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Developing an interest in behaviour
  1. Claire Corridan

Abstract

Claire Corridan studied veterinary medicine because she was interested in animal welfare. She has since built her career on behavioural medicine

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VETERINARY behavioural medicine may have been only a tiny fraction of my undergraduate veterinary education at Glasgow vet school, but even as a student I knew that it would be the most important part of my veterinary career. Behaviour is a fundamental means of assessing and understanding welfare in animals, irrespective of species. I became a vet because I was interested in animal welfare and so, for me, it seemed obvious that I would have to learn to understand animal behaviour.

Claire Corridan (right) teaches a puppy the concept that good behaviour is rewarded

Studies in farm animal husbandry and welfare were abundant and well accepted within the veterinary profession. These studies contributed towards the foundations of animal welfare legislation and recommendations for good animal husbandry. We learned about the Five Freedoms and the importance of ‘happy’ animals being more productive animals too. Yet, when it came to companion animals, the terms ‘animal behaviourist’ and ‘psychologist’ were often regarded at best as a romanticised calling and at worst as a bit of a joke.

Having spent time both at school and as a veterinary student volunteering and then seeing practice in animal charity hospitals and animal rescue shelters, I could never understand why so many unwanted animals were being euthanased simply because their behaviour was not considered ‘acceptable’ by their owners.

While studying for my final-year exams I flicked through the recruitment section of Veterinary Record (true displacement activity!), dreaming of the possibilities for my future. One title, ‘Do you fancy a challenge?’, caught my eye. The job entailed setting up a new animal charity hospital in a remote part of the UK, for people who were unable to easily take up the opportunity of support from any of the big national charity organisations. The interview waited until after my exams, and in the absence of more experienced (and no doubt more expensive) applicants, the job was mine.

UK shelters are full of animals looking for new homes

I may have been green and idealistic in the beginning, but the harsh realities of budgeting and reliance on public goodwill were learned quickly! Seeking stronger support networks and more clinical experience, I then moved back into traditional small animal practice. There I learned as much as I could from more experienced colleagues and secured a stronger foundation both clinically and surgically. Working with animals will always be a joy, but the move from charity to private clients took adjusting to. It never fails to amaze me that many pet owners consider perfectly normal canine or feline behaviours to be problematic or unacceptable, while others rearrange their homes, social lives and expectations to accommodate the quirks of their latest pet.

A combination of enthusiasm to pursue my interest in veterinary behaviour, and frustration with the unrealistic expectations of so many of my small animal clients, led me into a part-time position in a 100 per cent behaviour referral practice. I was keen to spend the remainder of my time firmly ensconced in small animal general practice to ensure that my clinical and surgical skills remained fresh, and that my confidence and abilities continued to develop.

Qualifications

Gaining further qualifications in veterinary behavioural medicine is accessible for those in the veterinary profession. We now have RCVS recognised specialists in this field and European diplomas via the European College of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine (www.ecvbm.org) for those wishing to dedicate themselves to this subject on a full-time basis. Ten years ago, however, things were less straightforward and, for those wishing to gain qualifications without leaving clinical practice, life was far from simple.

I believed that further qualifications were essential for anyone wishing to practise in this field, so I spent time researching the options that were available to me without having to leave small animal practice entirely. Fortunately, I came across the option to study for a part-time PhD at the University of Lincoln with Daniel Mills.

Professor Mills is one of a very few veterinary surgeons specialised in the field of behavioural medicine, and he was (and is) keen to encourage other veterinary surgeons interested in contributing to research in this area. Having started out with a long list of welfare issues that I wanted to study, we settled on ‘The role of owner expectation on development of a successful human:dog bond’, which I hoped would help answer some of the questions I had about why people get dogs but then don't allow or expect them to act as such.

Research

My undergraduate education had not really prepared me for tackling research methods or statistics, so I invested in some good books and spent time in tutorials for the various skills I needed: IT, statistics, writing theses, and so on. Professor Mills encouraged me to try some teaching on a part-time basis, which I had never considered trying, and I discovered that it was not only fun but also hugely rewarding to teach enthusiastic students about a subject that you love!

Working as a ‘normal vet’, mainly on a locum basis, while studying, teaching, carrying out research, and learning statistics and how to write in sentences and paragraphs again was certainly a challenge. I was fortunate in being allowed to study the subject I wanted to, and to be able to design my studies to fit in around my work, and then pace myself and do the writing up to suit my other commitments. I won't pretend that it was easy or that I didn't spend tedious days on end entering data and trying to decipher the intricacies of statistical analyses, but I can honestly say that the experience was invaluable, rewarding and well worth the time investment. I think that my time as a vet, seeing real cases and talking to clients on a daily basis made me a better researcher, and that my studies and research make me a better vet in return.

For vets who want to contribute to development and progress in their field of interest without having to give up or take time out from practice, a part-time PhD may provide an ideal choice.

I have been fortunate in having the opportunity to present my PhD research at conferences and events across the UK and Europe. I have contributed towards a number of articles, reviews and publications in the field of veterinary behaviour and welfare, and I present seminars for clients, vets, veterinary nurses and animal behaviourists on a range of related subjects. I am currently working with a number of the UK-based dog charities to incorporate my PhD research findings into their adoption protocols so that new rescue dog owners are better prepared for the responsibilities of dog ownership.

Full circle

Closing the circle of my story, my husband and I have recently moved back to Scotland, where we are setting up a small animal veterinary clinic, Nethan Valley Veterinary Centre, offering behavioural prophylaxis as well as the services of a first-opinion practice. Our sister company, Great Expectations Veterinary Consultancy, will continue to offer veterinary behaviour referral services, as well as dog training and agility classes for clients throughout central Scotland.

As first-opinion practitioners, we have an ideal opportunity to help influence owners' expectations and set the foundations for a healthy and realistic human/animal bond. Many problem behaviour cases result from underlying pathology, while others can be exacerbated by it. If, as veterinary surgeons, we are to understand and treat the entire animal, we must pay equal attention to its physical, mental and emotional health. At the same time, in providing a worthwhile and sustainable service for our small animal clients, we must understand the importance of the pet's role within that person or family's life and their expectations for their relationship. This enables us to provide appropriate and sensitive care to fulfil both clients' and animals' needs.

Our new practice is the next step in what has been a challenging and fulfilling career, and one that should offer me an opportunity to continue contributing to further research and education in this field.

Developing a regulatory framework

During the past 10 years, pet behaviour has become a national interest, and pet owners are inundated with TV programmes, personalities, books, DVDs and websites on the subject.

Thankfully, the veterinary profession is now realising that clients are exposed to more behavioural information than ever before, not all of it useful. It is important that practices are either able to provide appropriate information and advice, or refer on to suitably qualified behavioural practitioners, to ensure their clients' needs are met.

I have been involved in the Companion Animal Welfare Council-initiated scheme to establish a framework for regulation of individuals working in the fields of animal behaviour and training in the UK. The scheme aims to ensure that animal welfare standards are maintained, and that the public can make informed choices about the practitioners they go to for help with problem behaviour cases.

Since my student days, I have been a member of the Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group (CABTSG [www.cabtsg.org], which is affiliated to BSAVA). CABTSG meetings, events and forums have enabled me to meet up with like-minded individuals. I have been involved on its committee for the past seven years, and have been honorary secretary for the past three years.

I have met some wonderful and inspiring individuals through this group, and I have had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of young vets and veterinary students starting off as idealistic and green as I once was. If even one of them chooses to pursue an interest in the fields of behaviour and welfare, then I will feel privileged to have been part of that.

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