Making a frightening first impression
In a study not yet fully published,5 patients that were videotaped as pups were reexamined at 18 months of age for fearful behaviors. It's no surprise that virtually
all the pups that had been fearful when younger were fearful as adults—and they were fearful in the same contexts. Some of
dogs that were considered normal pups had developed behavioral concerns, fears among them.
Addressing this anxiety at the outset of a doctor-patient relationship is vital. Nothing in any puppy or kitten's life will
have prepared it for the sensory overload that will occur at their first and subsequent veterinary visits.
> These puppies and kittens will never have encountered the noise range and frequency that defines a busy veterinary practice.
> The general lighting is different and often invasive, and it's unlikely anyone has looked in the patient's eyes with a penlight
> The global odor must be complex. Even if these puppies and kittens were born in a home with lots of animals, they have never
faced so many and such diverse smells at once.
> Most puppies and kittens will never have had the social experience of encountering so many humans and animals at once and
in such close quarters.
> Many young patients are walking for the first time on flooring that may interfere with their balance and traction.
> Finally, if the client is clutching at the patient or at the restraints (leads, harnesses, carriers and collars), the patient
can only take this as a signal to react.
Our mitigation should focus on decreasing arousal and on increasing affiliative behaviors. In short, we want to create behavior-centered
practices. We accomplish these goals by using calm environments, teaching patients that going to the veterinarian need not
be scary, and avoiding situations that are perceived by the dog or cat as punishing or frightening. Instead we need to ensure
that these experiences are seen as fun and rewarding.
If we take the few minutes needed to assess how fearful the pet is and if we change our clinics and our behaviors to encourage
more and better cooperation, we are likely to save lives daily and engender an enduring loyalty and trust from clients. It's
Note: In part 2 of this series, the author will discuss how to quickly assess the level of fear in every patient and outline
what veterinarians can do during consultations to alleviate those fears and build a more behavior-centered practice.
Dr. Karen L. Overall is a researcher, editor of The Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, and author of more than 100 publications, dozens of chapters and a new book, The Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats.
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3. Döring D, Roscher A, Scheipl F, et al. Fear-related behavior of dogs in veterinary practice. Veterinary Journal 2009;182(1):38-43.
4. Hernander L. Factors influencing dogs' stress level in the waiting room at a veterinary clinic. Student report. Swedish University
of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Animal Environment and Health, Ethology and Animal Welfare programme. 2008. Available
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