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Will neutering change his behaviour?

Abstract

This month, a first-time dog owner recounts their experience of getting their puppy neutered

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What can help your approach

  • Making the decision to neuter a pet, while it is seen as a routine procedure in veterinary practice, can be a huge source of anxiety for pet owners.

  • Separate taking a history from the physical examination to make sure that your client feels listened to and that all their concerns have been addressed.

  • Many pet owners value their veterinary practice as a trusted source of pet health information. When they have sought information on the internet, work with your client to help them decide if that information can be trusted, and if you don’t know, find somebody who does.

We took Ernest, our Lakeland terrier, to the vet twice in the first few months of getting him as a puppy due to behavioural concerns. From an early age, he displayed what we thought was separation anxiety. He would howl and cry when left, scratch at his crate and destroy toys or carpet when we left him in the room next door, or grab hold of clothing as we attempted to leave.

We planned for him to be neutered at the suggested six months of age. When we took him to the vet, we wanted to know more about what neutering may do to his behaviour as we had heard it could change, and so wanted a professional opinion rather than advice from sources on the internet, which seemed inconsistent.

Unfortunately, the vet’s description of what effect neutering would have on Ernest’s behaviour was vague, focusing on a standard counselling of operation recovery time and anaesthetic risks. They said little could be predicted about behaviour and they were quick to give us the number of a behaviourist. While this was a proactive move, we walked away with little reassurance on the behavioural effects of the planned operation and certainly no better informed.

On the day of the op we were welcomed by a different vet into the preanaesthetic room. Still having concerns and doubts about behaviour changes, we once again asked, and once again our concerns were dismissed, while they completed a brief physical examination and attached his lead to take him through to the back. Our ‘parental’ anxiety for letting him undergo an operation meant we focused on keeping him calm and reassured him as we left.

Following the neutering, which went well and without complication, we did notice a change in Ernest’s behaviour; he started to howl at night time (this was a new behaviour). When we highlighted this at his post-op check-up there was a lack of support and advice on how to help Ernest, so we sought the help of a private behaviourist who helped us put things in place to reduce his anxiety.

Upon reflection, I feel that if the vet was unsure about what advice to give, it would have been more beneficial from my perspective for the vet to confer with a colleague or ask another colleague to come and talk through my concerns before the operation took place, or suggest a further consultation to discuss these concerns. Alternatively, it would have been helpful for the vet to suggest that the operation could be postponed until we had got advice from a behaviourist – either the one they had suggested or another – rather than going ahead with it.

I don’t expect a vet to be an expert in behaviour as well as everything else, but I felt our concerns were quickly dismissed

In hindsight, I felt it would have been better to have another consultation booked in to discuss our concerns in detail. I don’t expect a vet to be an expert in behaviour as well as everything else, but I felt our concerns were quickly dismissed to focus on a routine consent and preparation for castration rather than seeing the bigger picture.

On both occasions the focus remained on Ernest’s physical rather than psychological health, and the conversation took place at the same time as he was being examined, resulting in little eye contact and, perhaps, poorer understanding of our concerns.

Do you want to get involved?

If you know a client who might be interested in writing for us, please contact us at vet.clientview{at}bmj.com. Any contributions will be assessed by the column’s veterinary coordinator, Zoe Belshaw.

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