Leverage how animals think differently to handle them with less fear stress

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Temple Grandin, PhD makes the case for veterinary professionals to see the world the way their patients do

Animals live in a sensory-based world and do not think in words. Temple Grandin, PhD, believes this insight is key to truly understanding animal behavior.

Grandin explored this concept and more in her keynote address Sunday morning at Fetch dvm360® Conference Kansas City. She drew on her prolific experience as an animal behaviorist and designer of livestock handling facilities used throughout the world to teach attendees why it is important to “be a better observer” and learn to think like their patients—and how it can help them be a better clinician.

Throughout her keynote address, Grandin shared revelations about the psychology of animals gleaned from her hundreds of published papers and decades of focus on this topic. These insights translated into practical recommendations for how veterinary professionals can promote a low-stress environment for their patients. Plus, as Grandin said, “A calm animal is easier to handle.”

Here are 5 fear-reduction strategies that, in turn, benefit the clinicians and pet parents, too:

1. Prepare the pet for a positive first vet experience

Grandin explained that animal memories are hyper-specific, and they often make visual or auditory associations with positive and negative novel experiences. She said that novelty can be both “scary and attractive,” so those that fail to make a new experience positive risk creating a negative association. In short, a bad first experience in the clinic can make a pet fearful of the veterinary team and stressed to return to the building.

Because the opposite is also true, Grandin shared tips on how to make that first visit one to remember (in a good way). She cited stronger leash laws in recent years as a cause for many pets having fewer interactions and experiences with strangers. She recommended owners start training their pets to have unknown people touch them before the first visit. Grandin explained that pet parents can also habituate their animals to some of the “harder” touches they will experience in a physical exam with treat training. The owner should lightly pull or hold their pet, which then receives a treat if they do not pull back. These small actions can help that animal become more comfortable with new people, new places, and new experiences.

“If your force animals to do things, you get a lot more stress [than] when you train animals to cooperate,” said Grandin

Additional tips and tricks she presented also factor into a positive first experience at the clinic but are relevant for existing patients as well.

2. Secure exam tables

Grandin reminded the audience that the fear of falling is a strong “primal fear.” She recalled visiting animal clinics with exam tables that are slippery and/or wobbly. To eliminate slippery surfaces, Grandin recommended putting a mat on the exam table. If the veterinary team does not want to bother with cleaning the mat, pet parents can be asked to bring one from home.

As for wobbly tables, Grandin said, “It’s amazing what a few pieces of steel rods molded to the floor will do for [animal] behavior.”

3. Invest in nonslip flooring

In the same vein, practice owners often don’t realize the floors of the hospital can be slippery to the point of causing anxiety in animals. Grandin asked attendees to imagine how they feel when trying to walk on ice, and then encouraged the audience to understand that their patients may feel the same way. She said this is a common occurrence because generally “smooth things are easier to clean” and the animal’s perspective in this situation is often overlooked.

If building from the ground up, Grandin recommended investing in nonslip flooring. If a practice already has flooring installed, she said nonslip runners are an easy, cheap solution to help pets get around without feeling unstable.

4. Test lights for a strobe effect that only dogs can see

Light-emitting diode (LED) lights produce a flicker that is imperceptible to humans. However, Grandin explained that she had come across research that showed this flickering in lower-quality LEDs or LEDs with a dimmer switch can be perceived by dogs as a strobe-like effect that is potentially distressing.

To test if a clinic’s lighting system is uncomfortable for dogs, Grandin said, one only needs a smartphone with a slow-motion video camera. She advised to take video of the lights in slow-motion, and the lights that will be perceptible to dogs will visually flicker on playback.

5. Don’t let other animals see forceful handling of a patient

Grandin recalled visiting a clinic and watched the veterinary team “force down” a big dog for surgery with dogs watching from the kennel. “Nobody had thought about the 4 pets watching 3 people manhandle a great big dog,” said Grandin. She explained that she does not think the dogs understand what happens on the operating table, but when it comes to the rough handling of the dog before the surgery, “They do get it,” she cautioned.

Closing words

Animals have a different perspective and a different way of thinking that often goes overlooked. By keeping in mind that pets are highly visual and auditory thinkers with a memory to match, clinicians can handle them in a manner that reduces fear and stress.

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