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Behavior, Finding Balance

When Behavior Breaks the Bond

Understanding the impact of negative behaviors on the pet, owner, and the bond between them can help veterinarians to guide families in making the best possible decision for all involved.

Kate BoatrightVMD

Dr. Boatright is a 2013 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works as a small animal general practitioner and emergency clinician in western Pennsylvania at NVA Butler Veterinary Associates and Emergency Center. Her clinical interests include feline medicine, surgery, internal medicine, and emergency. As a freelance writer and speaker, Dr. Boatright enjoys educating veterinary students and colleagues about communication, team building, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in her state and local VMAs and serves on the VBMA Alumni Committee. In her spare time, she enjoys running and spending time with her husband, son, and three cats.

When Behavior Breaks the Bond
Bee Johnson

Owning pets can be a fulfilling and deeply rewarding experience. The bond between humans and their pets is strong, and pets do more than offer companionship. Animals reduce anxiety and depression and improve the physical health for their owners. They bring joy and entertainment to the family and teach responsibility to young children. But sometimes pet ownership comes with burdens that erode the human-animal bond, especially if the pet develops problematic behaviors.

Pet owners who are struggling to manage behaviors in their pets, such as aggression, separation anxiety, and inappropriate elimination, may turn to their veterinarian for guidance and advice. Understanding the impact of these behaviors on the pet, owner, and the bond between them can help veterinarians to guide families in making the best possible decision for all involved.

Impact on Pet Owners

Ultimately, owners of pets suffering from behavioral conditions have 4 general choices for how to respond and manage the behavior:

  • Treat through a combination of training, medication or supplements, and/or lifestyle and environmental adjustments
  • Coexist with the behavior without directly addressing it
  • Rehome or relinquish the pet to a shelter
  • Behavioral euthanasia

Each of these choices has consequences. These are difficult, emotional decisions for a pet owner to make. Pet owners may judge themselves for their decision to rehome or euthanize, even if the decision is made to protect family members and other pets or because their pet’s quality of life is suffering. Owners may receive judgment for their decision from family and friends as well. If they euthanize or rehome, they may be looked at as “giving up” on the pet. Alternatively, if an owner chooses to coexist with or treat a pet with problematic behaviors, they may still be judged for “trying too hard” or working on a “lost cause.”

Owners who choose to coexist or treat problematic behaviors will experience many stressors. In fact, some literature has compared caring for a pet with a behavioral condition to that of caring for a pet or family member with a chronic illness.1 Owners may have to alter their home environment or lifestyle to accommodate the pet’s needs. There can also be a large financial burden associated with treatment, including medication, veterinary visits, and behavior and training consultations. 

Beyond the physical and financial stressors is the emotional stress. Owners may experience a variety of emotions, depending on the problem behavior their pet is displaying. Owners of aggressive pets may live with a constant level of anxiety that their pet will attack a person or another animal or embarrassment of their pet’s behavior in public or with visitors to their home. The same anxiety and embarrassment may be experienced by owners of pets with severe separation anxiety who may vocalize excessively, become destructive, or even cause self-trauma when left alone. 

Finally, owners may experience social isolation as they try to manage their pet’s behavior. Friends and family may choose to stay away from the home to avoid the pet, especially in cases of aggression. Alternatively, owners may limit their own social activities outside of the home due to concerns of leaving the pet alone. The added burden of feeling judged by friends and family members for their pet’s behavior or their own decisions around treatment of the pet can exacerbate the isolation. This isolation may even have ramifications for the owner’s mental health that the benefits of the human-animal bond alone cannot overcome.

While the physical and emotional burdens of living with a pet with problematic behaviors can be overwhelming and threaten the bond between pet and owner, they don’t always break it. Many pet owners still report feeling bonded to and loving their pet while struggling with anxiety, fear, and frustration directed at the situation, their pet, or both.1 Frustrated owners will often reach out to their local veterinarian for a behavior consultation as they try to navigate their own emotions and help their pet.

Impact on the Pet

Just as there are impacts on the pet owner, pets with behavioral problems experience consequences and stress. Aggressive pets or those who house soil may find themselves separated from human and animal housemates. Often this separation from others in the home is done in an effort to protect humans, animals, property, or even the pet itself. But while it may improve safety, it may exacerbate the stress or fear level of the pet. 

Because many behavioral problems are motivated by fear or stress, the quality of life for pets displaying these behaviors may be poor, especially when the cause of these behaviors is left unaddressed. Additionally, chronic stress can lead to medical problems including impaired immune system function, gastrointestinal disease, respiratory disease, urinary tract health, and shortened lifespans.2 The quality of life, health, and safety of the pet must be considered carefully as decisions are made regarding how to proceed in situations of severe behavioral disorders.3

Role of the Veterinary Team

As veterinary professionals, we can find ourselves in a difficult position when owners come to us seeking advice about their pet’s behavior. Our oath requires us to advocate for the pet’s health and welfare. We must find a way to balance the needs of the pet with the needs of the owner and the safety of the pets and people around our patient.

Often when owners are seeking veterinary advice regarding their pet’s behavior, they are frustrated and emotional. It is imperative for veterinary team members to listen without judgement as the owner shares their experiences and concerns. While it can be difficult in a busy general practice, make every effort not to rush behavior consults. Clients and veterinary teams must create a partnership to help the pet and establish trust between all involved.

Setting expectations with owners early in the treatment process is essential. Behavioral problems will not be solved quickly and will require investment of time, money, and resources to treat. Offering referral to qualified trainers or behavior specialists is important to maximize the chance of a positive outcome. Additionally, providing support to owners, remaining honest about the options, and giving hope when it is appropriate can go a long way to help struggling owners. Owners appreciate knowing that they are not alone, and finding support from others who have experienced similar situations can be meaningful.1

In some cases, treating the behavior is not the best option for the pet or owner. The decision to rehome or euthanize a pet with problem behaviors is never an easy one. This can be especially difficult when the pet is young and otherwise healthy. For some pet owners, hearing from a veterinarian that it is OK to consider these options can help them deal with their guilt. Behavioral euthanasia is considered as a last resort when training has failed or the pet poses a large danger to themselves or others. Especially in the case of aggression, when a pet has bitten, attacked, or injured another pet or person, it is critical to discuss the safety of everyone in the home.

For veterinarians and their staff, the moral and ethical consequences of behavioral euthanasia will vary but should always be considered and respected. If a veterinarian is not comfortable performing behavioral euthanasia, they should refer the patient to a colleague or other clinic who can guide the client to the best decision for the family and pet. 

Preventing Problematic Behaviors

The veterinary team can play a large role in protecting the human-animal bond and preventing problematic behaviors from developing through client education and proactive discussions. Here are some ways the veterinary team can help counsel owners about pet behavior before problems begin: 

  • Discuss the importance of training and socialization at puppy and kitten visits
  • Encourage clients to work with a trainer
  • Ask clients about any potential problematic behaviors at every annual visit to identify problems early (i.e., inappropriate elimination, aggression, and anxiety)
  • Provide resources for clients to understand normal, species-specific behavior, especially for cats, who scratch, pounce, and climb naturally 

Finally, veterinary teams can also provide resources and counseling to pet owners who are considering adding a pet to their family. Discussing the home environment and lifestyle of the family and the needs of a particular species or breed can help to prevent situations where a highly energetic dog breed is housed in a small apartment with minimal exercise or a kitten is brought into a home where it is expected to stay off the furniture. Ultimately, veterinary teams are in a unique position to advocate for the human-animal bond before it ever forms by helping clients to find a pet with whom they can truly bond. 

References

  1. Buller K, Ballantyne KC. Living with and loving a pet with behavioral problems: Pet owners’ experiences. J Vet Behavior. 2020;37:41-47.
    doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2020.04.003
  2. Seksei K. Stress and anxiety – how do they impact the pet? WSAVA World Congress Proceedings 2014. Accessed September 3, 2021.
    vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=12886&catId=57087&id=7054740&ind=16&objTypeID=17&print=1
  3. Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. Euthanasia for behavioral issues: a complicated and difficult decision. Accessed June 23, 2021. vet.osu.edu/vmc/sites/default/files/files/companion/HTB/behavioral_euthanasia_printable_2014.pdf

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