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Unit information: Companion Animal Behaviour in 2018/19

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Unit name Companion Animal Behaviour
Unit code VETS20018
Credit points 40
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Dr. Rooney
Open unit status Not open

All first year units


All other second year units

School/department Bristol Veterinary School
Faculty Faculty of Health Sciences


This unit introduces students to the principles of animal ethology, behavioural development, and welfare focussing on the commonly owned companion animal species. Knowledge about ‘normal’ behaviour is used to enable students to understand the different elements which impact on the ultimate behavioural signs shown by individual animals. The importance of the developmental period will be examined ensuring that students have a good understanding of the degree of behavioural plasticity arising from sensitive periods for learning. This unit also introduces the concepts and principles underlying learning theory, and the neurological processes by which learning occurs. The importance of learning in the development of behaviour in individual animals is emphasised, including examples of how animals may learn undesired or ‘problem’ behaviours. Students are introduced to the techniques by which animal behaviour can be modified in training and rehabilitation. As well as developing a thorough understanding of the principles behind techniques such as desensitisation and counter-conditioning, students will be guided as to how to implement them in practice.

This unit will cover the principles of animal welfare and its measurement. It introduces the mechanisms underlying the stress response as well as the effects of stress on immune function. Dietary changes are frequently recommended for treatment of behaviour problems in dogs and the scientific evidence for the influence of nutrition on behaviour will also be examined in this unit. The assessment of welfare in animals within the clinic environment is an important role of nurses and plausible methods for achieving this will be discussed. The unit examines in detail specific welfare problems for companion animals and explores solutions to these problems. The development of problem behaviour is also covered in this units which starts to introduce behavioural problems and methods of behavioural modification, developed further in later units.

Unit Aims:

Develop an understanding of the ethology of vertebrate domestic animals, and how this has been affected by domestication, natural and artificial selection and proximately by nature and nurture and by relationships with humans.

Gain an ability to recognise and report on to signals indicative of a range of behavioural states.

Foster an understanding of the key ethological, psychological and physiological concepts underpinning the evaluation of animal welfare and recognition of the physiological and behavioural indicators of welfare status in vertebrate animals.

Introduce various scientific methods of assessing animal welfare.

Utilise evidence- based methods to evaluate the welfare of animals in domestic systems, within specific training regimes including clinical settings and propose practical solutions.

Show how different ethical frameworks can guide decisions relating to animal use.

Articulate an understanding of the theory of animal learning relating to a range of associative and non-associative processes.

Develop an understanding of the theory underlying learned problem behaviour and training techniques, and the range of behavioural modification techniques available.

Initiate the process of proposing and justifying the choice of techniques and evaluating their effectiveness.

Intended learning outcomes

Learning outcomes are numerous and worded precisely to match that required by the external accrediting body ASAB). The letters in brackets correspond to the assessments listed above in which each of these LOs are summative assessed

On completion of this Unit, students should be able to:

1. Demonstrate a current understanding of the ethology of vertebrate domestic animals, including perceptual abilities, maintenance and social behaviour, communication and theories of motivation. (A)

2. Describe key principles underlying behavioural ontogeny; including sensitive periods, socialisation and attachment theory. (B)

3. Articulate an understanding of the processes of domestication, natural and artificial selection, and their effects on the behaviour of animals. (A)

4. Evaluate the influences and interaction between ‘nature’ and nurture’ in the development of behavioural disorders for a range of the most commonly kept domestic animals (A)

5. Evaluate the role of nutrition in health and behaviour (B)

6. Appreciate the range of interactions existing between animals and man, including the different roles of animals in human society and human attitudes towards them; and how these can contribute to the development of problematic owner/animal relationship (C)

7. Understand the key ethological, psychological and physiological concepts underpinning the evaluation of animal welfare; (D)

8. Describe physiological and behavioural indicators of welfare status in vertebrate animals, and be able to identify these indicators in a range of commonly kept domestic species (D)

9. Reflect upon methods used to assess animal welfare and their practical application (D)

10. Evaluate the welfare of animals in a range of domestic systems and within specific training regimes and propose practical solutions, as necessary, to address, alleviate or avoid welfare problems, on the basis of a synthesis of scientific principles relating to the determinants of good welfare. (D)

11. Evaluate ethical issues arising from animal welfare assessment, including those likely to arise in clinical practice. (C)

12.Explain the ethics of animal use and the basis to the most commonly held ethical positions, and be able to critically reflect and justify one’s own position, effectively implementing ethical guidelines relating to the use of animals.

13. Demonstrate an understanding of the key existing pieces of legislation relevant to the keeping and care of animals, (C)

14..Appreciate the national legal and judicial processes, and the role of individuals associated with it e.g. barrister, solicitor, animal welfare officer, expert witness etc., and appreciate the salient features of employment law, health and safety legislation and the Data Protection Act as they apply to the practice of clinical animal behaviour.(C)

15.Articulate an understanding of the theory of animal learning relating to associative and non-associative processes to include habituation; sensitization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, insight, social learning and higher learning processes.

16. Demonstrate a reliable understanding of the theory underlying learned problem behaviour and training techniques.

17. Demonstrate understanding of the range of behavioural modification techniques and the principles and rational behind their use, to include systematic desensitization, operant and respondent counter conditioning and habituation.

18. Show awareness of the techniques commonly used to treat the range of common behavioural disorders, the rationale for their use, and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each

Teaching details

Lectures, small group working; interactive self-directed learning and groups presentations , use of a virtual learning environment (Blackboard) to submit assignments

Assessment Details

Students will be formatively assessed to cover LO 15,16,17,18 in this unit

The pass mark for this unit is 40%. Students must obtain a minimum of 40% in each of the following assessment components:

An essay on an aspect of ethology – 2,500 words (25%; LO: 1, 3, 4)

Design an evidence- based socialisation protocol and plan for an educational class – 2,000 words (10%; LO: 2, 7)

DSE on a welfare law and ethics issue - group work and 15 min presentation (25%; LO: 5, 10, 11, 13,14)

Audit of the welfare of animals in a veterinary clinic (including kennels) based on a visit to a facility - 5000 word limit (40% LO: 6, 8, 9, 12)

Students who fail to satisfy any of the above criteria will be deemed to have failed the whole unit and will need to re-sit that component part.

Resits as above

Reading and References

Essential - (Core materials for the curriculum that all students must read)

These will mostly be journal articles relevant to the teaching which are current at the time of delivery of the lectures including those associated with professional practice, clinical governance as well as health and safety

Recommended - (Materials needed for a deep and comprehensive understanding of the subject that students should read but perhaps selectively)

Bradshaw, J. W. S., Casey, R.A., Brown, S.L. (2012). The behaviour of the domestic cat. 2nd ed. CAB International: Wallingford.

Bowen, J. and Heath, S. (2005). Behaviour problems in small animals: practical advice for the veterinary team. Saunders Ltd.

Jensen, P. (ed.) (2002). The ethology of domesticated animals: an introductory text. CABI Publishing.

Miklosi, A. (2007). Dog behaviour, evolution and cognition. Oxford University Press. Mills, D.S. and McDonnell, S.M. (2005). The domestic horse: the origins, development and management of its behaviour. Cambridge University Press.

Serpell, J. (2016). The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Pearce, J.M. (1997). Animal learning and cognition: an introduction. 2nd ed. Psychology Press, Hove, UK.