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Research News

New telemedicine app connects veterinarians and pet owners with behavioral expertise

By Katherine Unger Baillie | kbaillie@upenn.edu | 215-898-9194 Published: Apr 20, 2018

Telemed.behavior.laptop copyThe user-friendly web portal provides high-quality educational resources for pet owners, as well as ways to share videos and medical records with Penn Vet's behavioral specialists. (Image courtesy of Connect for Education)The user-friendly web portal provides high-quality educational resources for pet owners, as well as ways to share videos and medical records with Penn Vet's behavioral specialists. (Image courtesy of Connect for Education)


Whether it’s excessive barking, aggression, or chewing up a favorite pair of shoes, many dogs exhibit behaviors that are less than ideal. But with only around 75 veterinary behavior specialists scattered across the United States, not many pet owners have access to expert advice on how to manage their pets’ behavior.

A new telemedicine web-based app aims to expand that access to more pet owners, working through their primary veterinarians. The platform, created by Connect for Education (C4E), enables veterinarians to consult directly with Penn Vet board-certified behavioral specialists to obtain high-quality guidance they can then share with their clients.

Dr. James Serpell“This is primarily a consulting service for veterinarians,” says James Serpell, the Marie A. Moore Professor of Ethics and Animal Welfare at Penn Vet, who worked with C4E’s CEO, Dongsook Whitehead, the mother of a Penn Vet graduate, to develop the app. “It’s a mechanism allowing veterinarians who may not have specialized training in behavior to treat their clients’ dogs who have behavior problems,” Serpell says.

While the website will have a log-in for veterinarians to directly communicate with Penn Vet specialists, there will also be a client-facing side, enabling pet owners to upload videos of their pets for evaluation, fill out the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ for short—a rigorous behavioral questionnaire developed by Serpell), access educational resources curated by Penn Vet, and even participate in a “chat” with experts to get their questions answered.

“We’re providing an alternative to popular, non-science-based behavior advice that’s out there,” says Carlo Siracusa, an assistant professor of clinical animal behavior who directs the behavior service at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital. “It’s not the same service as a full behavior consult at the hospital would be, but it’s going to meet a need that isn’t being met for a lot of pet owners.”

The idea for the portal has been several years in the making. Whitehead had learned of Serpell and Siracusa’s research and clinical work through her daughter, KimMi, a veterinary student at Penn at the time. Whitehead approached Serpell about leveraging Penn Vet’s expertise in behavior to serve a wider audience through her company’s educational tools.

Dr. Carlo Siracusa

She wondered whether there was some way her company could turn C-BARQ and our behavior service into a web-based portal,” Serpell says. “She was committed to doing something for the vet school because she was so grateful for the education her daughter had received here.

The platform is intended to be user-friendly while also containing some high-tech features. Primary-care veterinarians who elect to use it will be able to interface with Penn clinicians through the site and can invite their clients to access information through the pet-owner portal. Information from C-BARQ, together with the behavior and medical history of the patient, will give both the primary veterinarian and the Penn Vet specialists a good sense of the challenging behaviors clients are facing. And for specific concerns, pet owners can take videos of their pets to upload and share, capturing behaviors in a dog’s normal home environment.

“The novelty of this service is that the platform allows us to do a frame-by-frame analysis of videos and provide comments,” Siracusa says. “Let’s say a client is having trouble with their dog biting. We may be able to see a specific body language that the owners should be aware of to prevent a bite and can say, ‘When you see this behavior, you should remove your dog from the situation.’”

Ultimately, the aim is not to replace full behavioral consultations for those pet owners who need them but to extend a more accessible, affordable service to those with concerns. Serpell and Siracusa would also like to offer the service to cats eventually, incorporating the C-BARQ equivalent, the Feline Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, or Fe-BARQ.

With the pilot launch of the telemedicine portal this month, veterinarians are being invited to use the portal for six months without a fee. After gathering feedback from the test period, Penn Vet and C4E plan a wider rollout late in 2018.