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Compendium July 2008 (Vol 30, No 7)

Understanding Behavior — Animal Behavior and Animal Welfare

by Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB

    The terms animal behavior and animal welfare may not seem to be related. However, in practice, the two fields are closely related because an understanding of animal behavior is essential to appropriately understanding and addressing issues of animal welfare. Duncan and Fraser1 have identified three broad approaches to the conceptualization of animal welfare for purposes of scientific assessment. A feelings-based approach conceptualizes animal welfare in terms of the animal's subjective experience. Research approaches that test hypotheses within this framework include tests that measure an animal's preference, motivation, behaviors indicative of emotional state, and certain physiologic measures (e.g., cortisol levels). A functioning-based approach conceptualizes animal welfare in terms of biologic measures, including health, reproductive success, and physiologic homeostasis (an absence of changes in behavior or physiology that are considered to be outside the normal range). The third approach relates good animal welfare to raising animals in such a way that they can express the full repertoire of the behavior of their species. While these three approaches represent three different ways of conceptualizing the same issues, all clearly use behavior as some measurement of welfare.1

    Veterinarian Responsibilities

    Many official statements regarding the responsibilities of veterinarians address the welfare as well as the medical health of patients. In the Veterinarian's Oath approved by the AVMA, the veterinarian swears to "use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, [and] the relief of animal suffering…."2 Unfortunately, suffering is not defined and is therefore open to interpretation along a broad continuum. The wording in the AVMA's Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics is more explicit, stating, "Veterinarians should first consider the needs of the patient: to relieve disease, suffering, or disability while minimizing pain or fear." The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Guide to Professional Conduct clearly expresses the duty and goal of the veterinarian to be maximizing animal welfare. It states that the veterinarian is to "treat all patients of whatever species, humanely, with respect, and with welfare as the primary consideration."3 The US-based Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights presents a Contemporary Veterinarian's Oath that focuses on the veterinarian's responsibility to care for animals rather than to care for animals for the benefit of human society: "[T]o protect the health and well-being of all nonhuman animals, to relieve pain and suffering in nonhuman animals, [and] to strengthen the understanding of the inherent needs and interests of all nonhuman animals, …"4

    Veterinarians are often faced with circumstances in which the overall welfare of an animal is improved by an experience that causes some degree of temporary pain. For example, an animal that has broken its leg would be relieved of all pain if it were quickly euthanized. However, repairing the leg is clearly a better option. Yet even with the best use of pain control before, during, and after surgery, the animal will experience some pain while the leg is repaired. Many years ago, it was considered desirable for animals to experience pain after surgery on the principle that pain kept the animal more still, thereby facilitating healing. For many reasons, this approach has mostly disappeared into the dark ages of veterinary medicine, and it is now considered standard to provide pain control at all stages of surgical treatment. Similarly, it should be considered standard to avoid the use of pain in behavior training as much as possible.

    Avoiding the Use of Pain

    Veterinarians who care for dogs and cats are confronted with the need to maximize welfare and minimize suffering, pain, and fear not only during general handling or during treatment of painful injuries or illnesses but also when giving advice regarding the prevention and treatment of behavior problems and the care, training, and handling of animals outside of the hospital. Clients may ask for advice on petsitters, boarding or day-care facilities, or trainers, to name a few of the more common topics.

    Unfortunately, clients also seek advice from many other "authoritative" sources, and humans are susceptible to believing people who represent themselves as authorities. Studies have shown that people often follow instructions to carry out harmful activities without reference to their own moral compass, science, or, in some cases, common sense, if the instructions come from an authority figure. This phenomenon was well demonstrated in the 1960s by a research project in which the volunteer subjects believed that they were administering electric shocks to other research subjects under the direction of an authoritative scientist. In fact, the subjects being "shocked" were actors who, as the experiment progressed, behaved as if they were in extreme pain and requested that the experiment be discontinued. Alarmingly, most of the subjects who thought they were administering shocks continued to do so at the direction of the scientist, even when the instructions included flipping a switch labeled "Danger."5 Veterinarians witness the same phenomenon with the promotion of training devices and techniques that can cause fear, pain, and even traumatic injury and death in any animal, including humans.

    Representation of Pain as Acceptable

    Many training techniques are subject to misrepresentation and abuse.a In this column, I will use the example of shock collars, with which I have had a great deal of clinical and educational experience. The use of a shock collar on a human child is grounds for criminal charges of child abuse and subsequent incarceration. An Internet search for "child abuse using shock collar" reveals that many such incidents have taken place. In interviews, the neighbors and acquaintances of people charged with such crimes express horror that anyone could engage in such an action. They are horrified because an electric shock is a very painful experience. Yet if one approaches the tables of vendors attempting to sell these devices at veterinary medical conventions, it is common to hear such statements as, "They don't hurt. They just stimulate the animal." When I observe veterinarians nodding in response to this type of sales presentation, I wonder how much they believe or if they realize that the statements are false and are nodding their head just to be polite.

    The use of shock collars in training dogs causes increased cortisol levels, behavioral signs of anxiety, and long-term indicators of physiologic and behavioral stress in the context in which the animal was shocked, even when shock is no longer being administered.6-8 The most intense stress responses occur when the shock is poorly timed, which results in the dog being unable to identify which behavior it must discontinue to avoid being shocked. There is room for debate as to whether shock might be appropriate for the treatment of certain behaviors when it is conducted by a professional who invariably has excellent timing. However, it is clear that, in cases in which a dog has not responded to techniques that do not cause fear, anxiety, and stress, veterinarians who wish to follow ethical guidelines stating that they should relieve suffering, alleviate fear, and maximize welfare should not recommend that clients use shock collars. Even recommendations to highly skilled professionals who use shock collars should not be made casually.

    Despite the ethical issues surrounding the use of shock collars, such devices are still promoted and sold as harmless, and the appearance of authority is used to support such claims. A couple of years ago, I was present when a sales representative for one of the larger companies producing shock collars gave a "lecture" to a group of veterinary students. He began by stating that he could promise clients that the collar was 100% effective and did not hurt the dog. When he described an incident in which a dog yelped (in pain) after receiving a shock for engaging in an undesired behavior, he presented it as if it were amusing, causing a few of the students to laugh. Most of those who laughed appeared to be more junior students, who had not yet had a course in which they were educated to think about such issues critically. However, in the 1960s study that involved apparently shocking humans,5 "nervous laughter" was a common phenomenon observed in the subjects who thought they were administering shocks. During the subsequent question-and-answer session, one of the senior students asked the representative—who promised his clients that the collar did not hurt—if he had ever put the collar on his own neck and tested it. The reply was, "Why would I do that?" Within a few weeks of this lecture, I was presented with a dog that repeatedly ran through a shock zone despite repeated visits by representatives of the same company whose speaker had promised 100% efficacy. On one occasion, the dog bit a neighbor immediately after exiting the shock zone, in an example of pain-induced aggression.

    Education Versus "Authority"

    I have found direct education to be the best proof against "authoritative" claims. For my classes on veterinary behavior at The University of Georgia, I have purchased some of the leading brands of shock collars. After presenting research data to the class on the topics of shock, anxiety, fear, and stress, I demonstrate how to use one of the collars, placing the collar's electrodes on my arm. I then pass the collar around the class and tell the students that they are free to try it on themselves, or not, as they see fit. While the lower settings are merely unpleasant, the higher settings cause not only extreme pain but also involuntary muscle spasm, a phenomenon that the students can witness in my demonstration. However, as I point out, the students' experience is modified from what a dog would feel by the issue of control. The students have full control over whether they will experience a shock. Also, students who try shocking themselves have full control over when and how much they are shocked. Even the few who allow a friend to control the intensity and timing of the shock while they hold the electrodes of the collar against their own skin still have the option of removing the electrodes or telling their friend to stop. Dogs and other animals on which the device is used, of course, have no control.

    Most students decline the opportunity to experience firsthand what any settings other than the very lowest feel like, and a few decline even the most minimal setting. Nevertheless, a few take advantage of the opportunity to increase their knowledge by direct experience and try the higher settings. Their outcries in response to the pain serve to educate their classmates. While companies that sell shock collars can be expected to downplay problems and inflate their claims of effectiveness, individuals who have had direct, personal experience with the product will be, to some degree, resis­tant to authoritative claims that they know to be false.

    Avoiding the Use of Fear

    Product sales and related advertising are not the sole source of authoritative but mistaken training techniques that can adversely affect an animal's welfare. Also problematic are dominance-based human behaviors that are extreme and inappropriate interpretations of normal animal behavior. For example, among dogs and wolves, lying down and rolling over onto the back is an expression of submission. In the past, this behavior was incorporated into puppy testing and puppy socialization techniques based on the belief that rolling a puppy onto its back and pinning it there would show it that it must be submissive. However, as with voluntarily or involuntarily being shocked, control is relevant to this interaction. When a human, a giant animal from a puppy's perspective, rolls a puppy onto its back and holds it down, the puppy experiences a frightening event that is forced on it, not a voluntary demonstration of ritualized submission. Because it is so easy to cause fear in animals by such actions, veterinarians who recommend trainers and other animal care professionals need to exercise due diligence in being aware of exactly which techniques local animal care professionals use when interacting with animals and which they recommend to clients.b


    Our knowledge of learning and training techniques that are pleasant and enjoyable for both animal and handler or trainer is constantly increasing. Well-socialized puppies and kittens are more likely to grow up to have desirable social behaviors toward their own and other species, including humans. Desensitization, counter-conditioning, and habituation are all techniques that can be used to expand the variety of stimuli to which an animal can be exposed while remaining calm and well behaved. Various positive reinforcement training techniques, including clicker training, are increasingly being shown to be very powerful tools. An essential part of any kind of training program is to teach the animal the desired behavior through the use of positive reinforcement. Overall, modern society is headed in a direction of interacting with animals that increasingly facilitates animal welfare and, therefore, promotes the most beneficial human-animal bond. As professionals who take an oath to promote animal welfare, veterinarians should always do what they can to support this progress.

    Downloadable PDF

    Dr. Crowell-Davis discloses that she has received financial support from CEVA Animal Health and from Merial.

    1. Duncan IJH, Fraser D. Understanding animal welfare. In: Appleby MC, Hughes BO, eds. Animal Welfare. Wallingford, Oxfordshire, UK: CABI Publishing; 1997:19-31.

    2. American Veterinary Medical Association. Veterinarian's oath. Accessed June 2008 at avma.org/about_avma/whoweare/oath.asp.

    3. Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Guide to Professional Conduct. Accessed June 2008 at rcvs.org.uk.

    4. Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights. Contemporary veterinarian's oath. Accessed June 2008 at avar.org/resources_oath.asp.

    5. Milgram S. Behavioral study of obedience. J Abnorm Soc Psychol 1963;67:371-378.

    6. Overall K. Considerations for shock and "training" collars: concerns from and for the working dog community. J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res 2007;2:103-107.

    7. Schalke E, Stichnoth J, Ott S, Jones-Bade R. Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars in everyday life situations. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2006;105:369-380.

    8. Schilder MBH, van der Borg JAM. Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2004;85: 319-334.

    aSee Dr. Crowell-Davis's editorial for examples of other training techniques that are detrimental to animal welfare.

    bSee "Resources on Puppy and Kitten Behavior, Socialization, and Training," June 2008, for further information on recommending resources to clients.

    References »

    NEXT: A Shock to Sarcoids Electrochemotherapy: Is Safe and Effective


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