Mind and Body


There is a strong link between physical and mental health in our companion animals. In the past 12 months, I have been spending a lot more time with veterinary behaviourists, because behavioural issues often have a physical component, and physical issues can often lead to behavioural ones.

Here's an obvious example.

When your pet goes in for surgery, regardless of how amazing the clinic is, your pet's routine is interrupted. Suddenly there are strange dogs and people moving around. Different food bowls, smells, sounds, and potentially different food. Toilet times are changed, and surfaces can be utterly different, dirt instead of grass, or a different litter substrate. They are also likely in pain or discomfort. These changes can cause stress on your pet and put them in a situation that they have lost independence and control.

With all these changes, it is perfectly understandable if your pet is not it a positive frame of mind. These pets can become reactive, lose appetite and become disinterested in even trying to move around or do exercises.

Finding ways to give these animals control and choices as well as assisting them and their owners with their physical healing can greatly improve the outcome and speed up recovery. A calmer, happier pet also tends to have less complications. This is an obvious example of how the mind and body can be linked and why both elements need to be treated and addressed simultaneously.

Most of the cases I am working with are not nearly so apparent, but the link between physical and behavioural issues is still there in many cases. Often cases that have been deemed a 'behavioural issue' have a physical component that, when treated, help to resolve the problem behaviour. Some examples I have seen lately:

  • A dog who growled aggressively when their back and rear end was being brushed. This behavioural issued was because the dog had hip dysplasia. Treatment with exercise therapy and pain medication helped the owners succeed in counter conditioning.
  • A highly reactive dog who would become aggressive when dogs ran at them. It was found that they had biceps tendinopathy and thus didn't feel like they could run away or escape unwanted attention, so instead would bark and lunge to make other dogs stay away. Exercise and manual therapies to relieve the underlying problem, along with further behaviour modification with the help of a veterinary behaviourist, helped resolve the dog's anxiety.
  • A cat who has suddenly started urinating on the carpet next to the kitty litter tray. An assessment discovered arthritis that was making stepping over the side of the litter tray painful for the cat. A simple change to the litter tray solved the problem.
  • An otherwise excellent agility dog who suddenly started avoiding jumps and knocking over bars that no amount of training could resolve. Upon assessment, a fractured toe was discovered, a few weeks’ rest and time for the fracture to heal resolved the jumping issues.

My hope is that this short article will get you thinking that your pet (or your patients) may not just be being 'naughty' or 'difficult'. They may have a great reason for their behaviour, and since our pets can't tell us what is going on, it's our job to do the work, and find out what the underlying issues is so we can help them.

I will be starting a 'case of the month' shortly and will be highlighting how behavioural changes have been linked to improvements in physical wellbeing and cases were improvements in physical wellbeing have occurred because of appropriate behavioural management. 

Dr Jaime Jackson