Q&A with behavioral pioneer

Q&A with behavioral pioneer

Find out what inspires and motivates Dr. Debbie Horwitz.
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Aug 05, 2015

Dr. Debbie Horwitz entered the profession at a time when there were few female veterinarians and when veterinary behaviorists were spotted just slightly more than jackalopes.

Dr. Horwitz and other animal behavior pioneers dedicated their careers to unlocking many of the mysteries of pet behavior and training. These pioneers showed better ways to handle and train pets (positive reinforcement) long before a certain somebody started yelling at dogs and flooding them with fear all under the guise of whispering.

Dr. Horwitz is a talented educator, a great writer, an award-winning presenter and somebody who will always stand up for what she believes. Trust me: Don't debate her. Verbally, she "floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee."

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in the city and suburbs of Detroit.

Your first job was?
Dishwasher and server in a retirement home in high school, then a kennel cleaner at a veterinary clinic.

When did you first know you wanted to be a veterinarian?
Probably when I was 10 or 12. That was when I knew what the profession was and wanted to be one. I always loved animals—don’t we all?

What is your greatest joy regarding this profession?
It just has suited me so well. I love the challenging quest for the diagnosis and the joy of treating animals and their people. I love behavioral medicine and educating veterinarians—when I lecture and see the “aha” moments on their faces I feel like I’ve really made a connection and a contribution.Dr. Horwitz and her dog, Oscar.

What’s the worst mistake you ever made as a veterinarian and what did you learn from it?
Being impatient with a client who just would not, or could not, provide the information I needed to make my diagnosis. I learned that rushing people and not understanding their point of view hurts not only them, but my patient as well. I learned to be kinder and less impatient.

What one pet owner stands out the most after all these years?
The pet owners who went the extra mile over many years to achieve the best possible outcome stand out. Lucky for me there was more than one!

Tell us about a patient that shouldn’t have lived but did.
This one was not necessarily life or death, but it was a cat that for six or seven years had not used the litter box. It lived on the couch and was unkempt and dirty. There were four other cats in the home and one of them terrorized her. By the end of taking her history, I realized that all this cat needed was a safe place to live. We gave her a room of her own and within 10 days she was a totally different cat. She was using the litter box, happy, grooming and content. Three years later I called to check on her and things were still going well.

Medicine or surgery?
Behavioral medicine.

What is your greatest fear?
I am pretty afraid of heights—no zip lining for me.

What is your greatest strength?
I can explain complex things in a straightforward and understandable manner, at least in my field.

What living person do you most admire?
My 94-year-old father-in-law. He is kind, caring and always there to help others. He has the sunniest outlook on life no matter what. He also has a great memory and I’m still hearing new stories about his life.

What do you collect?
Cat art and sculptures.

What is your greatest professional regret?
Not applying to the first behavior residency at Penn.

Who or what is the greatest love of your life?
My husband, Eugene. We have been married for 42 years.

What’s your favorite childhood food that you still love today?
Root beer floats.

Tell us about your first pet?
My first pet was a big male tabby cat named Mao.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known before you entered veterinary school and how would it would have caused you to live your life differently?
Your work life can be very long and rewarding—don’t be in such a rush. The best things can come later in life.

If you could spend a day with one veterinarian (living or deceased), who would it be and why?
Dr. Robert Schirmer, one of my instructors at Michigan State. He just seemed to have the “touch” and was such a good veterinarian.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My family life, a long marriage, children and grandchildren.

Dr. Horwitz and her family.

What’s your favorite hobby?
I need one so I can retire!

Would you encourage your child to become a veterinarian? Why or why not?
I wouldn’t discourage my children from becoming veterinarians, but they would have to do it for the right reasons: a love of the challenge and animals.

What’s one thing you can’t live without?
Good dark chocolate.


Veterinary Economics Practice Leadership Editor Dr. Marty Becker is a renowned speaker, TV personality and author of The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Amazing Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy and Healthy. Dr. Becker practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho.