Does the veterinary profession have a behavior problem?
In a recent editorial in Veterinary Medicine magazine, a California veterinarian named Dr. Robert Miller had a thing or two to say about the red-headed stepchild of the veterinary profession that is “behavior medicine.”
In it, he bemoaned the dearth of knowledge and available services at the high end of the spectrum—at all levels of the behavior spectrum, in fact.
While more and more veterinarians are availing themselves of advanced training in surgery, oncology, cardiology and even dentistry, behavior takes a back seat for its fuzz factor.
One only has to read the recent article in the July 13th edition of the New York Times Magazine to get a handle on why (see below for a link to my bash). Proof that pop cultural social commentary often runs afoul of the discipline.
Meanwhile, even those of us in the profession 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.
Internist? If I can’t figure it out I guess my patients deserve another set of eyes.
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 numbers of vets entering this specialty speaks to the reality: low demand. 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.
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 anatomy and physiology?
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 deserving of a specialist. As Dr. Miller argues, this is one area where vet medicine might need to get some remedial training.