Oct 16 / Teresa Tyler

Out the Back: Time for vets to rethink?

I should begin by explaining that I qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 1990 and have worked pretty much since the age of 18 in veterinary practices, ranging from private practices, within shelters to university referral hospitals, so I am not your average dog owner when it comes to visiting the vet. Recently, I had to attend a new clinic in an emergency situation, a clinic that didn’t know me or my dog. It left me considering the process of examinations and the profession once again. What you are about to read is potentially controversial and is my opinion, but I hope it makes you consider veterinary interactions from the dog’s perspective.It is a common situation. You walk into the consulting room with who can be your rather apprehensive dog. Normally he or she is confident and happy, yet the environment of the vet clinic with all its smells, sounds, new people and other strange pets can be rather overwhelming. You are greeted and asked about the problem. After some initial history taking and perhaps an examination, the vet announces that they will just pop ‘Fido’ out the back to carry out a procedure that for some unknown reason cannot be done in front of you. Does this sound familiar?You may ask why this is necessary and are likely to be told ‘Pets are usually calmer without the owner’, ‘Pets are better handled by a professional so you don’t get injured’, ‘You may feel queasy watching a blood draw/ injection/ other procedure’, ‘There will be someone who can help me restrain Fido’. And so on. There is some truth in these remarks; pets usually seem less emotional without owners present, there is usually a nurse/tech there to restrain the animal correctly for the procedure, you may feel queasy and nobody wants an owner fainting in the middle of a blood draw. Yet I have my doubts.
On many occasions I have seen dogs muzzled unnecessarily, animals restrained too harshly, tempers lost because the vet/nurse cannot find the vein, or the cat won’t sit still, or the dog is old and not comfortable maintaining a sitting position, or they have not been conditioned to this type of intervention and are plain terrified. I am sure that in the majority of cases a friendly, empathic team treat your pets as you would wish them to be treated, but when your dog is out back, how would you know? The dog who was as ‘good as gold’, was perhaps frozen in fear and the dog that had to be muzzled may have been being handled inappropriately or have been experiencing pain.
In 2017 Erika Csoltova et al, conducted research into this very issue. They investigated dog well-being during veterinary visits by comparing how dogs responded with and without their owners present and offering contact during examinations. They showed that owner-dog interactions improved the well-being of dogs during veterinary examinations and that they should be encouraged to reduce stress in an already stressful situation (Csoltova et al., 2017).

So next time your vet says ‘I’ll just pop him out the back’ make sure you know what goes on and do what you think is in the best interest of your dog. 

This comes as no surprise to me. As a canine behaviourist I am very aware of my individual dogs’ body language and can easily see when they are anxious, stressed, afraid or looking to me for reassurance. These cues are often not observed by veterinary staff, who are there primarily to diagnose and treat your dog; to find out what is wrong and fix it. Yet, dogs are not machines, they are not something that can be fixed once you have found the loose screw. They are sentient, intelligent, emotional creatures like us and need to be approached as such.  A vet pushing their hand into my dogs face, so he can get to know them is a real rookie error, yet so many pet professionals still do this. If that is the first introduction that is offered to my dog, how can I trust that he will be treated as I expect him to be?
As a nurse, I know from experience that less is always more, a hands off and force free approach will get you further and with much less hassle for everyone, than restraint and force. Yet this way of handling animals is often seen as time consuming and not conducive to ‘getting the job done’ and this saddens me about the profession where care should be the number one consideration.
So next time your vet says ‘I’ll just pop him out the back’ make sure you know what goes on and do what you think is in the best interest of your dog. If that means staying put, then so be it. If it means you accompany him or her out the back, then do so. I know that my dogs prefer to have me near, reassuring and talking them through procedures and ultimately less stress means better recoveries for them. Ask yourself what you would prefer if you were in their paws? You know them best and don’t be persuaded otherwise.

Reference.Csoltova, E., Martineau, M., Boissy, A., & Gilbert, C. (2017). Behavioral and physiological reactions in dogs to a veterinary examination: Owner-dog interactions improve canine well-being. Physiology & Behavior, 177, 270–281.