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It Takes a Village





In our job, we understand the importance of looking at the whole picture, which includes evaluating an animal’s environmental experiences, social experiences, learning history and much more. In addition to these many puzzle pieces that come together to make up how behaviorally healthy an animal is, another major piece is being aware of each one’s physical health. We know that physical health and behavioral health are intensely interwoven, which is why when we work with our clients and their furry or feathered friends, we want to do so in tandem with their veterinarian. Working to improve your animal's behavior can mean having multiple people on your team, and that's a good thing! The importance of physical health is something that I talk about with almost every client I meet, so I thought I would share some insight into why we at Homeward Bound find it so important for people to clue their veterinarians in to their companion’s behavior challenges. 



  1. When they don’t feel well, their behavior may change. This is true for people too. Underlying illness or discomfort can make humans irritable or withdrawn, and animals are no different. In fact, sometimes behavior change is the only outward indicator of a problem in both. While some animals may experience a behavior change related solely to their health status, many cases we see find that suboptimal health is more like gas on a fire. This means that they may have a behavior hurdle that has nothing to do with their physical health, but when they aren’t feeling their best, it pushes them over the edge or changes how well they cope with their stress. That may look like intensifying behavior problems to the humans around them, which may cause them to reach out to behavior professionals. Health information can help us put together a picture of what details may be driving or adding to their companion's motivation.

  2. Health conditions can change how we work. Knowing the status of an animal’s health can help us determine the best customized plan for treatment of their behavior challenges. If we know that a cat has arthritis, it may change what we recommend for their litter box set up or for what kind of enrichment they may need. If a dog has a sensitive stomach, we may shift what kind of reinforcement we’re using to achieve a desired behavior. We want the plans we put together to be about your kiddo as an individual so it can be the best experience for you both.

  3. Unresolved health concerns can make for slower progress. Not only can knowing help us understand and create a plan for a client, but it also helps us in getting closer to progress. If a health issue is not managed well, it can make behavior modification and emotional change difficult, as we aren’t fully meeting the animal’s needs. This doesn’t mean that animals with ongoing medical problems can’t make progress, it just means that managing discomfort will be key in the process. 

  4. Some medical problems are easy to miss. It’s very common for even the most attentive of guardians to miss potential underlying medical issues, as sometimes the only signal to those issues are behavior change. Most people know what flags to look out for that are common for a problem. If their animal is limping or vomiting for example, they know that they need to take them in to see their vet. The problem is that many animals are hardwired to hide pain or illness, which means that determining a problem can be trickier than we think sometimes.

  5. Pain and illness isn’t always black and white. So often we hear from our clients (both in behavior work and at the vet clinics we collectively spent years at) that they don’t think pain could be a significant factor because their companion does things that seem diametrically opposed to how we might behave or move if we were in pain. For example, Fluffy will fetch the ball all day, so there’s no way that he has joint pain. Here’s the thing, adrenaline is a heck of a drug. It does amazing things for masking pain. Additionally, animals don’t necessarily always understand that they need to take it easy if they’re hurting, especially if the pain is not continuously there or at the same intensity all the time. If you or anyone you know has ever experienced prolonged or chronic pain or illness, you’ll probably understand that pain or discomfort levels can fluctuate depending on a lot of different factors. The same can be true for animals, who can be struggling with transient discomfort, which may mean inconsistent physical responses, energy levels or moods. 


So if we know that medical problems can hide in plain sight, and that they can play a key role in behavioral health, how can you do your due diligence in ruling out issues with your companion? Your veterinarian is the person with the knowledge to properly assess your companion’s health. It will be up to you and your veterinarian to determine what is appropriate for ruling out medical concerns, and while it’s not always necessary, don’t be surprised if your vet recommends something beyond just an exam. While physical exams can help tell your vet a lot, the adrenaline that most animals experience while in a vet clinic (either from overstimulation or stress) can easily mask pain responses or cover up important indicators. 


Not every behavior problem has a medical issue behind it, but knowing physical health complications are not a contributing factor can make all the difference in success for many. If you notice your companion’s behavior has shifted, either increasing in intensity or changing abruptly, please make an appointment with your vet to make sure they’re physically feeling their best.


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