Atlantic Veterinary College starting to provide mental health care for pets

The Atlantic Veterinary College at UPEI has expanded its veterinary medical services to include behaviour medicine.

Mental illness for dogs and cats can be life-threatening, says veterinarian

Sometimes vets can contribute to behavioural or mental issues in pets because they want to be quick when giving shots or other painful services, says Dr. Karen Overall. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Atlantic Veterinary College at UPEI has expanded its veterinary medical services to include behaviour medicine.

Behaviour problems in animals are a major animal welfare issue, and changes can be a flag that an animal is physically ill as well, says Dr. Karen Overall, who will lead the new service.

"We're basically offering mental health care for pets… to help the people who love these animals and have them as parts of their lives," she said. 

The behaviour medicine service is offered primarily for dogs, cats and horses, but other animals can be examined as well.

"If you have a pet rat and that rat is having behaviour problems, or you have a pet lizard and that lizard is having problems, or Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and that pig is having problems, we are happy to see it," Overall said.

Overall says sessions are happening in person and virtually. (University of Prince Edward Island)

People may not realize cats and dogs suffer mental illness at about the same rate humans do, Overall said.

For humans, "there is a 30-per-cent chance over their lifetime that they'll experience a profound depression or anxiety — and the same is true for dogs and cats," she said. "And for dogs and cats, they are life-threatening conditions."

Red flags for cats go beyond increased aggressiveness to no longer using litter boxes or becoming less social than they used to be, Overall said.

In some cases, Overall said veterinarians themselves can contribute to behavioural issues.  

"We are still old-school enough in so many places that we think we just have to get 'er done. Just get the dog in the door and just hold it down and we will just give it that shot. And the next person who has to do something to that dog now has an aggressive dog on their hands," Overall said.

Like-minded network

The AVC also offers a service to foster a culture of humane care in the wider community, she added.

"Like-minded trainers in the area ... have to agree to no shock, no prong collars, no choke collars, no fear, no distress, no punishment and abuse," she said. "And they have to have the training and learning theory to do the behaviour modification programs as we do them."

Overall's staff will work with a local vet, the family who owns the pet, and a trainer to encourage behavioural changes in pets, she said.

The cost for the service varies depending on the animal, but a standard consultation for a dog is about $350, Overall said.

Those wishing to access the service should ask their veterinarian for a referral.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning


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