensive behavior services to our clients.
I know I don’t. When I have a challenging behavior issue I’ll either work with a trainer or I’ll refer to a veterinary behaviorist (ninety minutes away, unfortunately). I can’t possibly do these cases justice. Why? I haven’t sought the additional training necessary to give me confidence that I can do so.
Sure, vets should keep up with the basic and emerging issues in this subset of medicine, especially given the extremely common nature of behavior issues, but that doesn’t mean we do so on par with, let’s say, new approaches to gum disease.
And that begs the question: Why? Is it merely the smushiness of behavior, as it compares to the satisfying crunch of cardiology and ophthalmology (for example)?
I think it’s more. Honestly, I think it comes down to dollars and cents — as in, fewer of each. Considering the time spent in dark conference rooms getting versed on new issues in veterinary medicine, behavior seems less likely to earn its keep.
After all, behavior medicine takes time, patience, excellent client communication skills and yes, all the soft stuff we often like to avoid if we can. And then there’s the issue of profitability. A cat bite abscess? I can bring in $300 in 30 minutes with about $100 in supplies. An anxious dog with severe thunderstorm phobia? 30 minutes isn’t enough to do it justice. And $200 is far and away more than most are prepared to pay. See what I mean?
Nonetheless, we do our patients and our clients a disservice when we’re not well-trained in the basics or when we fail to refer cases that are deserving of a specialist. This is one area where vet medicine might need to get some remedial training.
Dr. Patty Khuly