Fearless rehab for recuperating pets

June 5, 2018
Kim Raible, LVT, CCRP

Fear, anxiety and stress walk into any veterinary setting alongside pets. Heres how to reduce pets stress during rehabilitation.

Photo: Shutterstock.comWhether the patient is Pete, the dauntless doxie with intervertebral disk disease, or Dolly, the sweet tripod lab who's learning to walk on three legs, pets are referred for rehabilitation therapy for many reasons. While your primary goal is often minimizing the pet's physical discomfort, it's equally important to recognize the patient's behavioral needs and to provide care in a pain-free, fear-free manner.

Most dogs and cats demonstrate significant levels of fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) when they enter a veterinary practice, and that includes a physical rehabilitation setting. Some pets experience elevated FAS in response to environmental elements. Patients who have historically had a negative experience at a veterinary practice may experience elevated FAS in anticipation of another bad experience.

Elevated FAS can provoke pain and induce instantaneous and chronic physiologic effects that span multiple body systems. Because of the patient's perception and the known pathological effects that fear and stress have on the body, you need to identify these triggers and make modifications to offer a lower-stress experience.

Be prepared

Most animals associate a veterinary facility with fear, discomfort and pain. Because of this, it's important to anticipate the special needs of each patient before they enter the treatment facility. Send your clients a behavior questionnaire to complete and submit at least 24 hours before their appointment.

This information, coupled with a thorough clinical history, helps the team and therapist to better prepare for patient arrival. Preparations may include light and sound modification, reduced human and animal traffic, non-slip flooring, supportive bedding and ambulation assistance. These are just some of the measures you need to take for every patient to ensure a successful first start.

Behavior awareness

The patient's emotional state is essential to properly evaluate, treat and foster the patient-therapist relationship. Because animals can't verbally express what's wrong or how they feel, it's that much more important to understand and recognize their body language. This language indicates their level of pain, stress, discomfort and general acceptance.

Be aware of the pet's body language to avoid inadvertently delivering threat signals or stress triggers. Triggers may include loud talking, quick movement, direct staring or frontal leaning. Also be mindful of your patient's critical space and watch for potential warning signs at all times for your own safety.

Evaluation basics

Before the pet's visit, prepare the evaluation space to meet the patient's and client's needs. For example, you'll want to keep appropriate treats readily available for positive reinforcement and distraction as needed.

When you introduce the pet to the evaluation space, allow the patient to acclimate to the area. Spend time talking with the pet owner about the pet's condition while the patient observes its surroundings and you. This builds the client-therapist relationship and helps you obtain valuable hands-off gross exam findings about the patient's physical and mental status in a low-stress way.

Don't begin the evaluation by approaching the patient. Let the patient approach you, see your movements and understand your intention. Employ touch gradient to introduce your presence and allow the patient to settle and relax. When the pet accepts your proximity and passive touch, offer treats and verbal praise to positively reinforce these behaviors. Remember to back off if the pet communicates warning signals and proceed only as the patient will tolerate your care.

Use this method during the initial evaluation and throughout the course of therapy. Be constantly aware of the patient's perception about its space and any exchanges that occur. Strive to associate the patient's experience with positive markers, and be prepared to modify therapies based on both physical and behavioral responses. This thoughtful approach will lead to a happy and more willing patient that will ultimately allow progressive rehabilitation efforts.

Successful physical rehabilitation originates from accurate patient assessment and appropriate behavior management. Because fear and stress negatively impact the body, it's our professional responsibility to minimize the effects of FAS to support the patient's healing process from start to finish.

Kim Raible, LVT, CCRP, is a technician at Cary Street Veterinary Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, with 20 years of career experience spent dedicated to the pursuit and implementation of high quality standards in patient care. Her primary area of interest is in mind and body wellness, and she is Fear Free certified.