How vets can help dogs with anxiety

Watch Dr Kersti Seksel discuss some important elements of veterinary behaviour ahead of her speaking engagements at the AVA Annual Conference.

Veterinarian and specialist in behavioural medicine Dr Kersti Seksel has dedicated her life to understanding what makes animals tick. After learning early in her career that more pets are euthanised each year because of their behaviour rather than infectious, metabolic and other diseases combined, Kersti went back to university to study psychology.

Kersti’s experience has shown that anxiety disorders in dogs most commonly manifest as separation anxiety, a noise phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorders. The first sign of anxiety may be just yawning when not tired, lip licking when not finished eating, shaking like a wet dog when not wet. Other key signs to look out for are disruptive or destructive behaviours (such as pacing, urinating, defaecating, barking, howling, chewing, digging or trying to escape), particularly when left alone. Rather than signifying a lack of training, these behaviours are often signs of distress.

What’s most concerning, according to Kersti, is that many dog owners believe that their pets will grow out of such behaviour or can be trained out of it using traditional methods that focus on “dominance” and punishment.

“People don’t want to accept that their eight-week-old puppy might have some sort of mental health issue, instead hoping that the animal will grow out of it,” she says. “But you don’t grow out of diabetes or a seizure disorder, and you won’t grow out of an anxiety disorder either.

“It’s really important that people talk to their veterinarian about any behavioural problems so that they can be put on the right track earlier.”

Kersti goes on to explain that training should be based on a reward system, noting that no one learns well when being reprimanded or punished. She also believes that a more holistic approach to diagnosing anxiety is needed in the veterinary profession.

“I find it very disconcerting when I see people adopting more traditional, forceful methods of training, using choke chains, electric shock collars and prong collars. Instead, rewarding the dog for the behaviour we do want and guiding them through behaviours that we don’t want is the best way forward,” Kersti says.

“Veterinarians really need to talk to their clients about it. I’d like to see the whole  veterinary staff being proactively involved and nurses and receptionists being trained in recognising anxiety. This way, when a pet is in the waiting room, the staff can take notes on its behaviour and pass them on to the veterinarian so the animal can be given the most appropriate treatment and handled respectfully.”

The bottom line, according to Kersti, is educating people to understand their animal better. Whether that’s through recommending training programs such as Puppy Preschool (which Kersti established herself), or by simply remembering to ask if the owner has any other concerns about their dog’s behaviour when they’re in for a standard vaccination or check-up.

Communication, after all, is key.

The 2017 AVA Conference is being held in Melbourne from 4 – 9 June.

Don’t miss this opportunity to hear from leading veterinary experts like Dr Kersti Seksel. Register today