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Recognizing patient fear vital to positive veterinary clinic visits

Veterinary clinics can be scary scenarios for animals – new surroundings, new people, sounds and smells. It’s not surprising that many cats and dogs display some signs of fear.

Recognizing and managing a pet’s fear is key to ensuring a positive experience for animals, owners, and the veterinary clinic staff.

A recent study by Population Medicine student Lauren Dawson explores how companion animal veterinarians recognize and manage fear in their patients. 

Dawson completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at McGill University in Montreal. After completing an animal behaviour course, a professor suggested she consider further study at the University of Guelph, leading to her completing the course work MSc in animal behaviour and welfare. Dawson discovered she loves research and is putting those skills to work completing a PhD in Population Medicine with advisors Drs. Lee Niel, Cate Dewey, Michele Guerin and Elizabeth Stone.

For this study, funded by OVC Pet Trust, Dawson interviewed veterinarians, looked at the environment in their clinic and took video of appointments to assess how veterinarians assess and approach fearfulness in their pet clients.

The work is part of a larger study to develop an animal welfare assessment tool for companion animal veterinary clinics, an idea promoted by Dean Elizabeth Stone, one of Dawson’s advisors on the project.

All companion and mixed animal veterinary clinics within a 100-kilimetre radius of Guelph were invited to participate in the study. Interviews with veterinarians at 22 participating clinics included open-ended questions asking them to describe how they recognize fear in canine and feline patients.

“We also asked them how they manage fearful or aggressive animals, do you give treats, do you use towels or blankets, for example,” says Dawson.

Clinics participating in the study had to be primary care or general practice hospitals. Dawson worked with staff at the Hill’s Pet Nutrition Primary Healthcare Centre at OVC to pilot the study prior to visiting clinics. It provided Dawson an opportunity to fine-tune the study approach and questionnaire with a staff veterinarian.

“This helped us to figure out our game plan before we started to visit practices,” adds Dawson. “It was a really good resource.”

The three most commonly cited signs of fear were aggression (68 per cent for cats and 45 per cent for dogs), body position (59 per cent for cats and 36 per cent for dogs) and ear position (32 per cent for both cats and dogs), says Dawson. Other fear-related behaviours, such as hiding, freezing and avoiding interaction both independent of and in addition to aggression, were cited by 95 per cent of veterinarians questioned.

However, Dawson found that few veterinarians identified more subtle signs of fear, such as yawning and lip licking. Fear starts with subtle signs such as these, before more obvious signs are apparent, says Dawson. If fear is identified early and strategies are put in action to manage the situation and prevent escalation, it is beneficial for the animal and clinic staff.

A positive clinic experiences will have multiple benefits for clients, their animals and veterinary staff.

While recognizing fear is beneficial to improving animals welfare, proper management of fear is also important for staff safety and provides a better opportunity to examine the animal. It also benefits the client relationship, encouraging clients to bring their pets into the clinic more often, points out Dawson.

Puppy and kitten visits are an opportunity to start the animals’ clinic experience off on the right foot, adds Dawson. For example, have some fun with puppies and kittens while touring them around the clinic with treats or play a game with the stethoscope so it’s not as scary at the next visit.

Less stressful visits may also boost return visits to veterinary clinics, a positive for veterinarians and animal owners alike.