Friday, March 11, 2016

Why are dogs and cats scared of vets?

This is Oscar, one of my patients, showing me how he feels about vets during a house call.

Have you ever met anyone who worked in a veterinary clinic or hospital who didn’t love animals? Nope? I bet you’ve met some animals that don’t love the vet. I’ve said it before, but one of the worst aspects of my job is actually being someone that some animals are terrified of. Seeing your next patient hiding under the chair in the waiting room, or putting the brakes on before their owner drags them through the door, or feeling their body tense – it’s a cruel irony. We’re here to help – but animals aren’t convinced.

One of the reasons vets and nurses do this job is that we believe wholeheartedly that veterinary care improves quality of life. But vet visits can be stressful for our patients (and clients). Studies have indicated that up to 70 per cent of dogs develop a “conditioned avoidance response” to the clinic environment; a large percentage of dogs and cats were reluctant, aggressive or fearful during vet examinations; the majority of healthy dogs behaved fearfully when waiting to undergo desexing and almost one in five animals were considered fear-biters. 

Other studies have shown that owners of almost 60 per cent of cats and 40 per cent of dogs said those animals hated going to the vet. HATED. That’s a strong word.

Not surprisingly, many of the owners themselves did not want to go to the vet. Fair enough. What’s the joy in subjecting someone you love to something that scares (sometimes literally) the crap out of them?

The good news is that finally there is research emerging about what triggers this fear and where we can minimise fear and maximise positive feelings.

In a study released this month, veterinarians and animal welfare researchers were surveyed about all the potential factors that could influence dog and cat welfare in relation to veterinary care. A total of 85 factors were identified. These included factors associated with the clinic environment, such as auditory and olfactory stimulation; optimisation of analgesia; patient to patient interactions; separation from the owner and other conspecifics; novel space; physical, visual or temporal separation of patients; and physical restraint.

Aspects of veterinary care that impacted animal welfare in the home environment included things like communication (about basic animal needs, preventative care, socialisation, training and handling, for example); individualised recommendations; distress associated with medicating; post-operative movement restrictions and client compliance with veterinarian’s 

The factors considered to have the highest impact on animal welfare when considering both clinic and home environments were post-surgical and chronic pain control, optimisation of analgesia within the clinic, and the ability of members of the veterinary team to recognise and interpret species-specific animal behaviours. The message is clear: we need to be thinking, continually, how to reduce fear and distress in our patients.

The task is to work out to what extent each of the factors impacts animal welfare, measuring this where possible, but importantly to then improve or eliminate aspects of practice that have a negative impact.

Working in a fear-free or minimal-fear environment will improve the quality of life not only of animals and clients, but also members of the veterinary team. It’s a win, win, win.