Friday, 31 October 2008

ICAWC 2008 Presentation: Practical tips for Avoiding Stress in Companion Animal Handling - Caroline Bower

Previous presentation: Rewarding our Companions: Honours Awards - Clarissa Baldwin

Caroline is not only a veterinarian, but also a behaviourist, so is very well placed to give practical tips for avoiding and reducing stress when handling animals. She is drawing on her experiences at The Veterinary Hospital in Plymouth, Devon.

9:25: Caroline's early focus was on prevention. She asks who we want to help?.
  • The patients
  • The owners
  • Animal handlers
  • The practice / shelter's reputation
9:30: Speaking from the point of view of someone who works within a veterinary practice, there are certain main aims:
  • Good welfare
  • Minimising stress
  • Being safe using minimal restraint
  • Creating the conditions for the best history and examination
  • Avoiding tension, arousal, pain and fear
What else? Clearly excellent clinical care, excellent client care, successful outcome, client satisfaction, avoidance of iatrogenic (medical care-related) behaviour problems. In a shelter it might be kennel stress, etc.

9:35: What are the stimuli of stress?
  • Phone
  • Reception
  • Other clients and (nervous) pets
  • Animal noises
  • Waiting room design
  • Space available
  • First time client
  • Anxiety about the illness
  • Cost of treatment
  • Waiting time
9:40: The person on the front desk / answering the phone is of paramount importance. They can put people at their ease through clear communication, a smile and helpful attitude and creating a calm, welcoming atmosphere. It does make a huge difference, and is key to waiting room management.

She / he can relieve overcrowding by giving suggestions (why not walk the dog? Why not wait in the car with your cat?), making sure that, for example, a nervous rabbit isn't sitting next to a noisy dog and communicating on delays and systems quickly and clearly. They can also politely suggest owners of noisy animals walk outside, etc, and that owners of prey and predator species do not sit together!

9:45: Simple things can help reduce stress for all concerned. Making sure every animal that comes in to the waiting area is appropriately restrained (safely in a cat carrier, on a leash, etc) is one way, and having a quiet corridor with a chair somewhere away from the waiting area for animals that might be better in a more isolated area can really improve a tense situation.

If possible, have separate dog and cat sitting areas; they don't have to be physically separated by much more than signs and tables, but it helps people to organise themselves. Stressed dogs head downwards, stressed cats upwards. Raising cats off the ground so that they feel safer - putting them on a lap, chair or shelf while in the basket - helps. Cats generally are only put in baskets during stressful times, so at home it helps to encourage the cat to regard the basket as safe. Take the door off, make it comfy and warm, give treats and feed in it and let them understand it's not entirely negative. Cats can be desensitised to it.

Pheromone sprays applied before the cat gets in can also relax them (Feliway) and using a familiar towel / blanket can increase the comfort level, as can securing the basket safely in the car and avoiding bumping during transport. Then putting a towel over the basket and sitting in the quietest area possible is calming.

9:50: For very nervous cats, surgeries can try cat only surgery times and cat only wards (it will only smell of cats), etc. The same can be done for birds and small furries.

9:55: Avoiding pain is crucial, not only because of the welfare considerations, which are many, but because a pleasant - or at least, minimally painful - experience at the vets can prevent stress and behaviour issues on the next visit. Positive associations - giving treats, etc - and working slowly and carefully also make the process easier and provide good groundwork for future visits.

Examination rooms can also be made friendlier - providing a seat and helping clients to feel the staff are approachable means better pet histories and communication.

10:00: Plan ahead. Double appointments can be given to new puppies, kittens and rabbits because there's so much information to impart / receive and so much that can be done to prevent future problems during primary socialisation phases, especially with dogs. Extra time needs to be allowed with avian or exotic pets, too, or for giving second opinions for someone who is usually a client at another practice. Export consultations are difficult and sensitive, so need appropriate time to cover all the information.

Euthanasia is obviously very traumatic for the client, so extra time for saying goodbye before and after the procedure is very imporant.

10:05: Appropriate use of sedation and pre-emptive pain relief is key in creating a supportive atmosphere for the animal. Aftercare for anaesthetised animals is vital, as the majority of deaths that do happen related to surgery happen after the animal has come round. Often this can be the least vigilant time, but should be the most vigilant until the animal is actually up and walking around again.

Caroline goes on to give some specific species tips. For example, if you do need to muzzle a dog, it's better if the owner does this at home so there is not an immediate association between the vets and the muzzle.

10:10: Early socialisation can be paramount in preventing stress, behaviour problems and other issues later on. This is particularly key with the first few weeks of a puppy's life. When a new puppy is brought in, their first experience should be positive. Caroline's practice gives them treats on the table first, while some puppy advice is discussed, before any examination or jabs are given. The injection can be given while they're scoffing the treats! Some fail to even notice the needle if they're adequately distracted before they've had time to develop a fearful response.


Next presentation: Vision / Mission / Strategy - Adrian Burder

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