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Anxiety and fear tackled at BVBA day

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01 May 2016, at 1:00am

Caroline Bower reports on the BVBA's affiliate programme at the BSAVA congress in which speakers looked at combating anxiety and fear-related problems in the canine population.

KEEP CALM AND CANI- ON was the somewhat tongue-in- cheek title for the British Veterinary Behaviour Association’s affiliate day at BSAVA congress. As the title suggests, the theme was combating anxiety and fear-related problems in dogs – and it was a popular one because there were 100 delegates in attendance, the most ever.

First speaker was Sagi Denenburg, an RCVS recognised specialist in veterinary behaviour, based at Langford, who gave an informative and detailed lecture on the anatomy and physiology of neurocircuits involved with fear and anxiety.

Although this sounds like a rather dry topic, Sagi made it enjoyable and entertaining with his clear delivery and humour. He explained the processes which occur in the brain and how they are relevant to the effects of certain anxiolytic medications. 

Next up was Professor Xavier Manteca from the school of veterinary science in Barcelona who explored the subject of Separation Anxiety, its origins, risk factors, symptoms and differential diagnoses.

Separation anxiety has a prevalence of 15-30% in the canine population, and is significantly under-diagnosed and treated.

As it has a high prevalence and longevity, which can often lead to relinquishment or euthanasia, this is a serious welfare problem in dogs.

Risk factors include gender (males > females), breed, stress in early life, noise sensitivity and hyper-attachment. He was at pains to tell us that some, but by no means all, cases were associated with over-attachment to the owner.

Xavier explained treatment programmes which the research group in Barcelona has been trialling with success, involving environmental enrichment and behaviour modi cation strategies in particular.

Most interesting was the fact that, unlike the treatment recommended by most authors to date, he recommends increasing the predictability of the owner’s departure.

This makes sense when we consider the fact that lack of control and lack of predictability are two major factors which increase stress in animals. [For further information see Animal Welfare (2014) 23: 263-266].

Jon Bowen, veterinary behaviourist based at the RVC, took a fresh look at our approach to noise phobias, starting with the fact that 49% of UK dogs exhibit some degree of fear related to reworks, thunder or gunshot noises.

Only 30% of owners with noise- phobic dogs seek advice so this is another prevalent welfare issue. Severe noise phobias have a significant impact on the dog’s and owner’s quality of life and their relationship.

Jon explored strategies for active case detection and severity assessment, current treatment methods and how to apply them across the range of mild to severely affected dogs. He encouraged us to look at preventive strategies, in particular with puppies, and through good breeder and owner education using the free Sounds Sociable download from Dogs Trust.

Next he stressed the importance of early detection and intervention in dogs with mild to moderate noise fears, where treatment outcomes are more favourable than in the cases where a full-blown phobia has developed.

He highlighted the availability of a tool to aid awareness; this is an online Sound Sensitivity questionnaire hosted on Ceva’s Adaptil website, which practices could use with owners, particularly in advance of the rework season, to help identify potential cases and recommend treatment (www.adaptil.com/uk/What- Causes-Stress-in-Dogs/Behaviourist- Fear-of-Fireworks-Assessment).

For severe cases, desensitisation and counter-conditioning is still the corner- stone of therapy, but with care still to also address environmental factors, husbandry and diet, goal-directed training and owner education.

The Sounds Scary programme is also available as a free download from the Dogs Trust website (www.dogstrust. org.uk/help-advice/dog-behaviour- health/sound-therapy-for-pets).

After a lunch break, poster sessions and some very interesting and well- presented short research-based papers, the final main speaker, Steve Goward, explored stress-related problems in rescue shelters, focusing on a number of case studies which were well illustrated by video footage.

There were a number of dogs with stereotypic behaviour patterns, and Steve described the various measures which were used in the rescue context to improve the behaviour and welfare of these dogs.

We looked beyond the five needs to factors such as diet (taste, texture and delivery), avoiding unnecessary resource competition between dogs, sleep issues (safety, thermal comfort, lack of noise disturbance), and environmental enrichment in its widest sense. 

The poster presentations were a new addition, and were well received by the audience. Presenters had three minutes to summarise their posters and then delegates were able to browse and discuss points with them during the breaks.

The short research papers presented were of a consistently high standard, showing some of the original and well-planned investigative work which is being carried out in the behaviour world.

This was a very full and enlightening day with plenty of opportunity to discuss behaviour with other delegates and the sponsors: Ceva Animal Health, Dogs Trust, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Royal Canin, Vétoquinol and Petplan.