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Veterinary Forum May 2009 (Vol 26, No 5)

Better-behaved, better patients

by Paul Basilio

    For many veterinarians, behavior and training are subjects that are brought up in the examination room for the benefit of the pet and the owner, but a better-behaved pet can reap intangible benefits for the veterinary health care team as well.

    “If we want to be able to treat patients, they have to be able to behave,” says Sophia Yin, DVM, MS (Animal Science), an applied animal behaviorist, author and lecturer in Davis, Calif. “No one wants to bring a pet to the clinic if it is going to be scared.”

    One important part of the physical examination is the patient’s disposition. Experts say that some veterinarians may be focused on internal organs and signs of illness and may not take the time to read the animal’s fear level.

    “A lot of times veterinarians forget to stop and think for a few extra seconds,” Yin says, “that the dog or cat sitting there, frozen, letting you complete an examination with no protest is probably fearful. If you don’t take precautions, you can make the animal worse. If it has a bad enough experience, then its fear can turn into aggression.”

    Some of the problem behaviors that surface in the examination room can be solved by clients at home. Explain to owners that by petting the animal all over and getting it used to gentle restraint and being held, they can make the examination will go smoother and less stress will be experienced by all.

    “It can be easy to do, but cat owners don’t usually do it,” says Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD, DACVB, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University. “A puppy has to get used to being restrained, having its paws handled and having people gently reach into its mouth. It’s the same with a kitten. People get puppies used to riding in cars, but they don’t do it with cats. Most cats are in panic mode and howl the entire way to the clinic.”

    One of the reasons this happens, Luescher says, is that most people adopt cats from shelters when the cats are adults or adolescents, well beyond the critical socialization period. “They don’t usually raise them from kittens, and that’s why we have a lot of problems with cats.”

    The signs of fear, Yin says, should be at the top of every veterinarian’s mind, especially during a new patient examination. Subtle signs of an increased fear level in dogs include:

    • Yawning when it’s not the dog’s usual sleep time
    • Excessive licking of lips when food is not being offered
    • Excessive panting when it is not hot
    • Turning away when an owner or staff member reaches out

    “When a dog is in a new environment, it should want to explore,” Yin says. “When a dog is scared, it holds still — so when veterinarians or technicians are looking at a motionless dog, they may think the pet is comfortable, but it can actually be fearful.”

    It can be challenging to keep a dog or cat calm in a normally hectic examination room, but there are ways to help ease the experience for both pet and vet.

    “Make the environment comfortable for the pet and make it feel safe,” Yin says. “You don’t want to bring a scared animal into a chaotic environment.”

    One simple way to help a known fearful patient relax in the clinic is to recommend that the owner bring it in during slower times. It may be difficult for the owner to schedule such a visit, but the benefits to the pet are worth the attempt.

    Barriers in the waiting room also can help fearful cats and dogs hide from other fearful animals. Many dogs don’t like other dogs, and a lot of cats don’t like other cats, Yin explains.

    Greeting a dog in the examination room can set the tone for the entire appointment, she adds, but some veterinarians and technicians can greet the dog in the wrong manner and increase its fear level.

    “Some people greet dogs the wrong way,” Yin says. “They try to get in its personal space and stick a hand out to pet it. If an animal is scared, you should let it come to you and make first contact. If a dog is scared, it couldn’t care less whether you praise it.”

    Fortunately, a good way to break the ice is an old-fashioned, inexpensive bribe.

    “Just stand sideways and toss treats at the dog without looking at it,” Yin says. “Pretend your sneaking the treats to it. When the dog comes over, you can hand it treats while you’re standing. A lot of times I will wait until the dog sits, then hand treats to it and watch for body language.”

    If Yin sees that the dog is relaxed, wagging its tail and approaching her, she says everything will most likely be fine. If the dog still looks nervous, she tries giving the treats for a little longer.

    “Often, dogs will not take treats for the first several minutes, but when they realize you’re not doing anything to them yet, they will come over and accept them.”

    For cats, experts agree that it is important not to simply yank the cat out of the carrier by the scruff of its neck. This is stressful for both owner and pet. Cats should be allowed to explore the examination room while the veterinarian and owner speak about any preliminary concerns and go through the history.

    “Instead of just dragging it from the crate, it’s better to take the top of the crate off,” Yin says. “If you need to, conduct the exam while the cat is hiding under a towel. A lot of cats will hiss in the carrier, but if you put a towel over them, they will calm down. You can do a pretty thorough exam [with a cat] under a towel. You just lift up the towel to access the part you need to check. vF

    Click here to download this article as a PDF.
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