#18-Setting Scared Pets Up for Success in the Veterinary Clinic

NMVMA listserve Veterinary Behavior Tip #18
June 9, 2016

Jeff Nichol, DVM – Veterinary Behavior Medicine
Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Centers

Albuquerque and Santa Fe Setting Scared Pets Up for Success in the Veterinary Clinic

Pet owners just hate it when their beloved dog or cat freaks out at the veterinary clinic. We can see the stress in the pet’s body signaling, their escape attempts, nervous panting, pacing, and trembling. If you have a look at the client you’ll see them fretting too.

Some owners simply opt out of our recommendations for annual exams and follow-up care. Their concerns are well founded. Current learning theory explains how repeated exposure to similar fear-provoking stimuli further consolidates long term memory leading to a conditioned emotional response. Some dogs and cats become so afraid that they respond to our restraint or even our approach with defensive aggression. They’re not trying to dominate; most are calm in other aspects of their lives. They’re just scared witless.

We can make this much easier. I’ve recently become certified as a Fear Free professional. It had nothing to do with my behavior residency; any veterinary staff member (doctors, technicians, client service) is welcome to take this online course. I plan to share some of this information, along with my specialty training and experience, in my next few missives on this list serve.

  • As you greet the client squat on the floor and quietly observe the pet.
    • I suggest having the owner drop the leash or release their cat from the carrier.
    • Spend about 10 seconds making a few mental notes about the pet’s body signaling and postures.
  • Clients love to be educated on their pets’ behavior.
    • Any veterinary staff member is considered knowledgeable. Don’t hesitate to share what you know.
    • Point out the signs. The flattened ears, the low tail, the eyes looking away, the yawning, panting, and lip licking.
    • Explain that you’ll take special care to avoid triggering more fear.
  • During your exam try to avoid ramping-up the pet’s anxiety
    • A pet who approaches the doctor will usually be easy to manage.
    • But even some of these friendly cats and dogs react as soon as they perceive a threat.
  • A dog’s, cat’s, or bird’s perceptions can have little relation to human logic.
    • We have no intention of causing fear; it’s our job to alleviate pain and improve health and well-being.
    • But more staff hovering or restraining can trigger panic. Less is almost always more.
    • A client or assistant holding the collar with two fingers may be all it takes to allow us to complete a fear-free exam.
    • If you have reason to be concerned about aggression ask the client to put a light weight basket muzzle on a dog or a paper cup muzzle on their cat. Try to avoid cone-shaped fabric muzzles that hold the mouth tightly closed; dogs can be more prone to panic.

Pheromones can make a difference.

  • An Adaptil and a Feliway diffuser in each exam room can promote a calmer emotional state.
    • While these two different pheromones are species-specific there is no interference between them.
    • Cat and dog vomeronasal organs will recognize the appropriate calming pheromone and respond.
  • Other pheromones are related to fear.
    • Pheromones from a scared pet you saw in the same exam room, earlier in the day, can trigger panic in the pet in front of you now.
    • Clean the room between patients and wash your hands.
    • You’ll do more than reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission; there will be less angst for the next patient.

I have distributed information on medical management of reactive pets in the past. Going forward, I’ll provide updates. Be proactive every chance you get. If a dog or cat begins to wig out, and you’re unsuccessful at making the interaction a win for everybody, be ready to allow your client and patient to return another day. You are welcome to call (792.5131) if you’d like my input on how to manage a challenging pet the next time.

In my experience pet owners have all been willing to come back another day and pay for the sedation and exam again. We just need to communicate what’s in their pet’s best interests. .

If you’re interested in Fear Free training you can learn more on their website. http://www.vetfolio.com/fear-free-course

All the best,
Jeff Nichol, DVM