Vet professor treats animals with doggone heebie-jeebies

After diagnosing the pets’ disorders, Petra Mertens discusses the solutions with owners.

by Yelena Kibasova

While humans with psychological problems head to their nearest shrink, their beloved pets head over to see Petra Mertens.

Mertens, an assistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, is a well-known veterinarian who specializes in animal behavior, and is an editorial board member of TC Dog magazine. She works with a team of behavior specialists at the Veterinary Medical Center on the St. Paul Campus.

Mertens studied at the University of Munich in Germany and joined the University of Minnesota faculty in 1999.

The animals that come in to get behavior services typically are dogs and cats, but the clinic also sees “all different types of critters ” birds, ferrets, rabbits, mice, horses, llamas… (we) pretty much do just about everything,” said Dana Emerson, senior veterinary technician at the Veterinary Medical Center.

Typically, animals come in with aggression problems toward family members, unfamiliar people and animals, or pets in the same household.

“We also deal a lot with fears and phobias, such as thunderstorm anxiety, separation anxiety, (and) we have patients that suffer from compulsive disorder,” Mertens said.

Patients go through an appointment process when faced with behavior problems, she said.

Owners start by calling Emerson, who writes up a history of the animal’s behavior and determines whether the University’s services are right for the problem.

“Once you have scheduled an appointment, you would count on two to three hours of being here at the hospital, where you come in with your pets,” Mertens said. The veterinarians also provide house calls.

“We would (then) come up with the cause of the behavior problem or the diagnosis; we would explain to you what is going on,” she said. “A lot of it is client education, finding out what’s going on.”

Then Mertens works with her team to set up a protocol for the owner, which can consist of calming techniques, building new behavior patterns or socialization exercises.

Typically, it takes about four to six weeks for an owner to fully start a program, Emerson said. “We stay in contact with them by phone, e-mail… between any appointments just so that we can give them the support that they need and sometimes want.”

Mertens is also the faculty adviser for the Behavior Club. Second-year veterinary grad students Robinette Dunahugh-Ralston and Kristin Paulson are co-presidents of the club.

“(Mertens is) tremendously knowledgeable; she has a lot of information to offer students on an area of veterinary medicine that frequently gets overlooked,” Dunahugh-Ralston said.

She has taken classes with Mertens as well.

“I think she’s a really enthusiastic teacher. She actually listened to students and responds well to their recommendations in a classroom setting,” Dunahugh-Ralston said.

Paulson said Mertens has been a vital supporter for the Behavior Club.

“She’s just very knowledgeable and well-known in her field, so it makes it good for our club to have somebody who’s got so much knowledge in our particular interest,” Paulson said.