Stop the progression to aggression


Halt the bucking, tooth-baring, low-hissing madness in your veterinary practice. Heres how.

The little ones look so sweet ... until their tiny teeth draw first blood. (Photo: you've worked a veterinary practice longer than a hot minute, chances are you've been scratched, bitten or hurt. You deal with the dilemma of keeping yourself safe while caring for patients' physical and emotional wellbeing. And the simple fact is, many patients react negatively to veterinary care, becoming hard to handle or aggressive.

This also bites in the form of workers' compensation claims and staffing issues when workers must take time off or are limited in the jobs they can perform because of injuries. And injuries can be more than physical-as team members live with the bad memories and trauma from scary or painful experiences, it can also take an emotional toll.

Fear Free protective practices and emotionally protective veterinary care safeguard animals and veterinary professionals. Fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) contribute to most of the struggling, scratching, snarling and scuffles. And happy, relaxed pets are less likely to take flight or fight, which makes offering care safer and easier.

Forcing your way through pets' fear may lead to physical fights and injuries-and it can make it harder to offer care in the future. And pet owners may be less likely to bring their pets back to your practice after a bad experience.

If handling is a hotbed for injury in your clinic, consider these strategies to help safeguard the pet-and your team-during care.

What's the opposite of heavy-handed? The answer to your problems

Heavy-handed, hold-down type restraint can escalate emotional distress. The result? A squirmy, struggling pet.

In contrast, when you position pets comfortably with gentle control holds that guide and stabilize, pets are more likely to be calm and cooperative. If possible, keep the animal in the position they naturally relax into.

Avoid overstretching or forced hold downs that continue even as the animal struggles to break free. These scary scenes increase the pet's distress, escalating an initial freeze or flailing move to break free into an adrenaline-fueled hissing, growling, scratching and biting match.

Don't be fools caught without the right tools

Gentle control tools keep the team safe and decrease the stress of the experience by allowing you to offer more hands-off care. Here are a few items you may incorporate into your care.

Basket muzzles are important tools for dogs. Ideally, your patients were trained to these devices in early puppyhood. For dogs who need a basket muzzle later in life, use positive conditioning to prepare the pooch to willingly wear these. Use treat spreads inside the muzzle, or cup a treat-filled hand beneath the muzzle to create positive associations and keep the pet comfortable. For dogs needing to be muzzled, have the pet come into the veterinary visit with their own muzzle pre-placed before care.

Elizabethan collars and air muzzles are also helpful for cats and flat-faced dogs.

Towels offer a hiding place for cats. Look for ways to create positive associations by pairing towel use with palatable treats.

The more hands-off, fearful kitties and pooches may feel stressed when you touch them with your hands or arms. Instead, use towels to gently guide or stabilize the patient. Consider keeping a stack of freshly laundered, pheromone-spritzed towels in each exam room to allow for easy access for pets during care.

Animals trained to a head halter or those conditioned quickly to its use during the veterinary exam give the handler greater directional control of the dog and a degree of control over the open and close of the dog's mouth. Then you can guide the dog into position with less restraint and hands-on contact.

The best tool of all: Keep your cool

When you use tools to offer care, pay attention to the animal's emotional state. Certain tools may have a negative association for the animal-for example, the dog or cat that panics, flees or goes into fight mode at the mere sight of a muzzle or towel. For these pets, consider other techniques that complement the care you offer. (For more ideas, check out our Low Stress Veterinary Visit Resources center here.) 

A Fear Free approach uses multimodal practices to address FAS in a way that reduces distress and keeps the pet and veterinary team safer. In some cases, this may include sedation or pharmaceutical and nutraceutical interventions. Pets also benefit from training and conditioning to stay calm and relaxed during veterinary care-including the use of Victory Visits and home follow-up.

Check out Low Stress Handling for Dogs and Cats by Dr. Sophia Yin for more advice on pet handling and positioning during veterinary care.

Mikkel Becker is the resident trainer for and works in conjunction with veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists to address behavior issues in dogs and cats. Her four-legged best friend is Willy the pug, a certified therapy dog through the Delta Society. They are both adventurists and enjoy traveling together to experience the great outdoors, from visiting the farm animals on the family ranch to taking hikes around their home in Seattle.

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