Debra Horwitz, DVM DACVB: Unwanted Behavior in Pets Can Be Treated

Interview with Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, Veterinary Behavior Consultations, St. Louis, Missouri National Spokesperson for the Keep the L.O.V.E. Alive Tour

Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB

Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB – bio

It was the problem-solving aspect of medicine plus her own affinity for animals that originally attracted Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB to veterinary medicine. However, it was her desire to help pet owners find a way to live more comfortably with their animals that inspired her to ultimately specialize in behavior issues.

After graduating from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Horwitz originally practiced traditional small animal veterinary medicine. In the early 80s, she became interested in behavioral medicine and in 1990 made the decision to limit her practice to behavior problems in dogs and cats. Today, she is a board certified diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), a published author and frequent speaker on behavioral medicine for dogs and cats.

Dr. Horwitz spoke to about how veterinarians’ expertise can truly keep the love alive for pet owners and their pets.

Q. What are the challenges you face as a veterinary behaviorist?
A. One of the biggest challenges we face is that pet owners are often unaware that their pets’ unwanted behaviors can be changed. Most of the problems that bedevil pet owners can be modified to make those behaviors more acceptable to their owners. Also, pet owners often don’t know where to go for advice when their pet begins exhibiting unwanted behavior and the information they do find can often make the problem worse rather than better.

Q. What are some of the problem behaviors that you see on a regular basis?
A. We see a variety of different behaviors including house soiling; fears and phobias like fear of thunderstorms and fireworks; difficulty adjusting to changes such as moving; separation anxiety and aggression. Dogs and cats share some behavior issues while others are unique to each species.

Q. How do you approach working with a pet owner that is experiencing behavior issues with their dog or cat?
A. Before a pet owner comes in for an initial consultation I ask them to fill out a detailed behavioral history. I want them to think about their pet’s behavior in terms of the action that the pet does. When people come to see me, they are often very frustrated. I want them to focus on what the pet actually did; the environment at the time when the unwanted behavior manifested and how they, the owners, responded to that behavior. Once we look at all these elements of the situation, we can come up with a diagnosis that is functional rather than emotional.”

Q. What can pet owners expect when they consult with a veterinary behaviorist?
A. It is important to remember that the dog or cat is part of the family, so we are doing family therapy in a way. In order to help the pet change we have to help the family understand how their own behavior can have an effect on how their pet acts. We teach the family how to respond to their pet in new ways as well as teaching their pet new responses.

Q: What is the first step someone should take if their pet has behavior problems?
When a pet begins to exhibit an unwanted behavior, the first step is to consult their pet’s regular veterinarian. There can be an underlying medical reason for that behavior so it is important to seek help from their veterinarian first to make sure their pet is healthy. Many behavior issues have health reasons behind them. For example, house soiling could because of a urinary tract infection or excessive licking may be the result of a gastrointestinal problem.

Q. What is important about the Keep the L.O.V.E. Alive Tour?
A. I really believe that behavior is an integral part of veterinary medicine. It is their behavior that attracts us to having pets; the love and connection that we have with them. This tour is an opportunity to celebrate that connection and to diminish pet relinquishment because of behavior issues.

Q. What messages would you like for pet owners to take away from the Tour?
A. First, I would like pet owners to remember that when your pet is exhibiting unwanted behaviors, talk to your veterinarian first to make sure there is not a medical problem. Second, I want pet owners to know that there are medically sound options, like pheromone treatment, that can help with many of the behavior problems that we see on a regular basis. Third, I want to encourage pet owners not to give up on their pets. We have pheromones; we have behavior modification techniques; we have other methods of intervention – and your veterinarian can help!

Q. Would you tell us more about pheromone treatment?
A. We use a synthetic pheromone that mimics the natural pheromones in dogs and cats that give them a sense of well-being and reassurance. There is solid science behind pheromone treatment to help dogs and cats in anxiety-producing situations. The treatment is very safe and easy to use. There are plug-in diffusers and sprays that can be used for both dogs and cats as well as collars for dogs.

Q. What can pet owners expect from pheromone treatment ?
A. Pet owners should understand that pheromones especially in referral cases are frequently used as part of a multi-modal treatment plan that can include behavior modification and other activities. In other situations, pheromones may be a standalone treatment option that can really help. In our behavior referral practice, when we start pheromone therapy we explain that pheromones are not going to sedate their animal or make them oblivious to their surrounds. What it will do is help them adapt a little better to their own surroundings. We are not always looking for a complete change in behavior right away; we are looking for an improvement in the right direction. In my experience, anyone who has ever used pheromone treatment has seen a positive change in their pet.

Q. Do you have pets of your own?
A. I do. I have a dog. He is an almost twelve-year-old Westie named Oscar. When I travel, Oscar stays at a boarding kennel, or the pet spa, as we like to call it. He wears his Adaptil collar. When my cat was alive, she hated her carrier, so whenever I had to take her out, I used Feliway spray. I have used these products on my own pets for years and they have made a difference in many ways. They are invaluable.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to tell pet owners who are experiencing behavior problems with their dogs and cats?
A. I want to dispel the often-stated belief that when pets have behavior problems it is because the owners “made their pets this way.” There is a reason behind the problematic behavior – and solutions to those problems. I want pet owners to know that their veterinarians have the expertise to help – to Keep the L.O.V.E Alive.

Please also read…

Pet Behavior Tips for Happy Animals & Adopters
by Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB
Keep the L.O.V.E. Alive Behavior Express Tour


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