Theorising animal behavioural medicine

©Dr Joël Dehasse

3 avenue du Cosmonaute, 1150 Brussels, Belgium


Ref.: Dehasse J. Theorising Animal Behavioural Medicine. In Overall, Mills & Heath: Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Veterinary Behavioural Medicine. UFAW, 2001: 125-129.  Article posted on 15 November 2001.


Any approach in the management or treatment of behavioral disorders is based on hypotheses, theories, beliefs, paradigms or models. Authors do not often describe which theories their work encompasses. To avoid misinterpretation of the different approaches, fellow scientists should define their epistemology.


Epistemology, model, paradigm, theory.


In recent years, new books on veterinary behavior medicine have been published, proposing new approaches to diagnosing and treating behavior problems seen by generalist and specialist veterinarians in practice. These approaches are diverging and are even often opposed (Iracka, 1999). Without an epistemological study of these approaches, the generalist practitioner may not be able to understand how different systems or schools handle the behavior problems or disorders.
This short article intends to be a heuristic description of several philosophical and scientific theories that are the foundations of the different therapeutic approaches. And I would challenge my fellow scientists to describe which are the hypotheses and models underlying their clinical methodology.

Models and paradigms

Any approach in the management or treatment of behavioral disorders is based on hypotheses, theories, beliefs, paradigms or models.
A model is the creation of an image of reality using simple elements organized through groups of rules. It is often articulated by a logical or mathematical expression defining a hypothesis and organizing data. For example, Pavlov’s reflexology is a model expressed by the formula S-S, meaning the time contiguity between two stimuli. Thorndike’s functionalism is a model defined by the S-R formula, in which S represents the stimulus and R the response.
A paradigm is a general conception of a science inside of which the progress of knowledge is accumulated. A theoretical system is a paradigm. Skinner’s neo-behaviorism is a paradigm based on a three dimensional conception, adding the effects of reinforcement to Thorndike and Pavlov models. Ethology is a zoo-centrist paradigm proposing to contribute to solve causality, development, evolution, and function problems (Doré, 1983, p.62). Piaget’s diachronic learning theory is another paradigm describing the ontogeny of cognitive structures and functions.
A school is a specific educative method or an ensemble of the partisans of a specific doctrine. There is actually a French school based on Pageat’s work, and this school has been extended to the Latin-speaking countries in Europe and South-America.
A doctrine is the ensemble of beliefs, theories or principles of a school, a religion, or a group of people. One may say that psychoanalysis is more a doctrine than a paradigm.
An expert system is the ensemble of computerized programs designed to solve specific problems by mechanism of deduction on the basis of specific knowledge (or model). Decision algorithms may be viewed as small expert systems.
A therapeutic approach is the way a clinician approaches a treatment, i.e. the specific strategies brought into play to organize the problem-solving intervention based on the eclectic but selective use of models, doctrines, schools or expert systems. Every practitioner has his (her) own therapeutic approach.
The history of different approaches of theorizing animal learning and behavior is developed in Doré (1983, 25-84). I am not going to develop it in this short article.

A few examples of the actual situation in veterinary behavior medicine

Few authors are describing their meta-theories, i.e. the theories about their use of models and paradigms. Nevertheless, it is possible to find a suggestion about it in their book preface, introduction or conclusions.
Hart’s book (1978) on feline behavior is based on data from ethology, neo-behaviorism and psychopharmacology.
Pageat (1995, 1998) openly identified his approach as an articulated synthesis of data from ethology, neurophysiology and psychopharmacology. He defined the notion of pathological behavior. He applied the notion of pathogeny (from medicine) and advanced the concept of specific pathological processes and of pathological conditions (states) that are in a continuity from less to more disorganized states. He proposed specific semiotics, a codified description of disorders and quantitative evaluation scales. He stated that his approach was opposed to the neo-behaviorist paradigm.
In Overall’s book (1997) the meta-theories are about the use of functional problem-solving (DSM-like) diagnoses, and on the implication of multifactorial heterogeneous underlying causalities or mechanisms. Her approach seems also based on a synthesis of ethology, neo-behaviorism, neurophysiology and psychopharmacology, and asserts the hypotheses of abnormal behavior and abnormal social systems.

A definition of pathological behavior

The notion of pathology is central in medicine and correlated with the words disease and disorder. Beaver’s encyclopedia (1994) does not identify the word pathology but gives a definition of abnormal behavior: "any behavior that varies from the norm expected for a species... This variation can be related to the style or timing of the act, represent a normal behavior used in an inappropriate place or time, or be a behavior not typically used by a species" (p. 3). Overall defines abnormal behavior as dysfunctional (p. 209) and interfering with a normal range of social interaction. It is often advanced as synonymous of inappropriate and out of context behavior (Iracka, 1999). Pageat (1995, 1998) defines the notion of pathological behavior as any behavior that loses its adaptive functions (p. 46), and that is not capable of bringing back the homeostasis at the end of the action (p. 47).

As we can see, there is not yet an agreement on the use of the vocabulary to characterize behaviors that are not normal or not physiological. The terms abnormal and pathological are used with different definitions. One has to hope there will be an agreement on those definitions in the near future for the benefit of the specialization.

But there is already a definition for the word pathology. It is the science of causes, symptoms, and evolution of diseases (ailments, complaints, illnesses, disorders, syndromes, etc.). It is the science of the modifications of cellular or intercellular metabolic function or structure, at the level of cells, organs, or organism. The disease is defined as an alteration of the living being's health, or equilibrium; the disease describes also a deterioration of the normal functioning state of the organism in the whole or in parts. The notion of pathology does not require an objective macroscopic alteration of the organism at the somatic level. If the idea of alteration is an obligation, we may just envisage the alteration of the neurotransmission functioning – in the neuronal network – that underlies the achievement, balance or misbalance of any behavior.

I would prefer not to use the terminology abnormal, because it implicitly refers to a norm. I propose the following definition for the notion of pathology in behavior medicine: a psychobiological element (such as mood, emotion, cognition, perception, autonomous activities and … the organism with all of its somatic components) that has lost its adaptive capacity is pathological. The adaptive capacity has to bring back homeostasis, i.e. the equilibrium of physiology, mood, affect, behavior and sociality. The pathological psychobiological element is modified, inflexible, maladjusted, rigid, and brings up a reduction of the learning capabilities. The pathological psychobiological element interferes with normal and social activities and with the usefulness of the animal in his own survival and the continued existence of his species.

With this definition, a pathological behavior can be characterized by a modification of its sequence structure (by an increase or reduction of any of its phases), by modification in the decision-making process and in the resulting maladjusted choices.

Systems and theories

A theoretical system (meta-theory) is based on many hypotheses and theories, developed by former authors. Each meta-theory is original even if its components are bits and pieces published by other authors. Here is a incomplete list of hypotheses, theories, models or paradigms, which may be useful to understand other author’s approaches.

1. The (pragmatic) neo-behaviorist paradigm estimates that the cognitive process in animal learning is not easily accessible enough to observation to be useful in a therapeutic approach.

2. The ethologic paradigm shows the importance of short-term, ontogenetic and phylogenetic causality, tries to understand the function of behaviors and has rediscovered, for example, the importance of innate behaviors and of imprinting and sensitive periods.

3. The Piagetian paradigm, adapted by Doré (1983) from human to animal learning, proposes the important notions of adaptation, organization and also the diachronic dimension of structural development underlying acquired behaviors.

4. A definition of physiological or normal (as adapted) vs. pathological (as maladjusted) behaviors leads to a functional approach to the notion of pathology, central to behavioral medicine.

5. A theory of pathogeny (originating from medicine) leads to the identification of pathogenic mechanisms leading to pathological behaviors and disorders.

6. A disorder-centered diagnostic criteria nosography (based on multiple symptoms diagnosis) is opposed to a symptom or diagnoses centered nosography.

7. The hypothesis of the continuity of the pathological disorder leads to the idea that disorders evolve to aggravation or disorganization (Pageat, 1997). This is opposed to the hypothesis on the coexistence of different pathological disorders that has a corollary: the possibility of multiple diagnoses (DSM, 1994).

8. A theory of the function of behaviors leads to a specific semiology.

9. Neuro-physiological studies, the hypothesis that under every behavior lies a specific neurotransmission or neuronal network, psychopharmacology and psycho-endocrinology lead to biological therapeutics (medication).

10. The cognitive approach to animal behavior leads to a more cognitive understanding of the animal or animal-human social organizations and to cognitive therapies.

11. The systemic (family) therapy numerous approaches adapted to animal behavior help to go over the simplistic dyadic interaction model into a triadic or circular pattern model. It gives new hypotheses on pathogenic mechanisms (like, for example, the double bind theory), and new therapeutic potential.

12. The molecular approach leads to research in the role of genotype, heritability, and gene regulation, and futuristic gene modification techniques.

13. The neuroanatomy approach leads to neuroanatomical diagnoses, behavior centers localization and … brain surgery.

Many more theories may be added to this list.
The core of an author’s approach will be defined by the articulation of its components. The way it is built makes it a paradigm, a doctrine or a school.


Veterinary behavioral medicine (psychiatry) is a complex science of the unclearness and uncertainty. It is based on many different sciences. The numerous clinical approaches need to be theorized and now is the time for its epistemologies or meta-theories to be developed.


  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV, 1994.
  • Beaver B. V. 1994. The veterinarian’s Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.
  • Doré, F. Y., 1983. L’apprentissage : une approche psycho-éthologique. Maloine Éditeur, Paris.
  • Hart B. L. 1978. Feline Behavior. Veterinary Practice Publishing Company. Santa Barbara, California.
  • Iracka J. 1999. French and American approach to small animal behavioural disorders: a few examples. Proceedings of the Second Word Meeting on Ethology, Lyon, 21-22 September 1999, p. 70-76.
  • Eibl-Eibesfeld I. Ethologie, biologie du comportement. Naturalia et Biologia, Ophrys, Paris, 1984.
  • Overall K. Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. Mosby, St-Louis, 1997.
  • Pageat P. Pathologie du comportement du chien.. Le Point Vétérinaire. Maisons-Alfort. 1995, 2e édition 1998.

Dr Joël Dehasse
Behaviorist veterinarian