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What is a veterinary behaviorist?

What is a veterinary behaviorist?
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History

Some early background
Every specialty in a medical field has its beginnings with individuals intrigued by the subject, and who see a place for the subject in their respective discipline or profession. Animal behavior was a long-established discipline before we started to see the obvious role that animal behavior has in veterinary medicine. Indeed, the discipline of behavior of domestic animals was recognized and, at least pertaining to large animals, was taught in departments of Animal Science. A cohort of young veterinary students with a strong interest in basic animal behavior and applying the information to clinical problems, veterinary clinical practice, started to emerge in the 1960s. After getting advanced degrees and then faculty positions at the University of California at Davis, Cornell University and Texas A & M University, we looked for opportunities at our respective institutions – and quite independently.

Stand-alone Behavior Services
By the late 1970s the behavior cases increased to the point where a new, stand-alone service needed to be implemented at veterinary schools. Through the 1980s and 1990s, behavior cases continued to increase and regional practitioners knew they could refer cases to a veterinary colleague with some expertise.

An important point to make is that the introduction of behavior into the veterinary curriculum and clinical services was driven by the demand for help with problem behaviors by the animal owners, not by administrators. Virtually none of the faculty in those days had even heard of clinical behavior or behavior medicine. And with the ongoing battle for curricular time, getting a required course approved for behavior was a hard sell.

The impetus for clinically-oriented research
In those days – the 1970s-1980s – one could not be teaching and doing clinical work in behavior without noticing the dearth of evidence-based information to solve or understand clinical problems. Urine spraying in cats was a big one, as was aggression in dogs.  In the early stages, there emerged some information about the behavioral effects of the most common surgical procedure and the relationships of diet and behavior, which has only grown in the breadth and depth of areas that have been researched.

Popularity of clinical behavior in CE programs and beyond
As soon as word got around to practitioners that there was some expertise in behavior, veterinary behaviorists found themselves being invited to give talks, and occasionally a continuing education series, to practitioners who wanted more information about behavior, since they had nothing in this area in veterinary school. It wasn’t long before program planners for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conventions asked us to put on a day of lectures. Rather than just a small handful of curious veterinarians in the audience, the room was more jam packed than any other lecture room at the meeting, and continues to be as popular today as it was then.

The beginnings of a college specialty: AVSAB
As more veterinarians started to get interested in behavior, Bonnie Beaver at Texas A&M University suggested that the leaders in the field form a society addressing their common interest. With this, the American Society of Veterinary Ethology (the name was later changed to the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior) was launched in 1976. At AVMA meetings the ASVE/AVSAB could meet as an interest group, charge some dues, elect officers, and have a series of speakers.

Getting started on ACVB
The pioneers of behavior knew that this discipline was never going to go anyplace in veterinary medicine or be “recognized” until it was a board-certifying specialty within the AVMA roster of board-certifying specialties. This meant a group of founders had to take on the huge effort of showing that it really was a substantial field, it had a critical mass – not too big, not too small – of recognized specialists to lead the process of developing the requirements, and residency training sites were available.

Bonnie Beaver took a leadership role in getting together the critical mass of organizers, setting an agenda for meeting the requirements, and making the initial approach to the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS). The organizing committee included Bonnie, R. K. Anderson, Sharon Crowell-Davis, Benjamin Hart, Katherine Houpt, Elizabeth Shull, Victoria Voith, and Thomas Wolfle. We learned that the ABVS liked to see, on the organizing committee, individuals with board certification in another AVMA-recognized specialty.  We met that expectation with the credentials of Elizabeth Shull in Neurology, R. K. Anderson in Veterinary Public Health, and Tom Wolfle in Laboratory Animal Medicine. Others topped off the credential initials by having PhDs.

Starting in 1989, Bonnie Beaver and Benjamin Hart took on the task of making the ACVB case to ABVS powers-that-be, a group that included representatives of each of the 20-some existing veterinary specialty organizations. We were sent back to the drawing board a couple times, especially in demonstrating that the subject matter really did constitute a separate identifiable specialty. Behind the scenes we debated the possibility of being a sub-specialty under the ACVIM (American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine), versus a stand-alone specialty. It took some convincing, but the ABVS folks were won over for a stand-alone specialty.

Finally, full recognition: ACVB is launched
We received our provisional approval from ABVS in 1993 and the eight members of the organizing committee became the founding diplomates. We had lined up the officers of Bonnie Beaver as the first president, Benjamin Hart as president-elect, Katherine Houpt as secretary, and Thomas Wolfle as treasurer.  Victoria Voith was elected to serve as the first member-at-large to the Board of Regents. Almost as soon as ABVS-AVMA recognition was granted, ACVB started getting support from various like-minded commercial sources. This support has fueled our growth and stability as a specialty. The first comprehensive certifying examination was given in July, 1995, and six people passed that first year.

Conclusion
ACVB is somewhat unique among the veterinary specialties. The activities leading up to the efforts to launch a recognized specialty college and ABVS/AVMA recognition have been driven by a few interested faculty members at veterinary schools seeing a need by the animal owning public, identifying the deficit in training veterinarians, and offering a rounded array of services that a practitioner should offer animal caregivers. The activities have been supported and maintained by students and veterinary colleagues in general practice.

As rewarding as it is to work in this specialty, the field has not seen the full realm of institutional financial support of other specialties possibly because its history as an identified aspect of veterinary medicine is short.  Because it wasn’t around when teaching hospitals identified which residency programs to fund, and because faculty and administrators who currently decide how to allocate resources, after all, got by without behavior.  You can’t say that about microbiology, pathology, internal medicine, surgery, and the like.  The bottom line is that this perspective is understandable and those of us who have invested much of our careers in the specialty can be thankful for the welcoming reception and support we get from our students, our professional colleagues, and the clients who value the contribution we make to the animals they care so much about.