As we move headlong into the sixth month of contact restrictions related to COVID-19, I think that this is a good time to bring up three points regarding the care of clients and their pets with behavioral issues. First, behavioral problems, like medical problems in general, have not gone away. Second, changes in lifestyle are prime times for chronic issues to become more problematic and for new problems to arise. Third, contact restrictions have made it more challenging, but not impossible, to evaluate and successfully manage behavior problems.
The first issue is a reminder that we should all continue to strive to provide the highest quality of veterinary care for our patients. Not all clients will opt for any ideal treatment plan, but it is still our job to provide them with a clear and complete list of problems (including behavioral ones) that we have identified in their pets, and the best options to deal with those problems. In these days of parking lot exchanges of pets for veterinary care, doctors, technicians and support staff still have the ability to see and identify pets that are distressed, either by their clinical adventure or by life in general. In these cases, whether your hospital chooses to embrace Fear Free™* or not, reducing the anxiety and distress in patients has been shown to improve seemingly unrelated clinical outcomes and improve client compliance, satisfaction, and return visits. Adding a simple one-page behavioral questionnaire to the check-in process can allow us to identify behavioral issues that may be evidence of a medical problem or warrant treatment on their own.
Any change in lifestyle has the potential to disrupt a pet’s world. Not only can working from the home lead to increases in attention-seeking behavior at times that are not desired by the owner, they can disrupt the social interactions between animals in a multi-pet household, resulting in aggressive encounters and even emergence (or worsening) of house-soiling. Although social changes can be problem-inducing for any pet, this may be particularly problematic for feline pets. Re-emerging from being homebound may often be a relief for humans, but could also lead to separation-related behavioral problems in pets.
Diagnosis and treatment of behavioral problems is still something that we need to address in the COVID-19 environment. In most states, providing veterinary care for a pet involves establishing a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship. A model for this care mirrors what we do for emergency and routine veterinary visits and involves completion of a species-specific behavioral history form, a drop-off physical and behavioral examination of the patient(s) involved in the problem, collection of laboratory data and any adjunctive evaluation (e.g., videos of behavior at home), and then a consultation with the pet owner. Consultations can be done by telephone or video-conferencing, depending on client preference and availability and comfort with technology. The biggest challenge in treatment is client education related to behavioral modification techniques. For many people today, accessing and using online videos has proven to be a successful way to temporarily replace hand-over-hand training that we traditionally use in behavioral practice.
At BluePearl, our behavior service staff are always willing and able to discuss problem cases and the advisability and methods to get a patient behavioral referral.
* Fear Free™ training courses provide veterinary professionals, pet professionals, animal welfare communities, and pet owners with the knowledge and tools to look after both a pet’s physical and emotional well-being.