A simple bark, sniff or tail wag might seem trivial to the everyday pet owner, but veterinary behaviorist Dr. Debra Horwitz sees animals a little differently. More than a traditional veterinarian, Horwitz works to understand why companion animals do what they do—and for her work is being lauded by colleagues across the country.
Horwitz explains that, like many others in her field, she was drawn to veterinary medicine because of her love for animals. An interest in science and problem-solving didn’t hurt, either, as her career has allowed her to enjoy all three. “As you pursue this path, you realize that loving animals is wonderful, but you also must like interacting with people,” she notes. “Working in veterinary medicine is a lot like working in pediatrics: You need someone else to tell you the symptoms.”
Originally from Michigan, Horwitz and her family moved to St. Louis in 1986. “We’ve found it a very easy city to live in,” she says. Along with their three children and two grandchildren, the family also includes a 13-and-a-half-year-old Westie named Oscar.
In the grand scheme of medicine, Horwitz’s veterinary niche is rather new. “I’d been in practice for about four or five years and attended some seminars on behavior; it wasn’t even a specialty at that time— it was a new area of interest in veterinary medicine,” Horwitz says, noting that she became fascinated with the topic. “I started seeing behavior cases bit by bit; along the way, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists was formed.” In 1996, Horwitz became a board-certified veterinary behaviorist—a mere year after the first graduates finished the new program.
“One of the things I enjoy—even to this day—is when I walk my dog and he gets stuck to the ground, sniffing something,” Horwitz says. “I find it really interesting to think about what he’s learning from that spot and how that engages him so completely.” Being a behaviorist means working with problematic pet actions, such as growling, snaring, biting and inappropriate elimination. “When your dog or cat does a behavior that is unwanted by you, most of us tend to say, I want that to stop, but I always think the most important focus is to think about why the pet felt the need to do that,” Horwitz explains. “It’s important for us to realize the message behind their behavior.”
This deep-rooted dedication has earned Horwitz a multitude of national honors, including the Veterinarian of the Year award by Ceva Animal Health and Small Animal Speaker of the Year at the 2012 North American Veterinary Conference.
“I am very passionate about behavior being part of veterinary medicine; I think it’s extremely important,” Horwitz says. And to help inform the masses, Horwitz educates through almost every possible outlet. Current projects include books—both working as an editor and author—online videos, lectures and more. Previously, she has taught online courses, as well as served as the online Purina One Ask-A-Vet expert and worked as a Humane Society columnist. Her lectures have been presented across the globe, ranging in topics from separation anxiety to feline elimination. “Our world has changed, and there are so many ways now for me to reach so many people,” she says. “A lot of people have a bigger platform, but I just want to share what I know in the best interest of people and pets in any way I can.”