Debra Horwitz, DVM: Sharing The Passion Of Behavior Medicine

Debra Horwitz has been educating pet owners and veterinarians on behavior topics for years.

Dr. Debra Horwitz of St. Louis

Brian Bengelsdorf

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Debra Horwitz, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, not only has a passion for helping clients with their pets’ behavioral issues, she has a drive for educating other veterinarians to do the same.

Dr. Horwitz has had a referral practice for behavioral problems in companion animals since 1982 and moved her practice, Veterinary Behavior Consultations, to St. Louis in 1986. Throughout the years, she has actively worked toward educating both pet owners and veterinarians on behavior topics.

On the vet side, for instance, Horwitz speaks at national and international veterinary meetings, serves on several advisory boards for corporations and publications related to animal behavior and is a behavioral consultant on the Veterinary Information Network.

Her work in educating pet owners has also spanned various avenues, including Nestlé Purina’s “Ask the Vet” as a Kitten Chow Mentor, local lectures through the Humane Society of Missouri and writing articles for consumer publications.

Horwitz says she has always liked animals and knew early on that veterinary medicine would be a good fit.

“I’m that cliché,” she says. “I wanted to be a vet from the time I was pretty young.”

Horwitz received her DVM from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1975.

“Medicine brings together a lot of things that work well for me,” Horwitz says. “I really like animals and I really like people. To me, being a veterinarian is more than loving and caring for animals, especially doing behavior. You really have to enjoy the human-animal bond and the people who own the pets. You can’t really do anything with the pets unless the owners trust you and you have a connection with them.”

Problem Solving

In fact, that’s one of the reasons Horwitz went into the behavior specialty. It’s the problem-solving part of medicine, she says.
She became a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists in 1996, one year after the formal recognition of the college.

Horwitz’s passion hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 1999 she was chosen “Technician Speaker of the Year” at the North American Veterinary Conference and was also the American Animal Hospital Association award recipient for excellence in companion animal behavior.

Just recently, Horwitz was named Veterinarian of the Year during the Purina Pro Plan 57th Annual Show Dogs of the Year Awards. The award ceremony took place in New York City just before the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in mid February. The award was sponsored by Ceva Animal Health and presented by Dogs in Review, a sister publication of Veterinary Practice News.

“[The award] is a huge honor, not only for Dr. Horwitz, but for our specialty,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “It gives recognition to a small corner of the veterinary profession and shows that individuals in that small corner can be recognized for their many contributions and leadership.”

Dr. Beaver says she has known Horwitz for 15 years and had a particularly close working relationship during the two years Horwitz served as ACVB president (2006-2008).

“Dr. Horwitz is a leader of veterinary behavior,” Beaver says. “She is well respected by her referring veterinarians and by her clients. She is internationally known for her leadership in the field, and respected by her ACVB peers as one of the guiding forces.”

Inside the Specialty

When pet owners come to see Horwitz, they fill out an extensive pet history form. The next step is what Horwitz calls veterinary due diligence; she makes sure that there is not a health issue at hand. Health problems can cause a change in behavior, she notes.

It’s also important to discern the difference between normal but unwanted behavior problems and behavior that is abnormal. For instance, dogs that bark and cats that scratch are exhibiting normal behavior yet these behaviors are unwanted by owners. Examples of abnormal behavior may include compulsive twitching or excessive licking.

Many times the normal but unwanted behavior problems come down to a communication issue, Horwitz says. When a dog acts aggressive, it may be because it’s being asked to do something it doesn’t understand or it’s the only way the dog knows to say no. A veterinarian’s job is to translate the pets’ needs to the owner, she says.

All veterinarians, already know a lot about animal behavior. If you have four fingers and a thumb on each hand you know a lot about behavior because you work with animals every day, Horwitz tells veterinarians when she lectures at various conferences.

The key is helping clients understand what you know, she says.

“Share your knowledge with the client,” Horwitz says. “Share with them why when you walk in the room and the dog looks a certain way, you are more careful. You know by looking at the dog that the dog’s nervous about the interaction. [You end up] going a little more slowly [and may] offer treats. Owners don’t have that knowledge.

“We have to say to them, ‘Look at George’s face,’” Horwitz continues. “‘His ears are pinned back, he’s panting really hard. George is very nervous today, so I’m just going to take a few seconds to talk with him and see if he calms down.’

“All veterinarians do these things; they just don’t verbalize it to the owners,” Horwitz adds. “Then the owners learn that oh, George is nervous. So when George is under the bed and looking the same way, instead of thinking George is being bad, they might say, George is nervous. So what can I do to help him relax?”

Much of what animals do is simply a reaction when they are anxious about a situation, Horwtiz says.

In the past 10 years, there’s been a resurgence in an older training philosophy.

“Dogs are not trying to dominate us,” she says, pointing to past ways of thinking. “What they want is clear information.”

Think of them like nonverbal children, Horwitz says. Children cry when we try to get them to do something and they don’t understand why they are supposed to do it. But eventually they get our language. They may not want to do it, but we can get them to understand why they need to.

“We can talk to our dogs,” Horwitz says. “Dogs can learn a lot of things, but our communication has to be clear and consistent and based on concrete principles.

“People forget that in order for a dog to do what you want, you need to teach him what the appropriate behavior is,” Horwitz continues. “Very often, pet owners come in and say I want my dog to stop doing this. Behavior medicine focuses on what the right behavior would look like.”

Take a 3-year-old who throws food, for example, Horwitz says. What would the right behavior look like? Answer: The child being able to feed herself. Therefore, it’s better to teach the child to feed herself rather than to focus on scolding her for throwing the food, according to Horwitz.

What Lies Ahead

ACVB has a book on dog behavior in the works and Horwitz is one of the lead editors.

“We thought it was time to lend our voice because we are the authorities. We really know [about pet behavior],” says Horwitz, who is co-editor and/or author of several other books, including the BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioral Medicine 1st and 2nd editions, published in October 2009.

A book release date hasn’t been set.

Horwitz is also helping to create online pet behavior classes for veterinarians.

“I see a lot of things in my future to help grow veterinary behavior,” Horwitz says. “I would really like to see behavior health be as important as medical health. Behavior health is so important.” 


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