NEWPORT, TENN. - Dr. John Chambers knows when to back away from an angry cat. He learned after losing a fingertip.
Everyone in the animal hospital, from the veterinarian to the assistant, should be taught about safe handling of animals.
Pictured here is Dr. Jeffrey Peacock of Crossroad Animal Hospital in Strongsville, Ohio.
"You have to watch the bacteria on these cats' teeth," says Chambers, who runs a mixed practice in Tennessee. "The cat bit
through my finger and tore off the flesh, and it wouldn't heal. It numbed up on me, and they had to amputate it."
Nowadays, Chambers doesn't mess with violent felines. Instead, he detains cats with muzzles, and if they're in the mood for
battle, Chambers doesn't hesitate to sedate them.
"Cat bites are truly horrendous. If they're vicious, we throw them inside an induction chamber and gas them," he says. "Sometimes
they start defecating and urinating all over the place, but pretty soon they're out long enough to get blood and conduct an
"Inevitably, then you get these clients who, after their cat wakes up, asks you to trim its nails or check its teeth. ...
and there's just no way."
Safety statistics Animal bites are the most common occupational hazard among veterinarians, according to the Safety Handbook for Veterinary
Hospital Staff, a manual authored in 1999 by Dr. Diane McKelvey. The book's bite data comes form a 1998 study published in
the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, indicating needle punctures are the next most common hazards,
followed by slips, trips and falls, and lifting injuries.
According to the manual's bite wound chapter, dogs inflict up to 90 percent of all bites to the U.S. public, however, most
cat bites, which have higher infection rates, are not reported.
"You can't underestimate the bite of a cat," McKelvey says.
Dr. Larry Dee, owner of Hollywood Animal Hospital in Florida, agrees.
"I got more bites in my week practicing than the entire time I was a student and assisted my father and uncle," he says.
"Over the years, I've learned that you have to con cats into doing things, that's the key. Don't try to wrestle with them,
you'll just get an adrenaline response."
Ergonomics in the veterinary workplace Physical trauma in the form of back injuries also is prevalent, reports the U.S. Department of Labor and Industries.
Ergonomics involves heavy lifting, overexertion or awkward postures that might pose hazards for work-related musculoskeletal
disorders such as tendonitis, back injuries, or other sprains and strains, the department states.
Dee recommends lifting heavy animals in pairs. "In my experience, back injuries come from not lifting animals properly,"
he says. "Get an employee to help when an animal's heavy, or put it on a stretcher.
"As these macho guys who lift everything themselves get older, they're backs will remind them of the days when they should've
asked for help."
Thwarting injury To ward off most physical hazards, McKelvey recommends veterinarians never work alone, especially when dealing with large
animals. Classes help, too, she says.
"People get hurt in small ways all the time, while major accidents and trauma don't happen so often," she says. "If someone
in the practice does get injured and the veterinarian has failed to inform them of the hazard and teach safety, the liability
is very large.
"Every new employee has to be taught safety methods. That's the law. You have to find something that works for you."