Sarah qualified from Bristol University and spent four years in mixed general practice before setting up Behavioural Referrals Veterinary Practice in 1992. She is an RCVS and European Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine. Sarah is an External Lecturer in small animal behavioural medicine at Liverpool University and a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist under the ASAB accreditation scheme.
She sees clinical cases across North West England. In 2002 Sarah became a Founding Diplomate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine (formerly the ECVBM-CA) and served as President from 2002 to 2008.
She is currently Treasurer of the College. Sarah has a special interest in the interplay between behaviour and physical illness in dogs and cats and particularly in the role of pain. Sarah promotes the recognition of emotional health issues in companion animals and the role of the veterinary profession in safeguarding the welfare of animals in this context.
She lectures extensively at home and abroad on behavioural topics and is an author, co-author and editor of several books including Behavioural Medicine for Small Animals and Feline Behavioural Health and Welfare, both published by Elsevier.
Integrating Behavioural Medicine into General Practice
One of the main reasons that is given for the poor level of behavioural medicine advice offered by veterinary practices is a lack of time. Accurately diagnosing behavioural conditions and advising on appropriate management and treatment approaches does indeed take time. However, there is a still an important role for the general practice in the field of behavioural medicine.
The ten-minute general practice consultation does not offer enough time to thoroughly investigate behavioural cases, but it is an ideal starting point. If the time is used wisely a great deal of very important advice can be given during the consultation, both in terms of preventative behavioural advice and guidance as to where to find suitable assistance with existing issues.
Coupling this with veterinary nurse clinics, for adolescent pets, fearful and anxious patients, overweight animals and others, emotional intelligence classes for puppies, information evenings for kitten owners and a beneficial relationship with a suitably qualified animal behaviourist, will enable practices to offer a comprehensive and effective behavioural medicine service.
The Importance of Emotional Health in Relation to Physical Health
Until recently the emotional health of patients has been largely overlooked in the veterinary context. However, one of the daily challenges in general practice is to deal with physical health issues which are influenced by emotional health and to consider medical differentials when presented with patients displaying behavioural clinical signs.
Exclusion of medical factors is especially relevant when behavioural symptoms are sudden in onset, symptoms show an unexpected form of progression and there is a poor response to conventionally accepted forms of behavioural modification. Similarly, the potential for an underlying emotional component should not be ignored especially if physical disease is recurrent, patients show concurrent alterations in behavioural responses and there is a poor response to conventionally accepted forms of medical therapy.
The interplay between physical and emotional health also needs to be considered when making medical and surgical decisions and considering treatment strategies.
Assessing Emotional Health in Dogs and Cats
In order to offer an effective behavioural medicine service within general practice it is important to be able to accurately assess the emotional health of patients. In order to do this veterinary staff need to be able to understand the behavioural, postural and facial signals that are used by different species to convey information about their emotional state and level of emotional arousal.
One of the common responses to discussion about emotional health in animals is to state that “they cannot tell us how they are feeling”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dogs and cats express their emotional motivations very clearly but using communication channels that humans are notoriously bad at noticing and understanding. Learning more about species specific communication is the key to accurately assessing emotional health.
Practical Tips on How to Deal with Behaviourally Challenging Patients in Practice
Visits to the veterinary practice can be stressful for both patients and clients as well as for practice staff. Fractious behaviour is an indicator of emotional challenge for the patient and can increase the potential for human injury. In order to deal effectively with behaviourally challenging patients it is essential to consider the veterinary visit from the animal’s perspective and to learn how to anticipate and prevent potentially harmful situations.
In many cases a behaviourally aware approach can reduce the potential for conflict but veterinary practice staff will also need to select appropriate strategies for dealing with the more challenging patients, in a way that safeguards the safety of the owner and the veterinary team but also ensures the welfare of the patient that has been committed to their care.