Nervous dog being examined by vet

While in my teens, my family had this adorable little Terrier mix named Targa who loved just about everyone. Everyone, that is, except anyone who had anything to do with a veterinary visit. It was a nightmare whenever she needed to be seen. Limbs rigid, toes extended, claws dug in, her eyes bulging with fear… it was heartbreaking.

Back then, we’d simply haul her in through the clinic’s back door to minimize as many potential adverse interactions as possible. Once there, we’d plop her unceremoniously onto the surgery table and do whatever it was we had to do. More often than not, copious quantities of sedating drugs would be employed.

Meanwhile, I would try to make myself as small as possible. So mortified was I after one episode during which she’d completed a perfect trifecta (urinated, defecated and released her anal glands); I distinctly recall wishing the earth would swallow me whole. This is how a future veterinarian’s dog behaves? So much for my prospects!

Fast-Forward to the Low-Stress Vet Visit

Today things are different in veterinary medicine. Not only is our mindset more evolved when it comes to understanding these pets, we’ve also acquired a sophisticated toolkit of alternatives for pets who “misbehave.”

For starters, we don’t even refer to this kind of behavior as “bad,” “ballistic” or “berserk” anymore. These pets aren’t evil or otherwise ill intentioned after all. They’re not even “spoiled.” They’re just terrified. And treating them as if they’re “mean” or “nasty” instead of fearful only reinforces the erroneous notion that they’re to be dealt with adversarially.

It’s exactly that kind of antiquated, patients-as-rivals thinking that historically led many veterinary establishments and other pet professionals to adopt rough treatment practices — practices we’ve since learned are not only stressful and cruel but counterproductive, too. Hence, the rise of so-called “low-stress” handling techniques and protocols.

I offer this information not only by way of explaining that so-called “problem pets” are often ill deserving of their reputations but also so you know that we’ve long since stopped blaming their owners for their pets’ fractious behavior.

We Want to Lower Your Stress, Too

This information would’ve come in handy way back when I was trying to pry Targa’s toes off the roof of the car. Even though I was a vet hospital employee back then and should’ve kept a level head with respect to these things, I would sweat over having to bring her in. And if that’s how I felt, I can only imagine how the relatively uninitiated feel about having to drag in a petrified dog or watch while their normally mild-natured cat turns into an unrecognizable hissing and spitting tooth-and-claw machine.

Imagine what these poor pet owners have to endure: Not only do they have to experience the anxiety that leads up to the visit and the pressure that accompanies the unwanted attention their pets’ behavior elicits, they have to watch their pets suffer all that stress, too! It’s enough to make pet owners never want to come to the vet’s ever again.

To this day, I look at these clients and want to tell them I know exactly how they feel. And I sometimes do, when it’s appropriate. But more importantly, I work hard at the same stubborn goal so many veterinarians have come to adopt as their cause célèbre: making sure each and every patient gets treated with the compassion, patience and newfound skills necessary to allow us to do the rest of our job to the best of our ability. 

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