"It's only recently that we've started thinking of animal handling from the animal's perspective," said Dr. Kersti Seksel, an Australian veterinary behaviorist, at her July 23 talk on animal handling at AVMA Convention 2017 in Indianapolis.
Veterinary clinics are noisy, and animals' hearing is at least four times as sensitive as people's, she said. Other stressors for animals include being outside their territory, encountering other animals and new smells, and being handling by strangers.
Behavior is influenced by genetic predisposition, learning, and environment. "We tend to think of these as silos, but it's a combination of all three. We can influence all of those," Dr. Seksel said.
Dr. Seksel described the "traffic light" of behavioral emotional levels developed by pediatrician Michael McDowell. The green light denotes a low state of emotional arousal. Yellow-light behavior is more reactive and variable. The red light indicates fight-or-flight behavior, Dr. Seksel said; it is reactive, self-protective, and unpredictable.
She suggests that clinic staff members ask themselves why they use the handling practices they do, whether it's scruffing a cat or muzzling a dog. Use of gloves and towels for restraint is questionable. "It's a real welfare concern we're doing this," Dr. Seksel said.
"Just because we can, should we do it? Just because we've always done it, it doesn't have to be the same now," she said.
If a towel must be used for restraint, she advises practicing on a stuffed animal, then a calm animal, and then restraining the difficult one. She recommends the late Dr. Sophia Yin's publications on low-stress handling, restraint, and behavior modification.
Veterinary staff members must be aware of their own body language, voice volume, and scent. Dr. Seksel said animals' sense of smell is a lot better than that of humans. A dog's sense of smell is at least 1,000 times as sensitive as that of humans.
Personal space is another consideration. The four F's—fight, flight, freeze, and fiddle (the last a normal behavior, out of context)—are an animal's distance-increasing signals. Moving slowly and quietly is important. "I would love to see veterinarians and veterinary technicians glide around the room," she said.
"Take time for the courtesies," she said. Let the animal approach you. Ignore the animal the first few moments, or approach the animal slowly, using a slightly curved path. Take breaks during handling, and break eye contact with the patient.
She rewards patients with tiny treats when they arrive and when anything is being done, even before anesthesia.
"Muzzles, you have to teach an animal from the get-go," she said. In puppy class, she has the dog eat tiny treats from a plastic cup to accustom it to having its nose in a confined space. An open-basket muzzle allows a treat to be offered through the side.
Allow adequate time for animals with handling issues; perhaps schedule a double appointment. Canine or feline pheromones in collars, sprays, or diffusers can be helpful. In advance of a visit, stressed animals can be given medications such as gabapentin, diazepam, or trazodone. Sedation is an option for seriously stressed patients.
Dr. Seksel said that benzodiazepines can be very useful because of their anxiolytic as well as anterograde amnesic effects. If an animal does have a bad experience at the veterinary clinic, she said, "We should think about using benzo(diazepines) to block their memory, so it's not so hard for them at their next visit."