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What the vet really looks like to a fearful pet

For many years throughout my carrier, fearful dogs were labeled as 'cautions', 'fractious', 'aggressive' or just 'bad'. Unfortunately for many of these pets, until recently most veterinary professionals didn't take the time to recognize or understand that these pets were acting in response to fear and not true aggression. While we considered ourselves advocates for our patients, most veterinary professionals failed this subgroup of pets and instead of working to help desensitize them, we forced them to have scary procedures done all while reinforcing the fear that caused the behavior in the first place. As years have gone by and our prospective on these patients has shifted, we have learned to view things in a new light. For those of us in tune with our patients, we have realized just how frightening the veterinary visit is for some patients.


Traditionally veterinary offices have been designed with lobbies in which patients are able to intermingle (even amongst species), with floors that are easy to clean (often linoleum or tile), with colors pleasing to our clients, with exam rooms designed to ease the burden on the veterinary staff by having pets placed up on stiff tables and with poor sound control. Many times to help disguise the sometimes offensive odors produced by some patients the hospital staff will clean with harsh chemicals and use strong air fresheners/candles. Due to the layout of the hospital, many patients that are spending more than a few minutes in the hospital are placed in metal kennels in which they are able to see, smell and hear other patients.


Some patients don't seem to mind any of these design flaws - however as we have learned, many of these are quite stress inducing for our pets. Lobbies which allows pets to intermingle can be very fearful for those pets who have experienced traumatic events in the past (think of a small chihuahua who was once attacked by a larger dog) and are extremely stressful for cats who prefer to be alone and certainly not sniffed by the large Marmaduke next to them.


Slick floors, while easy to clean, are not conducive to walking for most of our canine patients - especially larger breed dogs with joint or neurologic issues. I have even had patients who have an aversion to slick surfaces and won't enter a vet hospital depending on the flooring. In the past they would have been labeled as 'difficult' and our staff, plus their owners, would often laugh and then force these patients in the door and along the floor as they desperately tried gripping onto the slick surface. Thankfully, we know better now.


Being able to see, smell and hear other patients in the hospital does not provide the needed comfort that our patients deserve. Many patients are fearful when exposed to loud noises and hearing nonstop barking can be a warning sign to these patients. Its also important to consider our feline patients who often will become very agitated and desire a safe hiding spot when confronted with numerous barking dogs. Once a cat is in 'fight or flight' mode, it can be nearly impossible to try to perform necessary treatments or diagnostics without causing a fear response or getting erroneous lab results. If you think about it, most every feline patient we see has an elevated blood sugar level on their lab work

- this indicates that they are stressed when coming to see us. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not - generally our design flaws have led this level of stress in our patients.


It's important to acknowledge that our pets do experience a level of stress or anxiety when coming to see us - often we can make some changes to make their experience more enjoyable. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post describing how Fear Free veterinary visits are designed to address some of these stressors.


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