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One dog refuses to walk up some stairs and down others.

Another dog barks when his owner leaves the house. A cat has taken to grooming to the point of hair loss.

These are examples of very different behaviors, but they are behaviors that may be helped by a veterinary behaviorist—aka a pet psychiatrist.

Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a board certified veterinary behaviorist in the Orange County, California area, says she mainly works with dogs and cats, but has also treated birds, horses, bunnies, and the occasional Vietnamese pot-bellied pig for various behavior issues. Here’s what else she had to say about her profession:

The Honest Kitchen: What does a “pet shrink” do?

Stefanie Schwartz: A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has specialty training and board certification in the equivalent to veterinary psychiatry. Any dog trainer can call themselves a “behaviorist” or “behavior specialist,” however, they do not need any special permission to use these labels. A veterinary specialist, just like a medical specialist, cannot use that term without additional training and licensing. Veterinary behaviorist diagnose behavior problems of animals in zoos, on the farm, in the wild, and in homes. We always consider the possibility of underlying medical issues, and are trained to tailor treatment plans for every individual patient. We use techniques that psychologists use with people, and also have the option to use psychoactive medication if needed to relieve our patients of their distress.

THK: How does pet psychiatry compare or contrast with human psychiatry?

Stefanie Schwartz: Pet psychiatry compares best to pediatric psychiatry. Our patients can’t verbally express what they’re feeling or why, but with careful observation and thorough histories, we diagnose many types of anxiety disorders (PTSD, separation anxiety syndrome, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias), and a complex of compulsive disorders and aggressive issues.

THK: What are some common issues that can be treated by a veterinary behaviorist?

Stefanie Schwartz: Aggression, destruction, house soiling, and anxiety are the most common categories of misbehavior. Within each category there are many dozens of different possibilities that must be considered for every case. There are others as well, such as compulsive disorders (e.g. tail-chasing dogs, overgrooming in cats). Between 1/3 to 1/2 of the cases I see have an underlying medical problem.


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