Dr Leigh talks with Dr Joanna McLachlan from Pet Behaviour Vet about all things behaviour in this episode of “Ask Us Anything”.
Check out the video or read the transcript below. We hope you enjoy and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments section below.
Dr L: Dr Leigh Davidson Your Vet Online
DR J: Dr Joanna McLachlan Pet Behaviour Vet
Dr L: Hi everyone Dr Leigh here from Your Vet Online and I’m very excited today to be talking with Dr Joanna McLachlan.
Now Jo, Dr Jo is the chief veterinarian at Pet Behaviour Vet. She has got some further training in all things behaviour and so we’re pretty excited today to be having a little chat about all things behaviour
Okay so Dr Jo welcome to ‘Ask Us Anything’
Dr J: Thanks for having me
Dr L: Do you want to tell us a little bit about why you or how your interest in behaviour vetting came about?
Dr J: Well of course I had two dogs with behaviour problems a few years ago and so that that was quite interesting and quite an ordeal and quite sad and of course back then I didn’t know a lot about behaviour but that’s about my interest and got me researching and going to conferences and learning whatever I could about behaviour and the rest is history
Dr L: This true oh cool so you actually did some further training and you did your memberships in behaviour, didn’t you?
Dr J: Yep so I did lots and lots of study and sat some really, really difficult and stressful exams. It’s Australian and New Zealand Veterinary Scientists and now I’m a Member of the College which basically just means I know a lot about that particular field.
Dr L: Okay so your practice is only behaviour problems, now isn’t it? Like you’re not, you’re not actually doing your classical veterinary stuff?
Dr J: Yes so, we’ll just see animals that have behaviour problems so we generally have most of our cases referred to us by vet practices or dog trainers and we only treat the behaviour problem.
If we identify that there are other health issues they are always sent back to their vet.
Are Behaviour Problems Becoming More Prevalent?
Dr L: Okay all right so a common theme and a common question that is often asked is that it seems like behaviour problems are becoming more prevalent with our pets?
Is that a real thing or is that something that you know it’s just we as a society, we’re more in tune with mental health now?
Dr J: Yes, I think that there’s been a lot of debate about that but I think it all comes down to the fact that we now know that animals have feelings and they have the same very similar diseases to what we have as humans.
And the thing about veterinary science is we kind of lag behind human medicine by what probably a few decades so even in human medicine we’re only just recognizing that mental health issues are real, so luckily, we’re now not just sort of labelling dogs as just being aggressive or land sharks or naughty or whatever.
We’re actually looking at the actual underlying reason and a lot of the time, not always, but a lot of the time it’s because there might be some kind of anxiety.
Is Panting A Sign Of Anxiety
Dr L: Cool so Kelly here has got a little question what’s that?
“I would like to know about panting, and I’ve read that it’s a sign of anxiety but my Raffy pants all the time?”
Yep okay yep so I mean panting a big subject that could be so many things, couldn’t it?
Dr J: It might not be anxiety so if it’s a new problem any new change in behaviour you always need to go to your usual vet and have a check-up because panting can be a symptom of many health conditions including lung problems, heart problems and that kind of thing.
Dr L: Cushing’s disease yep yeah
Dr J: That’s right yeah hormonal problems and so yeah but if you keep a log and try and notice when your dog is panting more for example when it’s also pacing or worried or hiding or during storms or when anything is stressing the animal then panting probably is significant and it could be a sign that it’s anxious.
Dr L: That’s right so yeah write down when you notice it panting keep a little diary
Dr J: Diaries are great
Dr L: Yeah with all behaviour problems I think having keeping a diary of when strange or abnormal behaviour occurs that you’d have to say that’s one of the hallmarks of trying to work out whether it’s a behavioural issue or whether it’s a health issue
Dr J: Yeah that’s right and I usually ask most of my clients to keep a diary, most don’t but the ones that do it actually really does help particularly if there’s questions about what actually sets the animal off so if we don’t really know what all the triggers are then keeping a diary so that we can look back and notice patterns that could be really, really helpful.
How Do You Know Whether To See A Dog Trainer Or See A Behaviour Vet
Dr L: cool so one thing a lot of people tend to go to a dog trainer. We love dog trainers nothing wrong with them!
Dr J: I work with dog trainers
Dr L: Exactly, exactly so when do you know to go to a dog trainer verse a veterinarian for a behavioural problem?
Dr J: It’s complicated and even some dog trainers and some vets don’t know how to tell the difference so it can be really difficult.
Put simply if your pet has a training problem you see a dog trainer.
If your pet has a mental illness, and sometimes it’s hard to know if your pet does have a mental illness, so you need to go see a vet for a full screening consult to have a brief chat about what the issues are that you’re having.
But basically, if there’s any indication that there is panic involved or high anxiety or aggression then you almost always need to see a vet who has an interest in behaviour.
Some trainers are really, really good at dealing with some mental illnesses particularly but maybe not the more extreme mental illnesses because they almost always need that intervention.
Dr L: What’s an example of an extreme mental illness?
Dr J: So obsessive compulsive behaviour where they’re quite extreme for a dog that’s spinning and cannot stop that’s not a training problem.
You could train the dog to sit and not spin but it’s still going to have that urge to spin and that is a chemical problem in the brain.
Another example would be an extreme panic attack during a storm we all know those dogs that chew down the door, break through glass windows that is not a training problem.
That brain has basically switched off all logical thinking and is in complete fight-or-flight mode and you can’t learn or remember good behaviours when you’re in that state.
Dr L: I think that’s really that’s something really important to realise is you can always ring your vet and ask them ‘do you think this is behaviour versus a training issue?’ because I think that it can be hard for people to recognize.
Dr J: Yeah and if you’re not sure just call us our admin assistant who answers the phone she’s a dog trainer and she will spend you know 10 or 20 minutes talking to you and trying to sort of work out whether you need to see one of our vets or one of our trainers.
And sometimes we send you back to your vet or if you have a trainer we’ll send it back to your usual trainer or if it’s a really difficult problem we might send you to a behaviour specialist.
Dr L: I think we’re in the flight line, here comes the loud plane hahaha. We might just wait hurry-up plane. Can everyone see the plane, we see a plane?
How To Stop A Cat From Peeing Inside
Oh yeah anyways, alright so we’ve had a few questions on the page about cats that are spraying and toileting in areas outside the litter tray. Now that is a really common problem, I get asked this all the time. So, is that a mental health problem or is that a training problem?
Dr J: Well a thorough behaviour consult will help determine the difference because it’s very important because the treatment is so different.
If it’s a toileting problem it’s usually what you would loosely call a training problem.
It’s basically toilet training and the cat needs to be taught to use the litter tray properly.
And we look at the cat’s preferences and aversions and we try and work with the cat to work out what they like or don’t like about the litter tray and why they’re not using it.
Whereas if it’s an anxiety related problem which might be manifest as spraying on vertical surfaces then certainly we need to deal with that in a completely different way.
Anxiety is not a training problem it is a mental problem and we need to attack that from a different angle.
Dr L: I had an interesting case where the husband had growled at the cat and the cat looked like it was taking revenge and actually went and peed on his pillow right next to his head. Now is that a behaviour problem or is it revenge oh, is it?
Dr J: I don’t think we know if animals feel the higher emotions like jealousy and revenge.
I don’t think we know but it certainly makes sense that if the husband made the cat anxious then the cats going to pee on whatever made it anxious so that kind of makes sense to me.
And that you certainly don’t deal with that by punishing the cat or anything like that because punishment has been known and proven to make anxiety worse.
Is There A Place For Punishment In Training Animals?
Dr L: Yes that’s an interesting thing there’s a lot of people that are still very much you know all about punishment as a training aid and lots of research is actually showing that this is completely inappropriate now, and it’s not just with animals, it’s with people you know children and everything like that isn’t it?
We use positive reinforcement rather than punishment.
Dr J: That’s one aspect definitely. So, we know that all animals with a spinal cord learn the same way. We learn through cause and effect and other ways so when particularly with cases that I see because almost all of them have some kind of anxiety component punishment has no place.
We know through lots of studies and it’s very well known that punishment makes anxiety worse.
It doesn’t deal with the underlying issue, it makes the animal confused because it doesn’t tell them what to do it just tells them what not to do.
Punishment can actually make aggression worse so that vet specialist Kirsti Seksil said the other day at a talk I went to.
That aggression increases by twenty five percent if we use punishment.
There are so many other methods available to change behaviour that we shouldn’t be reaching for punishment first off.
Dr L: So it’s often people like behaviour veterinarians and dog trainers, often the Delta dog trainers, isn’t it that use a lot of high value reward system, isn’t it?
Dr J: Yeah yep so you’ve probably heard of a lot of vets recommending that you see a Delta trainer the reason why we recommend Delta trainers is because trainers who have trained through the Delta Institute only use modern positive methods.
So, it doesn’t mean that trainers that have trained through other institutions don’t, but at least we just know that that that particular institution is very vocal about being up to date.
Dr L: So we had a question that I saw that Mia Friedman actually asked on her Facebook page today and she was wondering why her dog who is a female spayed dog, it was about two years old she was wondering why she liked to hump things?
So, she would get excited obviously and then and she would go and find something like a toy or something in particular and looks like she’s showing you, you know, humping behaviour.
Tell us a little about why dogs do this?
I personally saw it on the weekend here, there was a Labrador who is doing what I call the Prozac run, doing the big hooning
Dr J: Zoomies
Dr L: Yes the zoomies yeah, he was he did that and then he hooned over to another dog then just started leaping on them and trying to hump him. It’s really common!
Dr J: Yeah absolutely! So, humping is not always sexual, in fact most of the time it’s not it’s usually .
There are many different reasons some dogs play that way, that’s just a play style which could be really annoying for the other dog but more often than not it’s because they’re excited. They’re over excited so as you said before dogs are running around like crazy at the dog park their adrenaline levels are so high and the body needs to compensate for that and try and bring the excitement down and one of the ways that the body or that dogs try and kind of release that stress is by doing that.
So, so, it can happen when you’re over excited, so, kind of like good excitement but then there’s also bad excitement, which you know like anxiety and that kind of stress as well. So yeah some dogs will mount things if they’re really stressed.
So a typical example might be, I don’t know, you’re giving one animal attention and the other dog who has had a history of not enjoying seeing the other dog get attention and then that dog comes and jumps on the dog that you’re giving attention to because that interaction is making them anxious.
Dr L: Yeah so one of the things that you can do when that happens, is actually remove your dog if your dog’s the one that is the humper.
Dr J: Yeah get them off the humpee and don’t yell at your dog, don’t shout.
We said before don’t use punishment because that can increase excitement levels and sometimes create aggression so just interrupt the behaviour maybe with a ‘squeak’, ‘come on’, ‘come here’, that kind of thing.
Get your dog’s attention, call them over, reward them for coming and just give them a few seconds to just calm down.
So, it’s not a timeout like a punishment or anything like that , it’s just you’re helping your dog regulate its own arousal levels or excitement levels.
Maybe just get him to him or her to focus on you maybe do a look or a sit or something like that wait till your dog looks, and then alright go play again.
It is really important that we interfere in a play dog park situation certain situations when the dogs are bullies or being annoying. It’s very common for people to say “oh just let them go they’ll sort themselves out”
Dr L: Yeah that often turns into disasters where
Dr J: Sometimes they do but it’s just like if you haven’t you know your two year old toddler playing in the park and they start bullying another another kid you need to step in and remove them from a situation.
Dr L: Actually that brings us to another question, I think memory serves me right it might have been Lynne that asked us this, she was struggling with her dog at the park, he’d had, he’d been on the lead once and was attacked and now he really struggles and is showing aggression when other dogs come up to him when he’s on the lead. Now sorry if I’ve got the wrong person here, but, I’m sorry, my memory fails me.
But anyway, yeah it’s that, it’s that whole aggression when approached, yeah when your dog is on the lead.
Now are there any tips that we can do to help prevent that?
Or is this something that we need to see a veterinarian?
Dr J: It all depends on the context and the frequency of the behaviour and how intense it is and whether it’s in context or not.
So, you know if your dog is being hassled by another dog that’s been really annoying or if you have an old dog or a sore dog and it’s very clearly saying to the other dog please go away, please leave me alone.
It’s moving away, the tail’s between the legs, it’s licking it’s lips it’s yawning, it’s turning its head away.
So, there are subtle signs of anxiety most people don’t pick up on that and they don’t realize that their dog has been saying for quite a few minutes that they’re uncomfortable and then the dog realizes that it’s being ignored and then it has to escalate the conversation to a shouting growling biting that kind of thing.
So, learn to read your dog’s body language and pre-empt it before it happens.
If it’s happening a lot and your dog is really uncomfortable anytime a dog comes near it, even if the dog is not bothering it, yeah then there’s probably maybe a fear or anxiety you see oh
Dr L: It’s getting very sunny here
Dr J: The clouds have finally gone away
Yeah, So the point being it depends on the context and if you’re not sure please ask a professional yeah and that’s the whole point of our consultations, that’s why they go for so long because we ask so many questions, we watch videos, we observe the behaviour,
Dr L: Yeah actually taking videos of your pet when it’s doing different things, that’s really valuable so even it’s just your normal, regular vet to show them.
I love it when people have got videos to show me, it just,
Dr J: It’s so easy everyone’s got a mobile phone in their pocket
Dr L: Exactly, exactly, now one thing that we often hear is that people are really scared to put their pets on medication because they’re scared that the drugs that we give for mental health are going to make their animal sedated, what are your thoughts on that?
Dr J: Basically, if your pet is a zombie on medications then it’s probably on the wrong medication or the wrong dose of medication and you need to talk to the vet who prescribed it because almost always, the purpose of putting your pet on heavy medication is not to sedate it, it’s not to change its personality it’s to improve its quality of life.
You should see improvements in your dog’s personality not a deterioration or a change like that or worrying change.
The point being, always stay in communication with your vet that prescribes the medication
And then sometimes, you will get some minor side effects and again you need to talk to your vet about it if you’re worried, and it’s often temporary, and they often only last a few days maybe a week.
Hopefully the vet who prescribes that medication has explained that to you, so I try and go through all of that with my clients so that they know what to expect.
Dr L: And I guess the big thing too, is some of these medications your dog might not necessarily or cat may not necessarily need to be on them or forever. Sometimes it’s just to get them to settle the brain, allow them to learn.
Dr J: That’s right
Dr L: And then we can wean them off so it’s not necessarily a lifetime treatment.
Some animals, yes it will be, but others it won’t be, so I guess it’s not – you know if you do have concerns and your animal is showing signs that require medication, then yeah, please talk to your vet because they might not have to, they might not have to be on those drugs forever.
Dr J: That’s it, and the medication plan for one animal is not going to be the same as the next.
We have at Pet Behaviour Vet we use probably about 15 or so different behaviour drugs we have them at our disposal.
And they’re dispensed in various combinations and doses and dosing frequencies, so it’s not just you know, I’m not going to put every animal on the same dose of Prozac, they’re all different.
How Long Do Medications Take To Work
Dr L: And I guess that’s the other thing, sometimes like lots of people think ‘all my animals going on drugs, it’ll be fixed, and it was really quick process’ and as we know like for things like Prozac (fluoxetine) it can like, it takes up to six to eight weeks doesn’t it?
So, you’ve made some changes yes there are long changes yeah so, all these sort of behaviour things, it’s just like people with mental health issues, it’s not an overnight fix, although you were telling me the story about the cat spraying and that was an overnight success!
Dr J: Occasionally we get really lucky and the behaviour problem just disappears in a few days or a couple of weeks and that’s very rare but it can happen and obviously the owners are very happy especially when the cat’s been spraying around the house dozens of times a day for the past five years or so, everything that all of a sudden just stops!
Dr L: Yeah how good would that be!
Dr J: And how good does the cat feel? Yeah and can you imagine what it would feel like to have to show your anxiety in that way yeah yeah yeah so.
Is It Bad To Punish Your Pet?
Dr L: Marianne here has asked a question: What do you class as punishment and is it just physical?’
Dr J: That’s a really good question! A lot of people get offended when I ask them ‘do you punish your dog?’ you know because they think that I’m talking about smacking and that kind of thing.
But you know by definition, punishment is something aversive as in something the dog or animal doesn’t like something that you’re using that is aversive that’s going to reduce a behaviour. So even just saying ‘No’ to your dog can be classified as a punishment to that dog and in the end it’s the dog or animal that decides what is punishing.
Dr L: Okay that’s a good point too
Dr J: Yes, so for some people, for some dogs you just look at them and they go and hide. You know that was punishing for that animal.
And so, and the other extreme is those you know crazy hyperactive you know Staffy’s or Labradors that are jumping all over you, and you are pulling on the lead and then you put a check chain on them and you’re checking them and checking them and they just keep walking.
Dr L: Yes
Dr J: It doesn’t work, it’s not punishing enough to stop the behaviour because the behaviour is motivated or driven by something else that’s a lot more exciting than having to avoid that punishment then
Dr L: Yeah and then we start to think what is the damage that occurs with that punishment though like so using that example like some people
Dr J: Physical damage like here to their neck
Dr L: Yeah
Dr J: And of course emotional damage, it’s not nice to have to, well for the person to have to continually be yelling at their dog or smacking at all something like that so it’s not it’s not very good for their relationship with you.
Dr L: Yeah and sometimes those sorts of examples, it’s not necessarily a mental health problem with the animal, it’s just a training issue so you know, getting a good dog trainer that can that can help you teach your dog to walk on the lead quietly next to you oh how good would that be!
You don’t lose your arm out of its socket every time! But yeah that was a great question, thanks Marianne
What Happens IN A Behaviour Consult?
And then I guess we’ll just might finish up, if you can tell us what happens in a behaviour consult and we’ll just finish up there.
Dr J: Yeah, so our behaviour consults basically start before we even meet you in your house.
So, we start researching beforehand, so, we ask you to fill in a really long questionnaire, we ask you to start taking videos and send them in.
We look at your pet’s medical history, so we contact your vet if you want us to and have a read through medical history because that’s obviously really important, because we always make sure that health conditions have been ruled out or aren’t contributing to the behaviour problem.
And then we start making a plan before we even come in to your home.
So, our behaviour consults are always conducted in home. We don’t see you at a vet clinic.
We believe that, it’s just my personal opinion is that, we well I just enjoy house calls a lot more than clinic consults because you get to see the animal in their own environment where the behaviour problems are often occurring.
So, we come to your house. Most consults, initial consults are a two and a half to three hour consultation and that’s pretty long and the reason for that is we need to get to know you and your family situation and your pets personality
and observe the animal for a period of time so that we can be able to firstly, come up with the diagnosis, and a treatment plan that’s actually feasible, that’s going to work for your situation.
There’s no good you know, recommending something that is just not possible for your lifestyle. Like you know, if the dogs jumping all over you – then put it outside. But what if you live in an apartment? There is no outside!
You know it is important that we come and see you in your situation and that we take a thorough history and actually make recommendations that are going to, that are going to work for you guys and if they don’t work that’s why we have follow-ups .
We have follow-ups to reassess and say what worked, what didn’t work, why didn’t it work, and if it didn’t work then let’s make some other suggestions.
Dr L: And I think the key here is that behaviour problems, nine times out of ten, are not solved overnight and it can be months and for some years, and it’s no different than humans like don’t think that these problems are overnight ‘yep we’ll get the behaviour vet and it will be all beautiful, dogs doing whatever it’s supposed to be doing the cats behaving properly’
No, it just doesn’t work like that and I think that’s really important you have to really acknowledge that it takes time.
Dr J: It’s a chronic health condition yeah so it helps to think about a mental illness as a chronic health condition so we you know it might take a few months to settle the problem down to a point where everybody is comfortable and the problem is workable so they might go into you probably call it ‘remission’ for a little while, and then sometimes it plays back up again.
So, if someone moves out, if you move house and or if the animal gets sick, then the problem may come back so we never talked about curing mental illnesses.
It can happen, but it’s rare, but generally, we talk about it as a chronic long-term health condition.
Dr L: And I think there’s just one more question we’ll sneak you in!
How To Stop Food Agression Between Dogs?
Kathy has asked: “How do you curb food aggression towards other dogs?”
Oh, it’s a big question!
Dr J: It’s a big question !
Again, it comes down to how often does it happen? How intense is the response? Is it extreme aggression or is it just kind of a little bit of growling where the dogs are just communicating in a normal way and they’re just saying ‘go away this is my bone and I worked for it and yeah, I’m hungry’
More often than not it’s usually just a matter of management and acknowledging that your dogs do not need to eat a meter apart from each other.
I don’t know why people do, that they just put their dogs together to eat maybe it’s just easier I suppose, but it’s helpful in that situation to put you know one dog inside, one dog outside, when they’re eating with the door closed
or something like that or give them space, so that often improves the situation quite a bit.
If it’s quite extreme, so for example if the dog finds a scrap of food on the floor and they have a big fight over it where you have to actually intervene and
Dr L: Be careful intervening in that situation
Dr J: Yep never use your body, never use your hands it’s best to try and interrupt them with a big chair, maybe a towel or a hose or yeah, it’s a big blanket or something like that if possible
Yes, so aggression in general usually requires a consultation, there’s so many different risk factors
Dr L: Especially when you know if they’re growling at other dogs they might start to growl at you as well and as soon as there are signs that they’re going to attack you then that’s a major problem and very worrying especially with children around.
Yeah, I would definitely get some help with that one Kathy if that’s happening.
Alright, well it’s a beautiful day here in Sydney, we hope that’s been really helpful to everyone I’ll get this put up on the website as well so you can check yourvetonline.com.
Don’t forget that Dr Jo is from the Pet Vet Behaviour Vets. I’ll put her details below as well and I hope you guys have a great day and tune in next time – mmmm -I’m not sure who I’m talking to next we’ll have to figure that one out!
Anyways thanks heaps Dr Jo
Dr J: Thanks for having me
Dr L: You have a great day I think Dr Jo’s got a few consults on this afternoon so we were very lucky to squeeze her and thank you all!
Right then, cheers guys, see you!
If you have a behaviour question that you would like answered by us, head over and book a consult with us now.