When I met Dr. Theresa DePorter, DVM, MRCVS (member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons), dip ECAWBM (diplomat European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine) at a mega adoption event, she was in her element – surrounded by dozens of cats, prospective pet parents and pet parents who’d just adopted at least one cat and were preparing for new adventures.
DePorter’s interest in veterinary medicine began as a child with many pet dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. A respect and reverence for life was inspired by a chance to help a foal. As a horse-crazy teenager, she worked on a small horse farm in Indiana where she was the only one present when a mare delivered a foal who, “didn’t rupture the amniotic sac with the hoof. Still with most of the foal in the birth canal, I broke open the amniotic sac, exposed the foal’s nostrils and then pushed the amnion back to the foal’s neck. I held the foal’s head in my hands as she took her first breath, then the mare finished giving birth. Now, I’m sure the foal would’ve been fine and kicked out in the next contraction, but I felt privileged to be there for the first breath and to hold the foal in the first moment of life. I felt like I had made a difference.”
Dr. DePorter has worked with cats and dogs at the Oakland Veterinary Referral Services (OVRS) in Bloomfield Hills, MI since 2004. She began including behavior into her practice in 1997. The cats she sees have problems with aggressive behavior or elimination. Pet parents seek advice as to, “’how to make their cat stop’ doing a problem behavior.” She often finds pet parents misunderstand their cats’ behavior, attributing misbehavior to human emotions such as guilt, revenge or spite, rather than understanding what they see as a problem is just a cat, “following her most basic instincts of learning, experience and predictable outcomes.”
DePorter defines the role of a veterinary behaviorist as, “improving the welfare, health and emotional well-being of cats by improved awareness and education. Most medical conditions begin with a change in behavior.” As to treating cats, she states, “Most cats don’t have a problem with their behavior; people do.” While a cat knows why she’s doing what she does and other cats understand the messages they receive as a result, pet parents don’t receive those messages; they just want the behavior to cease.
Dr. DePorter is currently conducting a study assessing the effect of stress on cats at they move into a new home measuring the stress of the event and various possible stress-related behaviors, such as destructive scratching (vertical and/or horizontal), aggression and inappropriate elimination. It includes a placebo-controlled trial of a product that may ease the cat’s adaptation to her new home, as well as helping other resident cats (if any) better cope with the introduction of the new cat. OVRS is looking for volunteers to take part in this study. Volunteers record observations in a written survey weekly for six weeks. To qualify, the new cat should be between two months to ten years of age. To qualify, the new cat should be healthy and not declawed. To participate, the cat must be enrolled, “before the cat puts a single paw in the new home.” That’s why Dr. DePorter and I met at the adoption event - she was waiting for each cat to find a new home. Participants will receive a $30 gift card upon completion of the study.
The American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes 22 veterinary specialty organizations. For example, veterinarians can complete a residency program to become specialists in ophthalmology (eye diseases), internal medicine, surgery, or dentistry and many more areas. “Behavior is just one of those areas, but behavior influences the manifestation of problems seen by every general practitioners and specialists”.
For more information about certified animal behaviorists, or to locate one near you, visit the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants at iaabc.org, Animal Behavior Society at animalbehaviorsociety.org, or American College of Veterinary Behaviorists at dacvb.org.