Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Study Shows Just How Stressed Dogs Are at the Vet's

Most dogs show signs of impaired welfare at the vet, according to their owners.

A West Highland Terrier is unhappy at the vet

A survey of 906 dog guardians in Italy found most people report their dog as being stressed at all stages of the visit to a vet clinic, from being in the waiting room to being examined by the vet. 6.4% of dogs had actually bitten their guardian at the vet and 11.2% had growled or snapped at the vet.

The report by Chiara Mariti (University of Pisa) et al draws important conclusions about what owners and vets need to do to help dogs at the vet, including teaching them to be handled.

The scientists write, “It is in fact alarming that only one third of dogs seemed to tolerate all kinds of clinical handling carried out by the vet.

“The proportion of guardians who resorted to scolding their dogs if they refused to be treated is also alarming. Veterinary surgeons have a duty to ensure their patients’ welfare, and therefore, they should take advantage of every situation to advise guardians that the use of punishment is not recommended due to its negative implications on dog welfare and behavior.”

Most of the dogs (89.9%) had had regular visits to the vet since they were a puppy, so you might think they were used to going to the vet.

But many owners (39.7%) said their dog already knew they were going to the vet while they were in the car, and 7.4% before they had even left home. Add in the dogs who showed signs of stress as soon as they arrived (52.9%), and over three quarters of dogs are said to show signs of stress before they even make it in to the waiting room.

Dogs who were stressed at the early stages of the visit were more likely to be stressed at the later stages too.

Most people were able to give at least some treatments to their dog at home (50.6%) and 47% said they could give all treatments. However, about two thirds said they had sometimes had difficulty.

Of those who struggled to give treatments, most scolded the dog and then did the treatment anyway (72.4%). This is unfortunate because scolding the dog does not teach them to accept the treatment and can make things worse in the future. Only 14% of owners did not scold the dog in these circumstances.

In fact there was a link between scolding the dog when owners found it hard to give a treatment and aggressive behaviour towards the vet. This was the case whether the owner scolded the dog and did the treatment anyway, or scolded the dog and abandoned treating them.

People’s assessments of their own dog at different stages of the vet clinic showed the majority had impaired welfare at each stage, except for the transition from waiting room to consultation room. Even then, 30% of dogs had to be encouraged and 16% had to be carried into the room.

The paper makes many important recommendations for both dog owners and vets.

Dr. Chiara Mariti, first author of the paper, told me in an email, “To the owners, I would suggest to get the dog becoming habituated to the veterinary clinic, to being handled, and to being exposed to common clinical practices. This means to gently, gradually and progressively familiarize puppies with manipulations (to being touched all over their bodies and used to the most unpopular treatments, such as temperature measurements and ear examinations), associating any kinds of handling with positive emotions and stimuli.

“Also a positive association with anything related with the travel can help. Courtesy visits to the clinic, just to familiarize with the place and the vet without any interventions, and real visits since puppyhood are strongly recommended.

“More importantly, in case dogs refuse to be treated by their owners, the latter should not scold the dog, but rather trying to understand the problem, being gentle, and maybe to ask for a behaviourist’s help.”

A Siberian Husky puppy is stressed at the vet
Photos: Tinxi (top) and melis (both
Almost everyone said the vet tried to give their dog food, but 37% of dogs would not take it. Food is a very good way to help animals at the vet but an animal that is too stressed will not eat. This result suggests vets need to learn how to use food to help their patients, and how to keep their patients from getting so stressed they will not eat.

Only a third of owners said their dog would let the vet handle them anywhere.

Vets did make some attempt to talk to the dog (53%), use the dog’s name (40%) and pet them (53%) but this was not enough to make dogs comfortable. It was still helpful, because dogs whose vet did not do this were more likely to be stressed in the waiting room, on the exam table, and when the vet approached.

There are clear consequences for a vet’s business, because about a third of participants said they had previously changed vet. The most common reasons were because they did not think the vet was competent (24.5%) or because of the vet’s attitude to their dog (18%).

Dr. Mariti says, “My advice for the vets: make sure you are protecting your patients' welfare, that is a duty of your profession.

“Vets can work at different levels, from the education of owners (handling and habituation of puppies, appropriate treatments at home, avoiding any kinds of punishment, including scolding…) to the preparation of the clinic to make it as much dog-friendly as possible: the place, the kind of handling, noises, and the presence of conspecifics and strangers can be stressful for some dogs, and this may be a relevant welfare issue especially in cases where the dog has to visit the veterinary clinic regularly or if recovery is long.

“Vets behaviour is also relevant, as dogs feel calmer when the vet spends some time interacting with them before the visit.”

The finding that many dogs seem to know where they are going in advance of arriving at the vet has important implications too. The scientists say for some dogs there is a risk of developing a more generalized anxiety disorder. They also say it suggests dogs have learned when they are going in the car to the vet rather than somewhere else. For dog owners, this shows the importance of also taking the dog for pleasant outings, so they don’t learn to be afraid of the car.

This research confirms that vet visits are stressful for many dogs. An earlier study observed 45 dogs in the waiting room at the vet (Mariti et al 2015) and found that 29% were highly stressed according to signs noted by a veterinary behaviourist including trembling, low tail, lowered ears, and trying to leave. Taken together, these studies show that both dog owners and vets need to take steps to improve canine welfare at the vet.

Many cats also find vet visits stressful.

There is a lot we can do to make vet visits better for our canine and feline companions. These days, there are some excellent resources on how to help dogs and cats be less stressed at the vet.

What do you do to try and reduce stress for your dog at the vet?

For more stories like this, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

Mariti C, Pierantoni L, Sighieri C, & Gazzano A (2016). Guardians' Perceptions of Dogs' Welfare and Behaviors Related to Visiting the Veterinary Clinic. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 1-10 PMID: 27712096

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Windstorm is a Reminder of Disaster Preparation for Pets

The best time to start disaster preparation for your pet is now.

Black and white Springer Spaniel sitting in the boot of a car

Recently, like many people in this part of the world, we heard there was a big storm on the way. The third of three windstorms was said to be the most powerful. Since we live in an area with many beautiful trees and the power lines are above ground, it does not take much to knock out the power.

In the end, we were lucky. The storm was not as strong as predicted, and it changed track and went further north. But it’s a reminder that we all need to be prepared for emergencies. And pets are an important part of our emergency preparedness.

Planning starts with thinking about the kinds of emergencies you might face. Maybe you live in an area that is prone to floods or forest fires, or has the potential for big earthquakes. It’s helpful to think about smaller events too, that might impact you without affecting others: house fires, job losses, illnesses. These could all have an impact on your ability to care for your pet.

You could come to arrangements with friends and family about how you will care for each other’s pets if something happens. It helps to talk about these things in advance.

For me, with an incoming storm I wanted to be sure I had enough pet food and cat litter, and to charge up my cellphone. A bad storm last year knocked the power out for more than a day, and I can tell you that by day 2 the novelty was really wearing off. It was long enough that once the power came back, local stores had to stay closed to throw out ruined food. Also some roads were blocked with fallen trees, making travel more difficult for a short while.

A cat sits on a windowsill safe from the rain outside
In this part of the world, the big risk we are meant to be prepared for is an earthquake. The official advice is to have enough supplies that you can manage on your own for at least 72 hours, preferably longer.

That means food and water supplies for your pets as well as yourself, flashlights and spare batteries, and a radio so that you know what’s happening in the world. (A wind-up and/or solar-powered one that you can use to charge a cellphone seems like a good idea).

Don’t forget to include some of your dog or cat’s favourite treats.

A harness and leash would be handy so you don't run out of the house without them. A towel or blanket could be useful as a temporary bed for your dog or cat. Bowls for food and water, washing up liquid and some garbage bags would all be useful too.

Having some cash in small notes is sensible in case of power being out at ATMs. This is a habit you can get into, or you can keep a small amount at home.

What about copies of important documents, not just your own but also your pets’ vaccination records? Keep them in a plastic wallet or container that will keep them dry, and add them to your ‘grab bag’ that you will grab and take with you in an emergency.

Identification for your pet is sometimes overlooked (tattoo, microchip, collar tag). As well as making sure your pet has id, ensure the people who keep the microchip/tattoo records have an up-to-date address and phone number for you.

Helping your pet to be well-socialized and to be calm and well-behaved in ordinary life pays off in an emergency too. After the M9 earthquake in Fukushima, those who had trained and socialized their pets were more likely to be able to take them with them when they evacuated (Yamazaki 2015).

Training your cat or dog to go in a carrier is useful in ordinary life, since it means you can take them to the vet. In an emergency, it’s easy to see that it might make the difference to being able to take them with you.

Heath and Linnabary (2015) also say that having a good starting point for animals is part of emergency planning. While they are thinking about the broader societal level, we can apply this to our individual situations too. If your dog or cat is fearful or has other struggles in ordinary life, finding ways to solve those issues is worthwhile (if you need help from a certified trainer or behaviourist, this could be the moment to make that call).

This post is not a guide to how to prepare for emergencies; rather it’s intended to encourage you to think about the kinds of events you might have to prepare for, and get started. It’s not a solo activity; discuss it with your family and friends. And you might be kind enough to also consider neighbours who are seniors or who might need a little help for other reasons.

You can also put a regular date in your diary to review your plans and update your supplies (even bottled water has a sell-by date). Pick a date that you will remember, either because it’s meaningful to you or because it’s the date your city carries out earthquake drills (thus you will be reminded by the media). For me, that's tomorrow: ShakeOut BC is on 20th October.

You can find more information about emergency planning for pets in this ASPCA guide.

Heath SE, & Linnabary RD (2015). Challenges of Managing Animals in Disasters in the U.S. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 5 (2), 173-92 PMID: 26479228
Yamazaki, S. (2015). A Survey of Companion-Animal Owners Affected by the East Japan Great Earthquake in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures, Japan Anthrozoƶs, 28 (2), 291-304 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2015.11435403
Photo: Josh Powell (

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Invitation to the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club

If you love reading and animals, you are invited to join the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.

A puppy reads a book about dogs and cats

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is for discussion of books about dogs, cats, and our relationship with companion animals.

The club will discuss one book a month except for January and July, so we will read ten books a year.

Most books will be non-fiction, although fiction will be considered if a companion animal plays a prominent role.

Books may cover a wide variety of perspectives, but there is a preference for humane and kind treatment of animals (and people), and for scientific or critical approaches to the human-animal bond. Books do not have to be recent, but they will be available in book stores.

The book for discussion in November 2016 is The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

The book for December 2016 is The Secret History of Kindness by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

Everyone is welcome to join, whether or not you are a regular reader of Companion Animal Psychology.

Discussions will take place at the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club - ask to join the group on Facebook - and here on the blog (see note below).

Discussions will start on the first weekend of each month, and you can join in any time during that month.

See you on 5th November to discuss The Trainable Cat!

If you would like to support Companion Animal Psychology, you can purchase via our Amazon affiliate link. I receive commission on your purchase. (Canadians, there is a page just for you).

Note: The book club group is now closed to new members due to overwhelming demand. I will post the books and questions to my blog every month, so that readers not able to join the group can still join in at home. Thank you to everyone for your interest, and I'll let you know when there is an opportunity to join again.
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