Merck Manual

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Professional Version

Overview of Behavioral Medicine


Gary M. Landsberg

, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECAWBM, North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic

Reviewed/Revised May 2014 | Modified Nov 2022

An animal’s “behavior” is the product of its genetic composition, the environment in which the animal functions, and the animal’s experience (particularly in the pre- and postnatal environment through the primary socialization period). This section focuses primarily on the diagnosis and treatment of abnormal behavior of domestic animals. For each species, normal social behavior is outlined, followed by a description of common behavioral disorders.

The minimum behavioral welfare requirements for the housing and enrichment of farm, zoo, and laboratory animals, known as the five freedoms, are equally important for family pets. These include freedom from hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury, or disease; fear and distress; and freedom to express normal species behaviors. When these needs are not fully addressed, welfare is compromised and both health and behavior problems arise.

In companion animals, behavior problems weaken the pet–owner bond, resulting in a decreased owner commitment to pet care. They are a primary reason for pet relinquishment and euthanasia. Yet studies show that many owners do not report behavior changes to their veterinarian, and most veterinarians neglect to inquire about them. Thus, screening for any behavioral changes or emerging behavior problems should be done at each veterinary visit to ensure that the behavioral health, physical health, and welfare of the pet are being effectively and humanely managed.

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