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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
10. The cognitive approach to animal
behavior leads to a more cognitive understanding of the
animal or animal-human social organizations and to
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
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
- 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,
- Hart B. L. 1978. Feline Behavior.
Veterinary Practice Publishing Company. Santa Barbara,
- 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,
- 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
Dr Joël Dehasse