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March is a funny old month, often behaving in a very unpredictable manner. Some years it plays the late winter card and in others, its early summer. Whatever we get, one thing is true, it really is the start of spring and with that, there’s a change in mindset and mood for all life in the northern hemisphere. As the sun rises higher in the sky, so do our spirits, feelings often mirrored by our animals.
Many pet, horse and farm animal owners can relate to the idea that their own state of mind has an effect on their animals. Perhaps horses are more sensitive in this regard (certainly my own experience) but maybe it’s just their size and power that magnifies the effect. I spent years pushing stomach tubes down horses’ throats and arms up their backsides and I can tell you now, there needs to be a significant degree of understanding between vet and horse for this to be possible! I almost never had to use a twitch but instead took the time to make, what I felt, was a connection between us. Hocus pocus? Perhaps. But for you vets out there reading this, I did a large animal medicine residency at Cornell in the early 1990s. For the last 20 years, I have spent my time dealing with much smaller creatures although the vet/cat/dog connection is just as important, as is the relationship with the patients’ owners, which is essentially one of trust.
As vets, our job is so much easier if the patient (and the owner) is on our side, which effectively means “compliance”, a state of mind achievable in a fair proportion of patients. Having said that, things are very different in the clinic compared to the home environment, where trying to give tablets to cats has moved into the realm of folk-lore. It’s not always plain sailing in the consultation room either, where our small animal patients fall somewhere along a spectrum of being “nice” to “very difficult”. Nice patients let us do just about anything (providing it’s not too painful) and difficult patients just won’t let us do anything at all! One interesting observation that we all made during the last couple of years, when owners could not accompany their pets into the clinic, was how much easier “difficult” patients were when on their own. We often employ the same tactic now, taking a fractious pet away from its owner (with their permission) to a different room.
The truth is, however, that consultations with unpredictable animals are harrowing for everyone and trying to get anything of diagnostic value is a struggle. The result is a diagnosis and treatment plan that are based on very little information, making the vet feel uncertain and nervous that an important clinical sign has been overlooked. So how can we make our patients less stressed? After all, it’s the stress of the environment that triggers the unpredictable and sometimes aggressive behaviour. Unfortunately, I fall into the scary category for nervous dogs, being quite tall, male and bearded (well, masked these days…at least it hides the grey hairs!). Towering over dogs, making direct eye contact and reaching out towards them are all no-no’s as these are confrontational signals. That’s why I try to greet dogs sitting down and keep a distance, throwing treats towards them until an element of trust has been established. Many of you will know that I spend a good deal of time lying on the floor when a dog is scared, trying to make myself as submissive as possible. Although it puts me in a vulnerable position, I have never yet been bitten when I’m smaller than the dog, although I am selective.
Owners can really help us with tricky cases by identifying stress triggers and helping us avoid them. For example, many dogs hate getting on the scales (for a different reason than for most humans) so this should be left until last. Also, time spent in the waiting room can be really stressful, especially for cats, so this should be minimised. Maybe this was why car park consultations and then straight into the consult room worked so well, even though none of us miss standing in the rain, trying to maintain confidentiality despite shouting over the traffic noise.
The other side of the coin is the over-friendly dog that jumps onto my lap and wants to lick me. Very endearing but another reason to wear a mask as the canine tongue has usually been places! Not as though I mind but if these dogs are over-stimulated, the clinical examination can be as difficult as for aggressive or very nervous dogs. So I try to moderate my greetings for these patients for no other reason than it can be counter-productive, at least until the examination is over.
So whatever happens in March, one thing’s for sure, the weather and the patients will continue to keep us guessing. For some, unpredictable goes hand in hand with interesting and exciting, so even after 37 years in this job, I am never bored.