Behavior Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Veterinary Behaviorist?

Just like human medicine, veterinary medicine has specialists.  A Veterinary Behaviorist is the equivalent of a psychiatrist but for animals.  The field of Veterinary Behavior involves managing and treating behavior problems to improve the quality of life of pets, working animals, farm animals and animals in zoos or aquariums.  Veterinary behaviorists are also able to diagnose medical conditions that may impact an animal’s behavior.

 

Becoming a Veterinary Behaviorist involves first graduating from veterinary school and working in general practice or completing an internship.  In Dr. Bergman’s case, she worked in small animal practice and completed an internship in Wildlife Medicine and Surgery.  Then a residency in clinical animal behavior must be completed.  Dr. Bergman’s residency was at the University of California- Davis.  A Veteirnary Behavior residency takes 2-3 years and involves behavior specific training including seeing clinical cases under the supervision of a Veterinary Behaviorist, completing coursework, conducting and publishing original behavior research in a peer-reviewed journal and writing 3 case reports that must pass review by a panel of Veterinary Behaviorists.  Dr. Bergman’s research involved how veterinarians communicate with owners of urine marking cats and what these owners take away from these communications. After these steps are completed, the veterinarian must pass a rigorous board examination to become a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB).  When Dr. Bergman became board certified in 2003 there were approximately 60 DACVBs, as of 2020 there are still fewer than 100 DACVBs in practice worldwide.

Why Should My Pet See a Veterinary Behaviorist?

Problem behaviors in pets are often the result of anxiety, not “being bad” or disobeying.   A pet with behavioral illness is like a person with mental illness.  An anxious animal may show behaviors that are easy to recognize as based in anxiety or fear, such as hiding or trying to escape from a scary situation.  But many anxious animals have aggression as a symptom of their anxiety.  Aggression is often about making whoever the pet sees as a threat go away, not about trying to dominate or be in charge.  A Veterinary Behaviorist is able to diagnose and treat these anxiety conditions.

How Does a Veterinary Behaviorist Treat Patients?

Before treatment, Dr. Bergman diagnoses your pet and determines what is underlying the problem behaviors.  This is done by taking a very detailed and specific history, observing your pet in person as well as through videos of the pet at home and interacting with your pet.  During this process, Dr. Bergman does not want to provoke aggression or anxiety.  She doesn’t need to see “how bad” your pet can be.  She wants to see how good he can be to know where to start behavior modification.

 

Treatment starts with education.  If you have a better understanding of why your pet is behaving a certain way, it will be easier for you to help your pet.  The behavior modification techniques Dr. Bergman uses are humane and scientifically sound.  Safety always comes first in any treatment.   We want to keep people, other pets and our patients safe while we improve our patients’ quality of life.

 

As a Veterinary Behaviorist, Dr. Bergman is also able to prescribe medications to help her patients.  Medication is used in treatment plans to reduce pets’ anxiety so they can cope with the world around them and learn other ways of reacting.  We don’t use medication just to sedate animals and we never want to change the good parts of their personality.

What’s the Difference Between a Veterinary Behaviorist and a Trainer?

Veterinary Behaviorists have knowledge in all aspects of animal behavior, including ethology, learning theory and abnormal behavior as well as being medically trained.  As veterinarians we are trained in pharmacology and animal nutrition as well as areas of medicine that frequently impact behavior such as endocrinology, dermatology, neurology, theriogenology, gastroenterology and pain management.

Veterinary Behaviorists are required to stay current on the science behind our understanding of basic animal behavior, cognition, learning theory and the treatment of behavior problems. Good trainers have knowledge of behavior but not at the same level as a DACVB.  A trainer may be skilled at teaching an animal how to perform behaviors in response to a cue but often they’re not skilled in recognizing and addressing the underlying causes of problem behaviors.

A veterinarian may only call herself a Behaviorist if she has become board certified.  She must also be licensed to practice veterinary medicine in the states where she is seeing patients. Unfortunately, there are no such restrictions on dog trainers.   There is no licensing board for dog trainers or educational standards for laypeople who wish to call themselves trainers or even “behaviorists”.

Will You Work with My Trainer?

If you’re already working with a trainer who uses appropriate, positive reinforcement techniques we are happy to have that trainer continue to be a part of your pet’s treatment.  We look at the relationship between a Veterinary Behaviorist and a humane dog trainer as like that between an orthopedist and a physical therapist.  The doctor makes the diagnosis and develops a treatment plan that outlines what to work on.  The trainer helps you implement the treatment plan.  Feedback flows between owner, trainer and doctor to help you help your pet.  A good, ethical trainer will refer pet owners to a DACVB when they realize that the pet’s problems are beyond their level of expertise.

If you are using training techniques that we feel are detrimental to your pet’s mental or physical health we will explain to you why this is the case.  We can provide you with scientific references to support our recommendations.  We can also help you find a different trainer to work with.

What Sorts of Behavior Problems Does Dr. Bergman Treat?

Dr. Bergman is qualified to treat behavior problems in every animal species on this planet except one, human beings!  Her main areas of expertise are pet dogs, cats, parrots and exotic animals, both pets and in zoos.  Dr. Bergman can also help with problem prevention if you are adding a new pet or a new baby or child to the family or preparing for a move.

 

  • Dogs
    • Aggression- many of our canine patients have aggression as a symptom of their behavioral (mental) illness. Signs of aggression include barking, growling, baring teeth, lunging, snapping as well as actually biting. Aggression problems in dogs include:
      • Owner directed aggression
      • Resource guarding
      • Aggression towards strangers, including visitors to the house
      • Aggression to children in the house
      • Aggression/Reactivity on walks towards people, other dogs, cars, bikes, small animals
      • Fighting between dogs in the house
      • Redirected aggression
      • Aggression during vet visits, grooming
    • Anxiety/Phobias- just like people, some animals are more sensitive to things in their environment than others
      • Separation anxiety
      • Noise phobias (thunderstorms, fireworks, gun shots, other noises)
      • Fear of people, other dogs or objects
      • Fear at vet visits, grooming
    • Other Behaviors
      • Compulsive/repetitive behaviors, such as shadow/light chasing, spinning, tail chasing)
      • Sleep disorders
      • Pica- ingesting non-food items
      • Mounting (humping)
    • Cats
      • Aggression-cats often go 0-60 when they are aggressive with little obvious warning signs to the people who witness their aggression. We can help you recognize more subtle signs that a cat is anxious and may be aggressive.  Aggression problems in cats include:
        • Aggression towards owners
        • Aggression towards visitors
        • Aggression between cats in the house
        • Redirected aggression
      • Fear/Phobias- the term “scaredy cat” exists for a reason, many cats have a strong emotional reaction to things (people, animals, sounds) they encounter that results in them running away, avoiding or even hiding
        • Other pets
        • People/visitors
        • Vet visits, travel
        • Noises- storms, loud noises
      • Other behaviors
        • Pica- ingesting non-food items often wool or plastic
        • Compulsive/Repetitive behaviors- wool-sucking, hyperesthesia (rippling, twitching skin), self-sucking, pacing, excessive vocalizations
      • Parrots
        • Feather picking
        • Aggression
          • People- visitors, family members
          • Other pets
        • Misdirected sexual behaviors
          • Regurgitation
          • Nesting
          • Masturbation

 

These are just examples of the sorts of behavioral disorders Dr. Bergman has treated in over 20 years of practice.  She has also consulted on zoo animals including gorillas, cheetah, and dhole (type of Asian wild dog).

How Do I Schedule a Behavior Appointment?

Please fill out the appropriate history forms on our website (instert link).

If you have any video of your pet’s behavior (instructions to upload).  It can also help to send a video tour of your home, especially the areas your pet likes to spend time and areas where problems may occur. NEVER TRY TO PROVOKE AGGRESSION OR DO ANYTHING THAT IS DANGEROUS TO PEOPLE, OTHER ANIMALS OR YOUR PET FOR THE PURPOSES OF MAKING A VIDEO.  It’s not worth getting hurt just to make a video of your pet’s behavior.

What Happens at a Behavior Appointment?

An initial behavior appointment is typical 1.5-2 hours.  During this time Dr. Bergman will review your history forms, asking follow-up questions.  We will observe you pet’s behavior, how he interacts with us, with you and how he does in an unfamiliar environment.  Sometimes go for walks with canine patients to see how they are on leash.

If your pet isn’t too anxious or fearful Dr. Bergman will perform a physical exam. We will also demonstrate behavior modification techniques and tools if your pet is willing to cooperate.  Your pet’s diagnosis will be explained so you can understand why your pet is acting in certain ways and how to help change his behavior.  During the appointment you will be given a written treatment plan that includes a safety plan as well as initial behavior modification steps, medication recommendations and recommended tools to help you manage and change your pet’s behavior.

We try to create a home like atmosphere, so your pet doesn’t feel like he’s seeing the doctor. We also try to be as nonthreatening as possible.  Many of our behavior patients might start the appointment being very anxious but are able to relax and even start to enjoy themselves.

What is included in the Appointment?

In addition to the written treatment plan you will be given handouts to help you better understand how we will be changing your pet’s behavior. The initial appointment includes a 10-15 minute follow-up phone call that we will schedule before you leave.  You will also have email access for other quick questions.  If we dispense medication, run laboratory tests or send you home with any behavior modification products that is not included in the consultation fee.

Do I Have to Bring My Pet to the Appointment?

Yes!! Legally, in Pennsylvania veterinarians cannot treat patients unless they have seen the patient in person.  There is also a lot of information Dr. Bergman gathers observing and interacting with your pet behavior during the appointment.  If you are having problems between pets in the home, we may need to see all of the pets who are involved in the problem.  This gives us the best chance for successful treatment.  Often the animal who is identified as the “victim” needs behavioral assistance as well as the own who “always starts it”.

How Many Times Will I Have to Bring My Pet to See You?

Although we have to see patients annually to maintain a legal relationship, we can do follow up between annual appointments remotely via phone or video.  Some of our clients feel a single appointment gives them enough insight into their pet’s behavior to reach a level of resolution that works for them.  Other patients, particularly those with complex presentations or multiple behavioral diagnoses, need to be seen more often especially in the early phases of treatment.

Do You Guarantee Your Treatment? Can You Tell Me if You Can Cure My Pet Before I Schedule My Appointment?

No.  Just like human medicine there are no guarantees.  We’re dealing with complex beings here and complex interactions of their physical and mental health, with their families and the greater world, both in and out of their home, and your expectations of your pets.  No Veterinary Behaviorist or veterinarian would ever guarantee treatment success for any condition.  Any trainer or so-called behaviorist who guarantees results is misleading you by promising something they can’t deliver.

DACVBs also aren’t able to give a prognosis based just on the pet’s diagnosis.  In regular medicine this is possible.  For example, if a pet has a simple skin infection, I know that the prognosis for recovery with the appropriate antibiotics is good.  With behavior problems, we have to look at more than just the pet’s diagnosis, we have to look at the people they live with and interact with, the other pets in the house, the physical set-up of their home and any contributing medical conditions.  For example, a dog who is aggressive to strangers but lives in an isolated house with adult owners who rarely entertain at home has a better prognosis than a dog with the same diagnosis who lives in on a busy street and with a family that has friends and relatives visiting every weekend.  We will discuss prognosis at your initial appointment and reassess as we see how your pet responds to treatment.

What we can tell you before you schedule your initial appointment that we will help you better understand what your pet is doing and what’s involved in improving the situation.  We will make sure that you can have realistic expectations for this pet in your home.  Most of our patients show improvement and our clients are happy knowing they have done the best possible for their pets.

What Should I Do While Waiting for My Appointment?

Make sure your regular vet has sent us a copy of your pet’s medical records, including recent blood work.  If you haven’t been to your regular vet recently, it can help to have your pet seen there first to make sure he’s up-to-date on vaccinations and lab work.

If your pet is aggressive try to avoid situations that may cause an aggressive response.  This may mean avoiding walks, separating pets, or not having visitors over.  If your pet is aggressive to people in the household, you may want to consider boarding him until our appointment.

What COVID-19 Precautions Are You Taking?

We are very fortunate to have a large, well ventilated room in a separate part of the hospital to see our behavior patients.  There is enough room for you and us (Dr. Bergman and her technician) to stay socially distanced throughout the appointment.  People will be masked during the appointment (no masks necessary for the pets).

If you don’t feel comfortable spending the entire appointment time in our behavior room, we understand.  We can accommodate video appointments after we see the patient in person.  However, Dr. Bergman finds that remote consults are not as beneficial as in-person ones.  In person she is able to really observe and interact with the pet (hard to do on video if the pet leaves the screen) and still be able to talk right to you.  We are also able to demonstrate behavior modification techniques with your pet and fit with training/behavior modification tools if appropriate.

What Should I Bring to the Appointment?

Your pet- if your pet gets a lot of comfort and support from another pet in the household, you can bring the other pet along for emotional support as long as that pet won’t be disruptive.

Treats- We use food to help your pet feel more comfortable and to reward relaxed behavior.  If your pet is a picky eater, bring a good supply of his favorite treats.    If your pet is on a special diet, please bring appropriate treats.

Toys- We have toys but sometimes it can also help a pet feel more comfortable if you bring a favorite, familiar toy.

Training Tools- Please bring any training tools you have for your pet, especially the ones you currently use.  If your dog needs a muzzle and you can safely muzzle him, please do.

Paperwork- If you have any paperwork from your pet’s breeder, rescue, previous home, etc. please bring it

Medication- f your pet is taking any medication or supplements, other than heartworm or flea/tick prevention, please bring the medication in its bottles to the appointment.

Who Should Come to the Appointment?

If only one person is able to attend, that should be the pet’s primary caregiver.  If there is disagreement between family members about the pet’s behavior or the seriousness of the problem, it can be helpful to have other family members attend as well.

Please do not bring small children along unless you are able to bring an additional adult to take care of the children.  Our appointments are long and children easily become bored and restless.  Especially if you have concerns about your pet’s behavior towards the children, it may be too stressful for everyone to be at the appointment together.

If you are working with a positive reinforcement trainer, we would love for the trainer to accompany you if possible.

What Do I Do When I Arrive for the Appointment?

Pull around to the back parking lot, near the Hickory Pet Inn and call us 610-828-3054.  You can get out of the car and wait in the parking lot if you’re more comfortable. If you’re bringing a dog, please around so your dog can urinate and defecate before the appointment.

Three Generations of Helping and Healing

Hickory Veterinary Hospital was founded in 1956 as a team of professionals committed to excellence in animal care. Our continued goal is to deliver the highest quality of veterinary medicine to our patients.