Veterinary care education navigates the complexities of animal behavior

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Dr. Elizabeth Lindquist examines a dog boarding at the Little Apple Veterinary Hospital. (Archive photo | Collegian Media Group)

Anyone who owns a dog or cat knows they can act up in ways that defy explanation. To most people, animal behavior is a mystery. But for veterinarians, understanding body language and behavior is critical to providing care.

“To me, veterinary medicine has a lot in common with pediatrics,” said Susan Rose, instructor at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We have emotional owners — which equate to emotional parents — who bring their ‘children’ in, their fur babies and they’re concerned about them.

“And our patients can’t communicate with us in words, just like a child cannot communicate to a doctor. … So we look at the patient, and we have to try to see what that patient is trying to communicate to us about what is wrong with them,” Rose said. “And yes, there are diagnostics, but at the very front, they are needing to look at the patient to read the body language.”

Rose, a registered veterinary nurse, teaches animal behavior as part of the clinical skills curriculum for first and second year veterinary medicine students and has over 37 years of experience working with animals professionally.

Technology has advanced veterinary care. Videos can be a tool for diagnosing distressed animals, since the animals might not be displaying the same behavior when they’re actually in the clinic, Rose said.

“That’s the nice thing about smartphones nowadays — everybody has a video camera,” Rose said. “Requesting owners to bring with them when they come to the clinic a videotape of their animal at home, so they can show the doctor what they’re seeing at home and why they’re bringing the animal in.”

Something that has resounded with Eden Opie, second year veterinary student, from learning about animal behavior is just how sensitive animals’ senses are.

“That’s how they communicate and how they interact,” Opie said. “We have language, and we also read body language, but just dogs and cats in particular, their smell is incredible. Their hearing and their vision are just so much better than ours, and they pick up on way more than just we do, and so that’s super important.”

Rose said that beyond the intensity of their senses, the species of an animal plays a role in understanding their behavior in the clinic and elsewhere, especially in terms of whether the animal is wired as ‘predator’ or ‘prey.’

“Behavior is a reflection of how animals are wired, and I think it’s important that anyone who owns an animal or works with animals … know how the animal perceives the world,” Rose said. “Knowing how their senses are different than ours is really important, because that speaks a lot to then how they’re reacting to the world.

“Often a lot of people talk about animals having bad behavior, and the question is, is it really bad behavior?” Rose continued. “Or are they responding to something in their environment? Is it motivated by actually a medical condition, or some kind of social stress that’s put on them?”

Opie said clinical sciences has made her more aware of the nuances of animal behavior in general.

“I’m much more aware of, before I approach an animal, I’m reading what they’re sending me, facial expression, how tense their body is,” Opie said. “It’s definitely opened my eyes to different things I wouldn’t have seen before.”

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My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.