Animal behaviour should be a core subject in vet school, say researchers

Researchers say there is little coverage of animal behaviour issues in veterinary education.
Researchers say there is little coverage of animal behaviour issues in veterinary education.

Veterinary behaviour medicine should be a foundation subject for vet students because of its wide scope for use in veterinary practice, according to researchers.

Olwen Golden and Alison Hanlon say private practitioners are likely to be the primary source of information on animal behaviour for most pet owners.

However, studies indicate that behavioural issues are not frequently discussed during companion animal consultations and many practitioners lack confidence in dealing with behavioural problems.

This, they said, was likely due to poor coverage of this subject in veterinary education.

The pair, writing in the Irish Veterinary Journal, said there was a need to identify what students needed to learn about veterinary behaviour medicine in order to be competent on the subject from the start of their careers.

The pair set out to investigate the nature and frequency of behavioural queries experienced by veterinary professionals in Ireland, the provision of behavioural services at companion animal practices, behaviour referral practices and challenges associated with providing a behaviour service.

They used two online surveys comprising 18 questions each, one for private veterinary practitioners and one for veterinary nurses.

The researchers found that fewer than half of companion animal practices offer behavioural consults and under a third of practices provided training and socialization events.

Over half of the practices surveyed had referred cases to a behavioural specialist.

“The majority of respondents encountered behavioural queries weekly,” they said.

“Ninety-eight percent reported receiving queries regarding dog behaviour. Toilet training and unruly behaviour were two issues encountered frequently.

“Behavioural issues in cats were also common. House soiling and destructive behaviour were the problems most frequently encountered by respondents.”

The two most commonly cited barriers to providing behavioural consultations were a lack of in-house or personal expertise, and that clients were not willing to pay for these services.

“Furthermore, over half of all veterinary professionals surveyed indicated that they had received inadequate undergraduate training in veterinary behaviour medicine.”

Golden and Hanlon said their findings identified an opportunity for improved provision of behaviour medicine in veterinary education.

It was found that over half of the private vets worked in a rural area, followed by urban and suburban practices. Of the vet nurse respondents, almost 80% worked in either urban or suburban practices.

For most respondents, the practice size was most commonly three vets and between 1 and 3 veterinary nurses.

The vast majority of vets saw equine behavioural issues less frequently than monthly, the stud found.
The vast majority of vets saw equine behavioural issues less frequently than monthly, the study found.

Dogs and cats were treated in almost all of the practices. Over half of the private vet practices treated horses, compared to 32% of the practices that had vet nurses.

While more than 98% of both groups had received queries on dog behaviour, just 13% of the vets said they had been asked about horse behaviour. Just 1% of the vet nurses who answered the questionnaire had received horse queries.

The vast majority of vets saw equine behavioural issues less frequently than monthly. Eleven vet nurses responded similarly, the majority encountering problems less often than monthly.

Four respondents said that they encountered stereotypies at a monthly frequency.

Golden and Hanlon said behavioural problems in companion animals can affect the quality of life of pets and their owners and have serious welfare implications.

“Our survey findings indicate that veterinary professionals frequently encounter queries about animal behaviour, but feel that their undergraduate training did not prepare them for dealing with these problems in practice.

“Furthermore, it highlights an opportunity to develop behavioural medicine within the veterinary education curriculum to facilitate the wider provision of behavioural services in veterinary practice.

“Whilst current day one competences for veterinary medicine include references to behavioural medicine, a clearly defined set of day one competences is required.”

Golden is with the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, which is part of Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Hanlon is an associate professor with the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College Dublin.

Towards the development of day one competences in veterinary behaviour medicine: survey of veterinary professionals experience in companion animal practice in Ireland
Olwen Golden and Alison J. Hanlon
Irish Veterinary Journal 2018 71:12

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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