Having fun with all creatures old and young
No matter your veterinary patients age, everyone on the veterinary team (yes, you!) can still make sure their experience is a great one. Heres how.
Pets come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and ages. But with our many different patients at different life stages, how can we best support them? Let's break down the stages of aging and walk through what we can do to help them, from the front to the treatment area to home, throughout a pet's entire life.
Puppies and kittens
Fur babies! From the moment these adorable pets come into the clinic, we need to make sure that their experience a positive one. Trust me, if you make the visits in their early years fun, it will pay off in the future.
Receptionists at the front desk: Be sure to move the little ones into an exam room to avoid any scary or overwhelming stimulation that may occur. Remember, new pet owners can be easily overwhelmed at discharge, so make sure everything's written down for them.
Vets and techs: You should consider the very first visit to be a "hello." That means no vaccinations and no physical exams. Make sure that nothing scary happens and that the new pet is rewarded with some playtime and treats. When it is time to vaccinate, I've learned that a little peanut butter goes a long way for puppies (smear a tiny amount on a table right before the injection). Catnip and Feliway usually make for a happy experience for kittens.
Restraining these wiggling babies for procedures can be difficult at times, but if you can manage food rewards, it will help decrease the wiggles. Sedation may be necessary in order to get the procedure done. Remember, it's better to sedate than to struggle, which could cause irreversible behavior problems for the pet.
By this time, most adult dogs and cats have had some experience at the vet clinic. Based on past experience, their behavior may range from happy to nervous to aggressive.
The front desk can play an integral role in managing the waiting room. If there is a stressed dog or cat, get them into a closed room to try and destress the experience. I'm sure you've realized by now: cats are not going to enjoy sitting across from a dog staring at them in the waiting room for 15 minutes. If you are part of the front desk team, you can make a big difference by reading pets' reactions and ensuring you keep their experiences as stress-free as possible.
Anyone on the team should consider providing a basket of towels that have been sprayed with Feliway spray in the morning. On the basket, you can place a note that says something like, “Have a cat? Put this towel over the carrier.” Feliway helps to reduce stress, and taking away the visual stimulation of panting dogs and running kids will help make any cat's experience better.
When examining bigger dogs, do what is best for them and keep them on the floor. Unless the pet is used to being picked up (like a small dog or cat), most procedures and examinations should occur on the floor. It will cause less stress to the pet and less struggling for the exam or procedure, making your job easier.
Talk to the pet! So many times, we address the client and forget to say hello to the pet. Be sure to use words they're familiar with because this puts them at ease. If you speak their language, they're more likely to trust you. With adult dogs, ask them to perform their commands. Instead of struggling with them to get them to lay down, see if the dog will lay down by asking them. Remember, the nice thing about adult pets is that they probably know a few tricks!
Cats do not do well with being scruffed. Instead, use towel wraps, Feliway and catnip. Studies have shown scruffing increases fear and aggression in our feline patients. Instead, practicing patience, calm and towel wrapping allows you to perform most beneficial medical procedures.
When a pet needs to be hospitalized, don't forget about comfort. Luckily, there are simple fixes to make both cats and dogs feel at ease in your practice. For instance, cardboard boxes can decrease a cat's stress level. Small dogs are used to laps, so roll up some blankets and make a circular bed for your patient.
If the pet has been hospitalized due to a new injury or disease, consider booking a separate discharge time the day after discussing the pet's new condition with the owner. It's overwhelming to a pet owner to have an entire conversation on diabetes when they come to pick up their pet. Instead, give the evening dose of insulin and tell the pet's owner you want them to read a handout on diabetes. Then, have them come back the next morning where you will review everything and demonstrate how to give the insulin.
This is perhaps one of the best and hardest stages of life. Most senior pets know the ins and outs of a veterinary clinic and are more tolerant. Unfortunately, the stress of the clinic can be harder on both the pet and client. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make it better.
The front desk team often needs to be the guardian of the senior pet. If a younger dog or cat (or a young child) is harassing a calm senior pet, move the older pet into a room for safety and relaxation, away from the busy waiting area. Remember, age is not a disease, so be sure not to tell the owner “he's so old!” Instead, tell them “he's so handsome!” Owners love to hear their pet looks good.
Keep in mind, all senior pets have arthritis and likely can't see and hear as well. Go slow. Don't startle them. Be careful if you have to pick them up. Because their taste buds decrease as they age, you may want to microwave their food for 5 to 7 seconds so it brings out the smell more.
If the older pet needs to be hospitalized, be sure to provide soft, cushioned bedding to alleviate any arthritis pain.
Allow pet owners extra time with pets that have to stay overnight. I believe visiting hours rules should be allowed to be broken when dealing with a senior pet that has a terminal disease process. If the owner wants to sleep overnight, let them-it's best not only for the client, but also for the pet! Happiness equals a faster recovery, and allowing owners to spend time with their pet is the best way to help a sad heart.
The hardest part of talking to owners about senior pets are the conversations revolving around terminal illness or death. The most important things are to be compassionate, have empathy and be honest. So many times, we tell owners what we think they want to hear, rather than the truth. Be honest and, if you do it with compassion and empathy, they will hear you better.
Regardless of the pet's life stage, remember this advice: Have fun. Your veterinary patient is awesome. It's a furry (or, in the case of the hairless dog or cat, smooth) animal that brings joy to us crazy, imperfect human beings. We have the most amazing job of helping them live their best life through veterinary medicine. Supporting the pets through all stages of life is one of the most rewarding aspects of our job. Let's celebrate that!
Amy Newfield is a certified veterinary technician specializing in emergency critical care at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts.