How senses differ for animals and humans in veterinary hospital design

October 27, 2016
Heather E. Lewis, AIA, NCARB
Heather E. Lewis, AIA, NCARB

Heather Lewis, AIA, NCARB, is a partner at Animal Arts, an architecture firm in Boulder, Colorado and frequent HospitalDesign360 conference speaker. She's a lighting geek and a (seriously) devoted advocate of minimizing pets' stress and anxiety during their veterinary visits. She has designed practices and shelters that range in size from 1,200 square feet to 110,000 square feet. During grad school (as a break from architorture) she trained miniature horses to pull carts!

Veterinary architect Heather Lewis is here to remind the veterinary world that even mans closest of animal companions still sees, smells, hears and experiences vary differently in crucial ways. Keeping that truth in mind helps immensely when it comes to designing a low-stress environment.

We humans know what does and doesn't stress us out-creepy clown music, traffic jams and blind dates. We also know how much the lengths we'll go to in order to protect our companion animals from stress like that. But, according to Heather Lewis, AIA, NCARB, partner at Animal Arts, a firm in Boulder, Colorado, many times we fail to differentiate our own stressors from the stressors of animals. And there is a difference. 

In a recent episode of Your Veterinary Voice, Lewis explained the frontiers of Fear Free hospital design that she'd like to further explore, especially when it comes to what an animal perceives: “It would be great if we could learn a little bit more about how an animal perceives space, so that we can be more responsive to that.” 

Make SENSE of low stress

Here are tips and tricks to start implementing low-stress tactics in your clinic, dealing with each of the five senses animals rely on.

> Fear-Free: What you see is not what the cat or dog gets

> Tips from a thunderstruck Thundershirt fan 

> Feline pain management miracle: No more grumpy cat! 

> 11 ways to take your veterinary practice from chaos to cakewalk

It doesnt seem like rocket science, but it can still be surprisingly hard to remember: We humans know what we like and don't like, but that doesn't necessarily apply to what our pets don't like.

Animals don't see exactly what we see. They don't hear what we hear. They don't smell what we smell. In short, they don't perceive what we perceive.

“I don't think there's actually enough research about that-or even if we'll ever know,” Lewis says. “I think we could know, but nobody's actually interested in doing that research.”

Part of it will be based on what you can gauge as stressful for pets; another part will be steeped in science and research.

“This has to be based on something-it can't be just based on some sort of whim or the fact that it looks nice because we paint it purple,” Lewis says. “It has to be really rigorous in the same way that the green building movement has been really rigorous." 

To read about and listen to the rest of the podcast, where she talks about Fear Free planning, cheap design alternatives, “progressive” ideas (like a pet-friendly color scheme!), and tons more, click here. Want even more? Check out the rest of our podcasts where we sit down with veterinary professionals and hear what they have to say.