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My veterinary behaviour medicine journey

Updated: May 5, 2020

How the dog I adopted in veterinary school sparked my passion for animal behaviour, and made me an advocate for the mental health of all pets. - Dr Cathy Lau

The story of Haylee

I was a final year vet student when Haylee, the little Chihuahua cross pictured above, was presented to a vet clinic with an injury to her foot. She was surrendered to the clinic as her previous owner sadly could not afford her basic veterinary care. I initially took her on as a “foster”, but after 2 days of living together I decided to adopt her, and since then we have developed a strong and loving bond.

Haylee was a great and gentle little dog, who loved people. I enjoyed taking her out to cafes and going for walks together, and sometimes I let her play with other dogs at the park.

After I graduated from vet school I moved to Adelaide for my first job, and of course Haylee came with me. At that time, she was 3 years old. She gradually developed aggression towards other dogs and I often felt embarrassed because of that.

Her problem appeared to be worse when she was on a leash. I could not take her out to cafes anymore because she was too reactive. Even though she is a small dog, I found it extremely stressful to cope with her behaviour, because I never knew when she would overreact again and cause trouble.

Coincidentally, there was a vet behaviourist in Adelaide holding a seminar on “leash reactivity” and I signed up. It was an eye opener for me. That day, I learnt something which was never properly explained to me in vet school - understanding a dog’s behaviour from the most fundamental level – how they are actually feeling.

Like people, pets can also suffer from mental health illnesses, which affects their brain’s ability to cope with stimulation and stress. When I changed my approach of looking at the issue, everything started to make sense – I could recognise that Haylee had always been hyper-vigilant when she was walking and she had difficulties settling down, and when there were any triggers, she overreacted.

We had a couple of consultations with the vet behaviourist, who identified Haylee’s issues and created a detailed treatment plan. Haylee was commenced on anti-anxiety medication in combination with a behaviour modification programme, and her anxiety and reactivity improved significantly. I knew from the beginning that this would be something needing to be managed for the rest of her life, and I made the commitment to make her slowly feel better day by day.

Strong communication and a trusting bond were the fundamentals of getting her better. Therefore, I have developed a varied vocabulary, as well as visual cues, which have helped us to understand each other and communicate effectively. We also attended agility and sniffer dog classes, for different forms of mentally enriching exercises.

It has been five years since she was diagnosed and we started her treatment, and she does still have her moments. She is still on regular behaviour medications, and they have made a huge difference on how she can cope with stress and to her overall quality of life.

Every pet has their own personality, is living in a unique environment and is facing their own individual challenges. Having a pet is a huge commitment and a long-term relationship. I believe that understanding limits and what make us and them feel better in challenging situations is the ultimate goal.

My journey in the field of veterinary behaviour medicine

When Haylee was diagnosed with anxiety I started to read a lot about mental health problems in pets, and I realised that they are common issues in today's society. Unfortunately, veterinary behavioural medicine is a relatively neglected area of veterinary science, partially due to inadequate training in the field at most of our universities in their veterinary science programmes.

Now, after years of post-graduate study and practice in the field, I approach all pet’s behavioural issues by first gaining an understanding of the animal’s emotional status. I use methods guided by compassion to resolve the problems I discover, to positively impact the animals’ and their owners’ lives.

Three years ago I took on the challenge of setting up a vet clinic from scratch. Due to my background in behaviour medicine, I had a strong will to implement Low Stress Handling in my GP veterinary clinic. I always believed that animals need to feel comfortable when visiting the vet and should receive important veterinary treatments from someone they can trust.

Just imagine yourself going to the hospital for treatment. I am sure you would want the nurses and doctors to communicate with you, keep you informed of what was going to happen, and make you feel comfortable and cared for. Pet are an important member of modern families, should receive the same attention.

I received my Low Stress Handling training from Dr Sophia Yin, which added to my existing knowledge. I was also fortunate enough to have a team that shared the same vision. Together, we created a low stress vet clinic that we are proud of.

The reason I began Positive Elements is to share my knowledge and methods with pet owners, the public and other veterinary professionals. My aim is for all humans to understand that animals have emotions, that they can feel fear, anger, sadness and happiness, and to communicate with them appropriately.

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