Behavior and misbehavior of the horse (Proceedings)

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Behavior and misbehavior of the horse (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2008

For decades after the discipline of psychiatry had been established as an accepted specialty, many medical schools continued to fail to train their students in the fundamentals of this discipline. That situation no longer exists. Medical students all have at least cursory exposure to psychiatric principles and basic psychology.

Unfortunately, the veterinary profession has lagged behind human medicine in the regard. Until recently, veterinary students received no training in animal behavior, and there were no available residencies within our schools for developing board-certified behavioral specialists.

That deficiency has now been corrected. Several North American schools offer residencies in behavior. Some schools still do not have any courses in animal behavior; of those that do, some are elective rather than mandatory. The problem with this is that the students who elect to take a course in behavior are those who least need it. They are already interested in the discipline, and even if they do not receive training as students, they are likely to pursue this interest after graduation and acquire a measure of expertise in it. The disinterested student, on the other hand, needs to be exposed to ethologic principles to become an optimally effective veterinarian.

I have long held the opinion that every veterinary student should be formally trained in rudimentary ethology and that proficiency in basic behavior-shaping methods should be demonstrated in state board examinations before a license to practice is granted. Why?

Each species of animal, including the wild ancestors of our domestic species, adapts to its environment in three ways, or it is doomed to extinction. These three methods of adaptation are anatomic, physiologic, and behavioral. Indeed, behavior is a physiologic function, enabling the species to survive and perpetuate its kind.

Even if the economic foundation of our profession were not companion animal medicine as it is today, I would feel as I do. Even if veterinary medicine were dependent on food animals and draft animals as was the case a century ago, I would still maintain that expertise in animal behavior is essential for the practitioner to best serve his or her patients and their owners.

Clinging to tradition and reluctance to take on new disciplines has cost our profession prestige and income in the past. Examples of this shortsightedness include poultry practice, artificial insemination, and physical therapy. Because we admitted behavioral science to our curricula belatedly, there are far more people in the field with degrees in zoology and psychology than there are veterinarians. Yet I maintain, the doctor of veterinary medicine is the best academically qualified behaviorists if that individual's training included a suitable course in animal behavior. I say this for the same reason that the best-trained human behaviorist is the person with a degree in medicine, a person who has gone on to obtain certification in psychiatry.

Why do I say this? There are several reasons.

Many behavioral problems are organic in origin. For example, endocrine disturbances commonly include behavioral aberrations as part of the presenting signs. The behaviorist whose training has included physiology, endocrinology, and pathology is best equipped to recognize and cope with such behavior problems.

Many problems respond to one or more of the wide variety of drugs now available to modify animal behavior. Obviously, only those individuals thoroughly schooled in the discipline of pharmacology can properly use such compounds, and many of the most effective of these drugs are available by law only by the prescription of a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine.

Of course, a mandatory course in ethology would not along prepare every practitioner to handle all cases. Referral to board-certified specialists would obviously be necessary, but without basic training, many veterinarians do not refer. They are unaware of the need for referral or of what can be dome to control and eliminate problems.

Although I have campaigned journalistically and as a speaker for veterinary behavior involvement, I am a bit dismayed by one aspect that has developed, and that is a tendency to rely too soon, and often exclusively, on behavior-modifying drugs. I should have anticipated this, because it happened in the human medical field. So many patients who could be helped with correct behavior-modifying techniques are kicked out into society today with a prescription that they may or may not take. The same tendency is happening in small animal medicine. It may be quicker and more profitable to sent the client home with medication for a pet with a behavior problem, but are we always rendering the best possible service by doing so?