What should I study? What next?
- Published 23.10.08
Does your dog jump all over you, block your way and sometimes bite visitors? Does your pet have a behaviour problem? An animal psychiatrist / behaviourist should then be your first resource. He is the one who might help in finding the best solution to your pet’s problems.
Earlier, a pet with such problems would simply be called naughty. Today, he could be diagnosed as suffering from a “hierarchy-related disorder” and prescribed tranquilisers and therapy. And it is not just millionaires who take pets to behaviour specialists. Dejected dogs are prescribed Prozac anti-depressants or generic equivalents and tranquilisers designed specially for them. Cats, which often suffer from territorial disorders after moving house, are kept to a small room to reduce the effect of “anxiety-producing” new territory. Pet psychologists even treat jealous parrots and lovebirds, which are known to fall in love with their owners.
Are such pet problems just a whim of well-to-do people who have nothing more important to worry about? Specialists of animal behaviour say that their field is only beginning to get the attention it deserves. Aggressive horses, scared pigs and hyperactive dogs are some of the patients treated by them. Today, an animal’s psychological constitution is recognised by veterinary surgeons as an important part of its living condition in domestication or captivity.
• What do I have to do?
The primary work of animal psychiatrists is diagnosis of an animal’s problems, followed by treatment — which includes medication — change in its living condition and counselling of its owner. Animals can be treated with medication and therapy in the same way that human beings are.
Common causes of behaviour disorder in captive or pet animals are lack of stimulation, inappropriate stimulation or over-stimulation. These conditions can lead to disorders, unpredictable and unwanted behaviour and sometimes even physical symptoms and diseases. For example, rats exposed to loud music for a long period of time may develop unwanted behaviour and start biting their owners. The condition has been compared to human psychosis. The way dogs behave when under-stimulated is widely believed to depend on the breed as well as the individual animal’s character. Dogs are prone to psychological damage if they are subjected to violence. If they are treated very badly, they may become dangerous. Dogs can also suffer from separation anxiety, and can howl or tear furniture when their owner leaves the house.
Owners can treat such disorder by pretending to leave and returning immediately. Animal psychiatrists help a pet in overcoming depression, which may result in loss of appetite, anxiety and other symptoms.
Cats, on the other hand, need a clearly defined territory, and can begin urinating on the floor to mark boundaries if their owner re-arranges the furniture. Cats are also hunters who need action and adventure, and should be stimulated with toys and games. Even parrots can become depressed by changes such as moving from country to town. They begin to pick their feathers and injure themselves.
• What should I study?
You should have a degree in animal behaviour from an accredited university. Besides you need to have patience, perseverance and an interest in animal behaviour.
Concern and sympathy towards animals and an objective approach towards their problems are important attributes of animal psychiatrists.
• What next?
Learning psychology provides an excellent foundation for working with animals in any situation: farms, zoos, veterinary practices, pet shops or even the wild. There are employment prospects in the following areas — zoos, conservation groups and museums. Other jobs include working as animal caretakers at zoos, universities, research institutions and pet stores.