What Vets Really Say About Snarly Pets

Dr. Patty Khuly

In the immortal words of Jessica Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

This random Who Framed Roger Rabbit reference may be obscure to you, but the cartoon bombshell’s point is universal: Making assumptions is unfair and often harmful.

So it is with making assumptions about pets whose in-hospital etiquette is, shall we say, less than desirable. But let’s not mince words: This post is about pets who display violent, antihuman tendencies in a veterinary setting. They growl, bite, lunge, stalk and launch full-on attacks on vets and technicians.

And we judge them.

Veterinarians often apply the “bad dog” or “bad cat” label to them even though it's impossible to believe these pets act out like this when they're in their comfy homes and secure in their families’ warm embrace.

Are we lashing out by way of self-preservation? Partly, I think. After all, veterinarians and staff do need to apply some sort of descriptive term to these pets so we can communicate their tendencies and keep ourselves safe.

The truth is that nearly every animal clinic in this country has a system for identifying aggressive pets. In the hospital where I work, labeling volatile animals with the word “watch!” is common. My personal preference is to flag a medical file using a scale of one to five dots. One dot represents a “go slow and watch your back” warning, while five translates into "must sedate immediately, preferably starting sedatives at home."

Cat snarling at vet

And, even though a client never hears clinic staff describe a pet as a "bad dog" (as you might imagine, it’s not a politically correct thing to say), applying value judgments to pets is commonplace.  Admit it, you've done it yourself.

Nevertheless, it is my contention that it's highly questionable to assign patients judgmental terms like "good" and "bad." If you call a dog or cat “bad,” you end up treating the animal less compassionately. In other words, what these pets really need to keep them calm and make them safer to handle is more empathy and less negativity. Negativity only begets greater displays of aggression. Yet common sense sometimes takes a backseat to our human drive to get all judgy when we're feeling stressed out by a patient’s behavior. 

Which, come to think about it, is exactly what these pets are experiencing: extreme stress — especially when they are being pushed around a vet's office. Only their limited cognition and justifiable fear should earn them a pass, while our negative reaction earns us a greater risk of getting nailed by an upset pet.

Jessica Rabbit, dolled up in her slit-to-there, slinky sequined dress would have something to say. I mean, these pets are just drawn that way. That is, when they’ve been prejudged by glorified needle pushers like us.

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