Interview with Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Stefanie Schwartz
One dog refuses to walk up some stairs and down others.
Another dog barks when his owner leaves the house. A cat has taken to grooming to the point of hair loss.
These are examples of very different behaviors, but they are behaviors that may be helped by a veterinary behaviorist—aka a pet psychiatrist.
Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a board certified veterinary behaviorist in the Orange County, California area, says she mainly works with dogs and cats, but has also treated birds, horses, bunnies, and the occasional Vietnamese pot-bellied pig for various behavior issues. Here’s what else she had to say about her profession:
The Honest Kitchen: What does a “pet shrink” do?
Stefanie Schwartz: A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has specialty training and board certification in the equivalent to veterinary psychiatry. Any dog trainer can call themselves a “behaviorist” or “behavior specialist,” however, they do not need any special permission to use these labels. A veterinary specialist, just like a medical specialist, cannot use that term without additional training and licensing. Veterinary behaviorist[s] diagnose behavior problems of animals in zoos, on the farm, in the wild, and in homes. We always consider the possibility of underlying medical issues, and are trained to tailor treatment plans for every individual patient. We use techniques that psychologists use with people, and also have the option to use psychoactive medication if needed to relieve our patients of their distress.
THK: How does pet psychiatry compare or contrast with human psychiatry?
Stefanie Schwartz: Pet psychiatry compares best to pediatric psychiatry. Our patients can’t verbally express what they’re feeling or why, but with careful observation and thorough histories, we diagnose many types of anxiety disorders (PTSD, separation anxiety syndrome, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias), and a complex of compulsive disorders and aggressive issues.
THK: What are some common issues that can be treated by a veterinary behaviorist?
Stefanie Schwartz: Aggression, destruction, house soiling, and anxiety are the most common categories of misbehavior. Within each category there are many dozens of different possibilities that must be considered for every case. There are others as well, such as compulsive disorders (e.g. tail-chasing dogs, overgrooming in cats). Between 1/3 to 1/2 of the cases I see have an underlying medical problem.
THK: What are the treatment methods used?
Stefanie Schwartz: Behavior modification includes classical conditioning, reward-based operant conditioning, desensitization techniques, application of obedience commands, introduction of new obedience commands, and psychoactives.
THK: Do different species of animals have different psychosocial needs?
Stefanie Schwartz: Some animals are social by nature and do better in the company of others of their own kind. However, some dogs prefer to be alone and do not tolerate other dogs. Sometimes this depends on how well they’ve been socialized before the age of 13 weeks. Cats can suffer from separation anxiety just the way dogs do, and can be very sociable as most cat lovers can tell you. Every species is different, but within each species and breed there are individual variations always.
THK: What is the outlook of treatment for animals with these issues?
Stefanie Schwartz: The vast majority of misbehaviors respond very well to treatment. After over 30 years in practice, I’ve seen pretty much everything you can imagine and then some. Nonhumans suffer from many of the same psychiatric disorders that humans do; we are not very different from each other in so many ways. However, there are some patients that do not respond to treatment and some for whom treatment is not recommended. Just like there are psychopaths … (1 in every 100 people is a psychopath), there are other animals who are extremely abnormal.
THK: How long does treatment typically take?
Stefanie Schwartz: About 1/3 of my cases can be resolved in a single 2-hour visit, and the rest might take 2 or 3 in a 6-month period. The longer a problem is allowed to continue, the more challenging treatment can be. It’s best to start with a true expert in any field for more reliable success.
THK: Why is treatment of these issues so important?
Stefanie Schwartz: The most common reason for the abandonment and euthanasia of most companion animals is a behavior problem. Some pet owners won’t tolerate even the slightest issue, and some just wait too long to seek treatment, or exhaust their resources with self-proclaimed experts before they connect with me. My mission from the start has been to save as many troubled animals as I can. And in a very real way, I’m saving many of their families, too. Children in potty training can be traumatized by the removal of a pet who soils in the house. A newly married couple may split if his dog chews his wife’s expensive shoes. A senior citizen can become ill if her cat scratches her and could be separated from a much loved and needed companion. In a society of growing stress, where families and friends are often dispersed by life’s paths, our pets ground us to what is real and the only thing that really matters. As it’s been said, we don’t remember what people say sometimes, we remember how they make us feel. Our pets make us feel loved and important and not alone. They don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be perfect for their pet parents. If they’re not, that’s when they should call me.
THK: What are some tips to help pet owners keep their pets from developing psychiatric issues?
Stefanie Schwartz: Think of their needs before your own.
THK: Why do behavior problems develop?
Stefanie Schwartz: Sometimes there’s a genetic predisposition, in other cases it can be trauma or a development problem. Every case is different. Some can be traced to a specific experience, others are very complicated. In cases of pets who are adopted as adults, early history is unknown; but even for them, treatment is often successful. They may not be able to tell us what happened, but their symptoms and owners show me the way to help them.
If your pet has a behavior issue you can’t seem to resolve, an expert like a veterinary behaviorist might be in order. Do your research and find one that feels right for you and your pet.