Dog in Muzzle at Vet
To veterinarians and our intrepid team members, it often seems like it’s raining teeth. To be precise, 42 teeth from dogs and 30 from cats. That’s a lot of teeth to dodge!

When I consider the 30-plus human-pet interactions I engaged in just yesterday, it becomes apparent that the odds are not in my favor. And some of my hospital team members have it way worse.

Ways to Keep the Skin Intact

The way I see it, anyone who owns a pet or comes in contact with dogs or cats could benefit from a few tips on avoiding getting bitten. To that end, I’ve written a little cheat sheet that describes my personal approach to staying out of harm’s way — in seven simple steps.

1. Read the pet, but trust your gut. Reading an animal’s body language is essential to knowing how to approach him. All species have characteristic body postures, facial expressions and vocalizations that clue you in to what’s happening in their heads. It only makes sense that you might want to become well-versed in these.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners offers a great primer on reading feline body language. And the ASPCA offers a simple guide on canine body language.

Regardless of the pet’s posture, however, there are times when I get a gut feeling that things are not as they should be. It’s never a good idea to trust body language alone.

2. Ask the owner and you shall (often) receive. Pet owners often know more than they let on. They sometimes simply assume I know what I’m doing. Which is why they hold their tongues, thinking they might upset the flow of things if they offer me advice.

Meanwhile, when I’m on the business end of the exam table, I can think I’ve got this, when, in truth, I’d probably avoid a lot of trial-and-error and potential puncture wounds if I simply asked up front, “Has Fluffy ever been aggressive with anyone before?” or “Does he sometimes get aggressive when he’s nervous?”

These simple questions can be magical when it comes to the preservation of one’s flesh.

3. Detailed record-keeping is your friend. Knowing how a pet reacted on a previous visit is really important. Writing that information down in detail can be critical. At our practice, comments in the computer and medical record such as “Go really slow around her mouth,” “Does not like his back feet touched,” or “Must apply muzzle no matter what the owner says” are words to live by.

4. Maintain a healthy distance. Almost all of our new volunteers have to be told multiple times to keep their hands to themselves and maintain a healthy distance from an animal during an exam. Still, some will lean over a nervous pet’s head and go in for a full-on mouth kiss. Unless you know a patient really, really well, this is unacceptable hospital behavior.

Then there’s the distance only protective gear can provide. Muzzles, gloves and other simple tools can add a layer of "distance" when you need it most.

5. It’s all about timing, but speed matters, too. “Go slow” is a great mantra for all animal health care workers. No pet likes a fast-moving, fast-talking, fast anything when they’re really nervous. Take it slow. But get it done fast! There’s a bit of a trick to getting the whole exam done within a pet’s seemingly preset time limit. Cats, especially, seem to harbor unspoken rules for how much time they’ll suffer your attention.

And, of course, speed really matters when your unprotected hand is the object of an unexpected canine or feline lunge. Fast reflexes are essential in vet medicine.

6. Attitude and ambiance are everything — until they’re not. Being cool, calm and collected is important. Otherwise, some pets will feed off your stress. Which is why creating a space of relaxation and well-being to match your low-key attitude is essential, too. So important is this approach that vet hospitals are increasingly being redesigned with happy, low-stress vibes in mind.

But all the chill you can muster isn’t going to save you when an animal is already absolutely terrified.

7. Know when to surrender. Though it might look like some of my patients are trying to kill me out of sheer malice, none are doing any such thing. The vast majority are simply driven witless by fear.

In these cases, nothing I do will matter much. That is, unless I surrender. Which could mean one of three things, depending on the patient and the scenario: a) a house call instead, in an environment where the patient may be more relaxed, b) sedation or c) no intervention at this time. Knowing which option to deploy when is part of the art of veterinary medicine.

These are only a few of the more obvious points. I’m sure if you ask two more veterinarians, they’ll come up with 20 more bite-prevention strategies between them. Even so, I think I’ll take my own advice and ask about the pet’s penchant for biting before I treat my next patient. 

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