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Reference Desk July 2012

10 Popular Excuses Given by Owners With Aggressive Pets

by Patty Khuly, DVM

    SILVER SPRING, Maryland, July 17, 2012—Most of us whose pets can get aggressive let unsuspecting humans know the risk before they enter the zone of high probability for bad interactions. A surprisingly high percentage of pet owners, however, are either clueless when it comes to their pets’ proclivities or unwilling to divulge the fact of their pets’ aggression—as if this common reaction somehow speaks ill of them.

    serious husky and grey cat

    Unfortunately, when owners fail to fully comprehend or fess up to the reality of their pets’ propensity for nippiness, they tend to put veterinarians and their teams at risk.

    Sure, veterinary medicine is a risky business. It’s a fact of life for us, so we don’t hold it against the animals when they act out. We do, however, get irked by owners who observe aggressive behavior in their pets and fail to warn us about it ahead of time and minimize the behavior, or make excuses for the behavior.

    Making excuses for aggression isn’t an issue in and of itself, especially since most owners think of them as explanations rather than excuses. What it signals, however, is that an owner isn’t taking the problem as seriously as he should be.

    Here are 10 common claims that I typically hear in the aftermath of a dangerous encounter:

    “She’s never bitten anyone before!”

    Sure, it’s possible. A veterinary hospital can be a strange and forbidding place, and there’s always a first time for everything. The problem with this comment is that it speaks to the owner’s desire to downplay the significance of the event, which doesn’t tend to give us the warm fuzzies when it comes to future interactions.

    “He never did this with my previous vet.”

    It’s undoubtedly the case that every animal hospital and each individual veterinarian will exert their own unique effects on any given pet, but with this comment, the implication is that we're doing something to trigger the aggressive behavior, instead of acknowledging that this is an innate issue that needs to be addressed.

    “That’s just her way of talking.”

    Maybe so, but I’m not taking your word for it. In almost any version of dog and cat language, a low rumbling sound means aggression. Interpret this sound at home at your own peril, but don’t put our staff at risk by denying that a growl just happened. At the very least, don’t act all surprised when the vet wants to apply a muzzle. It’s our flesh on the line, after all.

    “He’s just scared.”

    Of course, he is! Fear aggression is the number-one type of aggression that vets observe. Unfortunately, an owner who offers this explanation is often suggesting that his pet isn’t truly aggressive, just frightened.

    “She was abused as a puppy.”

    If this comment is true, there must be an army of puppy kickers out there just waiting to abuse the next litter. The reality is far less sinister: Most of these pups were not physically abused, but they were deprived of opportunities for socialization, which is abuse, of course, just not the kind most people believe could possibly lead to serious fear aggression. Moreover, the fact of abuse shouldn’t keep owners from recognizing that their dogs have a serious problem that deserves significant attention.

    “He's just playing!”

    OK, let’s just say that you’re right and I’m wrong. I’m still going to have to ask you to put that muzzle on him.

    “People think that she's bad because she’s [insert adjective], but she’s really not.”

    I would never think that she’s “bad,” but I do know that she’s aggressive, based on what her eyes, ears, hackles, head and tail are broadcasting loud and clear: “I dare you to come closer!”

    “He’s never liked men.”

    While it’s true that many pets have a gender preference, and fear is a big motivator in this regard, owners who use the man thing by way of explanation for aggression fail to understand that the thus far latent aggression toward women may well be simmering close to the surface. And it’s no excuse for not trying to help the pet conquer his fears.

    “She’s just mouthy.”

    You call those tooth marks on my hand “mouthy”? Maybe if she were a puppy or she’d been playing instead of receiving a nail trim. I mean, why would anyone not take that kind of event as a serious sign of aggression? Yet they do — and often.

    “He only hates vets.”

    I do believe that he doesn’t much care for my presence, but hate is a mighty strong and uniquely human word that doesn’t adequately describe aggression, especially given that pets tend to react aggressively toward veterinarians because they’re fearful, not because they’re hateful.

    There’s also the erroneous implication that all the aggression this pet will ever manifest will always be directed toward a veterinarian, which is not a smart assumption if fear is the motivator. After all, opportunities for fear are unlikely to be restricted to a vet’s presence alone.

    Ultimately, every owner needs to realistically consider a pet’s capacity to do harm. Even those whose pets have never demonstrated even the slightest tendency toward aggression should remember the common refrain employed by many top trainers: “Every pet is fine . . . until he’s not.”

    Source: Vetstreet

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