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As the SPCA of Texas looked to the future, we knew that enhancing the way we care for the emotional and behavioral needs of our animals was a critical need. We aspired to broaden the expertise of our animal care, behavior and placement teams to a holistic perspective on how to best meet our animals’ health and welfare needs. As we researched strategies to best serve animals in our care, we recognized the immense value that a veterinary behaviorist could bring to our program.
Veterinary behaviorists have a unique experience and skill set that enable them to look at animal behaviors and consider a deep array of potential causes, including medical conditions. Their unique skills enable them to evaluate and treat the animal in way beyond what a certified trainer or behaviorist are able do. Less than 90 veterinarians in the United States have earned this specialization and are certified by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
As the SPCA of Texas, our mission implores us to provide exceptional care for animals, and the ability to add a Veterinary Behaviorist to lead our behavior team is an important leap forward in meeting that mission. We are excited to welcome Dr. Valarie Tynes (DVM, DACVB, DACAW), SPCA of Texas Shelter Veterinary Behaviorist to our team.
Dr. Tynes’ role is to lead the SPCA of Texas behavior team in helping pets succeed in homes, whether they are newly adopted or long-time family members. She will be leading our behavior team in daily enrichment, training and treatment for in-shelter animals, training and support for foster families, consultations with potential adopters, and behavior support for adopters and community members.
She is a native Texan and received her DVM from Texas A&M University. One of only 90 Veterinarians board certified in Animal Welfare and Behavior, she is one of only two who are employed at animal shelters.
She worked in private practice for 14 years before returning to academia to pursue a residency in clinical animal behavior at the University of California at Davis in 2000. She has been a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists since 2003 and is also Board Certified in Animal Welfare.
Her special interests are the behavior and welfare of pet pigs, exotic pets, and zoo animals. She has been actively involved in the Fear Free initiative since its inception and serves on the Fear Free Speakers Bureau. She is a frequent speaker at veterinary meetings around the world and author of numerous articles and textbook chapters.
Want to know more about Dr. Tynes, her expertise and her vision for the SPCA of Texas? Watch her interview, or read the Q&A transcript below.
Really, to be honest, I have loved animal behavior ever since I was a child, so even as a kid, I was always curious about why animals did what they did. And then when I got into veterinary school or before veterinary school, when I was an undergrad, I took every behavior elective that I could, and it just fueled my interest to get out into practice and I discovered that lo and behold, behavior problems are what’s killing a lot of animals and I, to this day, I remember the first animal I ever had to euthanize for a behavior problem, and it stuck with me and the more I practiced and the more I saw this problem, and back then there were about 30 veterinary behaviorists in the country so it was really an area where help was desperately needed. And I started applying for residencies and it took me a while. I am nothing, if not tenacious, so after a few applications, I finally got one and I ended up at UC Davis for three years doing a residency in Clinical Animal Behavior.
Well, I hope that because I have this big, almost a big overview, if you will, of the aspects of health that affect behavior and so an ability to look at physical health and mental health, and again pull those together and ensure that an animal has overall good health and welfare. Again, I hope that that will help us make the time that these animals spend in the shelter better, as well as help prepare them better to go out into a home and to be a pet that somebody will want to keep forever for the rest of its life.
It was really an amazing program because at that time, the University of California at Davis Veterinary School had a very, very busy clinic and a very large behavior program. They still have one of the largest and I think best behavior programs in the country, I was able to be there at the same time as two or three other behavior residents so not only do we have each other to bounce things off of, but we had great mentors and we were very, very busy.
We saw a lot of cases and we actually engaged in some really interesting research, so while I was there, we studied urine marking in cats. We saw hundreds of cats that were eliminating outside of the box. So I was right there in the forefront of all this really exciting research where we learned a lot about why cats don’t use the litter box and why cats mark with urine. So it was very exciting and that fueled my interest even more in especially cat elimination problems, something I find very interesting.
That’s a good question. There’s a lot to it, but I’ll try to be brief. So I think a lot of people don’t realize that so many veterinary specialties even exist so very much to whatever specialties there are in human medicine, there typically are in veterinarian medicine, cardiologists, radiologists, oncologists. Behaviorists, if anything, we are probably very similar to a psychiatrist, a human psychiatrist. And there’s actually a movement out there, veterinary behaviorists that would like to change our name to veterinary psychiatrists. But that aside, all of these specialties are overseen by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
So to be a veterinarian and call yourself a specialist in anything, you have to be board certified by one of these organizations that’s overseen by the AVMA and that are required to follow some very strict and consistent credentialing processes. Okay, so there’s a lot of oversight, but the credentialing process for the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is similar to many of the other specialties and you have to complete the residency. You have to do a research project and write it up and have it published and then you have to write up three case reports. And once you do that, then you get the privilege of sitting for a two day exam. And if you pass that exam, you’ve become board certified in Veterinary Behavior. So it’s a very extensive training program.
In addition to seeing cases, we also had to take a certain amount of coursework. So we have a background in psychology and neurology and the psychopharmacology, it’s very extensive. And I think one of the things that’s really unique about Veterinary Behavior and useful, I think, is that more than any other veterinary specialty, we really have to have a broad background and a good knowledge base of all of the other bodily systems. So dermatology, again, urinary tract issues, neurology, of course, because what we’ve learned over the years is how often medical conditions play a role in an animal’s behavior and even in what is viewed as problematic behavior. And a lot of times these medical conditions are overlooked. So people think, “Oh my dog is aggressive.” And well, maybe he’s aggressive because he’s in pain. “My dog chases his tail.” Well, maybe he chases his tail because he has a neuropathy or other problem associated with his spinal cord.
So it puts us (the SPCA of Texas) in a very unique position to evaluate the whole animal and to treat the whole animal. So it goes above and beyond what a good trainer can do and trainers are absolutely essential to the practice, but there is often more to it with the patients that I typically see.
So I was fortunate enough to get in on the animal welfare specialty when it was relatively new and what that allowed me to do was to take my experience and knowledge from being an Animal Behavior Specialist and apply that to the credentialing process for animal welfare so I didn’t have to do an animal welfare residency. I was fortunate in that way and catching the specialty while it was early and it had a little bit different rules in the beginning, but once I credentialed, once they decided that I was qualified, then I was allowed to take their two day exam. And basically once I found out I was going to get to sit for that exam, I bought every book that was on their reading list and I was able to spend about six months studying and again fortunately passed that exam.
I like to use that as my example, when I talk to people about the fact that yes, old dogs can learn new tricks because this is only about three or four years ago. I never, in my wildest imagination really thought that I can study like that and take an exam at my age, but it was actually really fun and really exciting because animal welfare is obviously a fascinating field. It applies to so many different areas of animal care, whether we’re talking about zoo animals or farm animals or animals that live in a shelter temporarily. And I just discovered a real passion for it.
Behavior is often the way that we measure welfare, or it’s a very important tool to measuring welfare, but the knowledge behind how we determine animal welfare and how we seek to improve animal welfare, that was a little bit of a new area for me to do a deep dive in and when I did, I just found that it really made me passionate about doing more to potentially help improve welfare for animals when I could.
Fear Free has done so much for animal welfare I think because it’s not that the concepts were all extremely new. It was just the wonderful ability of Dr. Marty Becker to pull together the experts in our field and get a program going the way that no one else had been able to do before. And I think what’s really profoundly important about it is the fact that it is trying to get people to understand that caring for animals, caring for their physical health is no longer enough, especially if their mental health suffers when we try to do it. So it’s really brought attention to the fact that physical health and mental health are equivalent. They are both important. They both interact in some very complex ways. And if we’re not attending to both, we are not doing justice for our patients and the animals in our care.
So I think it’s been going about seven years now. I know I’ve been, I was involved the minute I heard they were starting and it’s just a wonderful thing to see how it’s grown and the number of professionals that continue to get Fear Free certified and the number of clinics that are out there getting Fear Free certified just continues to grow. So I don’t think this is going away. I think if we take advantage of it and keep promoting it, it is going to be a fantastic way to improve health and welfare of animals everywhere.
Ceva Animal Health is actually one of the largest animal health companies in the world. It’s a global company that is strictly devoted to animal health. So unlike any of the other animal health companies that you can think of, let’s say Elanco or Bayer, some of those big ones, Merck, almost all of those have some associated human division, human medical division. Ceva is all about animal health and they have a really large portfolio of wonderful animal health products and I was thrilled to be associated with them for the last seven years. One of the things that most people are familiar with from Ceva are their pheromone products, Adaptil and Feliway. And Ceva is also one of the few companies that is really devoted to behavioral health and they focus on behavioral health with their products, thus the line of pheromones.
And I just like to tell people that pheromones are a wonderful tool for trying. They’re safe. They’re easy for people to use. It’s a lot easier than someone having to poke a pill down a cat, for example. Most of them are available in a diffuser so literally you plug them in and every 30 days you refill the diffuser. So for something that easy and that safe that you can use on any animal, I urge people to try it first when they see their pet demonstrating any signs of fear, anxiety, stress, because it can be a valuable tool. And I always tell people when the pheromone alone doesn’t decrease the fear, anxiety, or stress that you’re seeing, then you can add something to your protocol. It can be a nutraceutical, or you can go to your veterinarian and get a nice anxiolytic, but behavioral therapy, at least in my hands, I know it very much a, you do take a multimodal approach, right? Because if we use a little bit of a lot of different things then we don’t have to use a lot of something like certain medications that in some cases at high doses might be harmful. So it’s a safer, again, very, I would say holistic approach.
As cliche as it might sound right off the bat, I mean, the reason I’m here is because I want to do everything I can to improve the health and welfare of the animals in the shelter. And I guess the second goal of course, is to get them out into forever homes as fast as we possibly can because everyone knows that shelters are a stressful place for most any pet, no matter how hard we try to make them as pleasant as we possibly can. These animals have often been taken from familiar people, right, and familiar places and they’re put in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people and we know that causes stress. So getting them out of here and like I said, into that forever home as quickly as possible, those are the big goals.
I have to say that right off the bat, what I’m trying to do is get to know what is being done here now. You know we have a great behavior team of very committed, passionate people. And so I’m just trying to get a feel for exactly what they are all doing. What approaches are they taking? What behavior modifications are they doing and how can I help?
One of my, again, it may sound a little bit general, but initial goals is just to bring as much consistency to the programs that we have going on at different facilities and to improve communication between us all. Because I think in order to get animals in here and out as quickly as possible, we need to communicate and we need to measure progress in a more objective way so that getting some measurements in place are some of my other goals.
Another just very immediate little thing we’re working on for example, is trying to get music piped into the holding wards for the dogs. It’s, there’s a lot of great research out there now that tells us how effective music can be, especially particular calming music at decreasing stress and anxiety in dogs in shelters. So that’s one of the little things that I’m hoping to get started right away.
As I stated earlier, I sincerely believe that good health has to include physical health as well as behavioral health and again, I’m hoping that, with my particular expertise, again, I can come in here and pull those departments together, or at least help again, improve communication between them and be sure that we are attending to animal’s behavioral health and welfare, and at the same level that we are their physical health and welfare. And I think in doing so, by helping these animals be healthier, and have better welfare, they are going to be more appealing to people who are looking for a pet.
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