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NAVC Conference 2014 Small Animal Speaker of the Year – An Interview with Debra F. Horwitz

NAVC Conference 2014 Small Animal Speaker of the Year – An Interview with Debra F. Horwitz


Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB—the NAVC Conference 2014 Small Animal Speaker of the Year—has worked for over 30 years to help pet owners with their animals’ behavioral problems. As an American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) board-certified behavioral specialist, she is passionate about her calling as well as sharing her knowledge with others. In this interview, Dr. Horwitz describes her experiences pursuing this important role in veterinary medicine.

As the NAVC Conference 2014 Small Animal Speaker of the Year, what approach do you prefer for engaging your audience during a speaking session?

When I speak, I try to share my passion for veterinary behavioral medicine by showing the audience how important the field is and how much it matters to me. I use real life examples to bring home the major points. Veterinarians already know so much about animal behavior by virtue of their deep love of, and interaction with, animals all their lives. What they need to learn is how to appreciate the depth of their knowledge, label it appropriately, and then share that with the pet owner to help improve the human—animal bond, which helps keep pets with their owners and create a calm and safe home environment.

Tell me a little bit about your veterinary background…how did you become a behavioral specialist?

When I was in veterinary school, we did not have any classes specifically geared to animal behavior or behavioral problems. However, once I started practicing, I realized these problems were prevalent within the patient population. I attended some behavior lectures by the few veterinarians who were embracing and teaching animal behavior information, including Drs. R.K. Anderson, Bonnie Beaver, Benjamin Hart, Kathe Houpt, and Victoria Voith. I was hooked! That set me on the path to establish my behavioral practice and work toward board certification. I became a member of ACVB in 1996 and have served in various capacities since, including President of the ACVB.

What does the role of a veterinary behaviorist entail, and why do you feel it is an important component of veterinary medicine?

Behavioral medicine is an important part of veterinary medicine because behavioral issues are often a reason for a break in the human—animal bond, which can cause relinquishment of pets to shelters. Also, a change in behavior is often an initial sign of medical disease. Early in my career as a behavioral specialist, I saw all types of problems, ranging from unwanted and unruly behavior to aggression. Two things happened that have helped change the behaviorist’s role: As the discipline evolved, we came to understand normal but unwanted behaviors, and their treatment blossomed. Then, positive trainers joined the field to help pet owners deal with these behaviors, and veterinary behaviorists were available to manage these patients as well as handle more serious, referral-level behavioral issues. Although we deal with a variety of problems in dogs and cats (and other animals as well), nowadays behavioral consultants take on difficult cases that need not only behavioral intervention, but sometimes psychopharmacologic intervention as well.

What are some of the most common behavioral issues you see in practice?

In dogs, we often see unwanted aggressive responses that are usually the result of underlying fear and anxiety. In other cases, an owner who does not understand normal dog communication may resort to punishment for signals that the dog uses to stop unwanted social encounters, which further increases the problem behavior. We also see many dogs that suffer from anxiety conditions based on their daily environment. These include dogs suffering from separation distress when home alone, destructive behavior due to lack of appropriate exercise and enrichment, and anxiety caused by being continually put in situations they find frightening.

In cats, the major issues are house soiling (leaving urine or stool outside of the litter box) and aggression, especially toward other cats. Again, many of these issues result from lack of appropriate owner education on how to provision multiple-cat homes, which includes understanding how cats like to live in social groups and the problem of creating households of individuals that do not wish to live together.

But all is not bleak! We have many ways to assist owners with helping their pets learn new behaviors, creating better environments, and improving the lives of their pets. Practicing veterinarians are also doing their part by adding fear free veterinary visits to their daily routine.

What current trends have you noted in behavioral medicine and/or public/media perception of behavior in pets?

Pets are generally important to, and well cared for by, family members, but pet owners may not fully understand their pets’ normal behaviors and how best to interact with and teach them. For many years, trainers and high profile celebrities have advocated forceful, dominance-based methods to train dogs and change their behavior. Not only have these been shown to be scientifically false and harmful, they damage the human—animal bond. However, the pendulum has recently swung the other way with the help of veterinary and applied animal behaviorists, trainers, and others who realize that positive training is more humane and effective in changing behavior, and we are making great strides in sending that message.


A new momentum is underway to help people better understand their dogs. As part of that effort, I was the co-editor with Dr. John Ciribassi and assisted by Steve Dale on a book written by members of ACVB called Decoding Your Dog. The response has been fantastic, and we have helped many pet owners understand their dogs and live better, safer lives together. I am also a member of a new advisory board to promote fear free veterinary visits. Finally, cats are now the most numerous household pet, and new initiatives include addressing the needs of the indoor cat and creating a better life for them. Every day we are coming up with new tools to improve the lives of people and their pets and help them better understand each other.