Aggressive pets: Take away the fear factor

Aggressive pets: Take away the fear factor

There are no bad patients—just fearful and stressed ones. By remembering that, watching for warning signs, and taking a less-is-more approach, you can help patients and keep yourself safe.
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Feb 01, 2011

"You have a frightened feline that needs its toenails trimmed in exam room one and a raging rover in need of a blood draw in exam room two," your trusted receptionist informs you. "Muzzles are in both rooms, and assistants are standing by to help you wrestle the patients to the ground."

Hearing that—and many similar statements—you walk into the exam room ready for war, not peace. I want to challenge you to see a different perspective. Besides, if there is an easier way, wouldn't you want to take it—for your sake and for the pets you are trying to help?

Each animal has its own fears and anxieties. Just because you know an animal will be safe during its visit to your clinic, doesn't mean it understands this is the case or trusts you. And using force with frightened or reactive animals intensifies their stress, making your job more difficult and dangerous.

Effects of stress

The effects of stress and high arousal levels are well-documented. As soon as the body is placed under stress, various hormones are released. The hormone cortisol, which affects the immune system, is increasingly released under stress. Cortisol is the main culprit for adaptation diseases, and a permanently raised cortisol concentration in the blood weakens the immune system. Allergies, stomach ulcers, chronic diarrhea, and bladder issues can be signs of anxiety. Stress can cause the urge to defecate and urinate frequently. In other words, overly stressing an animal in your care doesn't lead to optimal healing, but it does lead to cleaning up a lot of messes.

Most of a dog's life is aimed at conflict resolution. If exposed to fear and other stress-inducing stimuli for long periods, the dog can chemically and behaviorally extend so far out of the normal range that it can't return to its normal emotional state. Long-term exposure to stress and fear is frequently the root of behavior patterns that present as aggression.

Cats have a fear imprint period from 2 to 7 weeks of age. For dogs, the first fear imprint period occurs from 8 to 11 weeks of age, and the second fear imprint period is from 6 to 14 months of age.1 Be cautious if you are dealing with an animal during a fear period. If you push the animal too far during this period, you could spend the rest of its life overcoming its fear, forcefully restraining it through simple procedures, or sedating it at every visit.

Reading the warning signs

We expect animals to come into our world and learn our language, but how much effort do we put into learning theirs? Almost all patients use body language to warn us that they are not comfortable, that they want out of the situation, and that if you don't stop, they will react.

The more you note an animal's body language and watch for clusters of signals, the better you can read the animal. Some signals to note in dogs are a lowered head or body, curving (twisting the body into a C shape), pulled back ears, whale eyes (the white portion of the eye showing at the corner or rim), body stiffening, a tucked tail, uneven weight distribution (back vs. front), averted eyes or head, a softening of eyes (almost squinting), yawning, panting, and lip licking. Signs to look for in cats include dilated eyes, ears pressed backward, an open mouth with retracted lips, and a tucked, puffed, or frantically twitching tail.2 Entire books are dedicated to learning animal body language, such as On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turgid Rugass, Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog by Brenda Aloff, What is My Cat Thinking? by Gwen Bailey. I highly recommend having a few of these books available to everyone working in the veterinary clinic.

Another important detail to note: There is an escalation ladder to body language. Something stressful happens, and the animal will give one or two warning signals. If the situation continues, you will see a clustering of signals. You should never punish animals for showing these signals—you need them to warn you before they bite.

Why patients attack: Going from the green to the red zone

If a pet feels stress, it may give one or two warning signals. At this point, it is in the green zone. If the pet continues to feel stressed and show multiple warning signals, at some point the situation will overwhelm the pet and it will enter the yellow zone. At the apex of the yellow zone, the stress signals will stop. This is often when the owners say something like, "See, I told you Fluffy was OK!" On the contrary, the patient is getting ready to do something about the stressful situation. It's experiencing the fight-or-flight response, and since it is locked in the exam room, it can't flee. With dogs, you will start to see defense growling, lunging, or barking, and the dog will stop taking treats. Once in the red zone, the dog will bite. In cats, you will see full-out lunging and growling—and then batting and biting during the red zone.