Until recently, it was believed that animals didn’t feel pain or that they felt it differently than we do. In the past decade, research has shown that this simply isn’t true. Our pets definitely feel pain! We have stress when thinking of going to the dentist. Our canines may not be able to build up anxiety to the thought of an upcoming appointment to the vet, but their stress levels may rise as they walk towards to the vet’s office. From his perspective, this is a place where, he’ll be carried, restrained by strangers and poked with needles, without any understanding that this is for his benefit. With a little preparation, we can help our dogs live through this experience with little to no stress and pain.
There was a time where animals were considered so different from humans, that many thought it unnecessary to treat them for pain. Even post surgical pain was considered a benefit as it kept the animal from moving around, thus opening wounds. With human and animal’s neural pathways and general brain structure being so similar, it’s now recognized as highly probable that animals of all kinds feel pain and experience emotions the same way we do. Veterinarians now consider pain assessment and management as a critical part of quality and compassionate animal care (Hellyer & al., 2007).
I’m certainly preaching to the choir here as I have no doubt that as animal lovers, this isn’t anything that we didn’t already know, even intuitively. However, few of us consider preparing our pets to medical care as part of our routine. Yet, it doesn’t take much to desensitize them to the different types of procedures. Knowing that stress and struggle, will increase the level of pain and trauma, we can teach them to relax. Along with the better ways that veterinarians have developed, we can also help by better preparing our dog, thus minimizing even further the physical as well as the the emotional impact of the visit.
Preparing an animal for medical procedures struck me as a necessity when I first started working with my horse. Restraining a dog or a cat can be difficult, but when a 1000 lb. animal is set in a panic at the sight of a needle, the situation can quickly get dangerous for all involved, including the animal itself. So, following the advice of horse experts, in anticipation of inevitable veterinary procedures, I carefully prepared my horse to relax when manipulated in any kind of way and even when poked with a needle. My horse was an Arabian, so for all those who know a little about horses, this breed is said to be hot blooded, in other words, they are hot tempered and quick to react in fear. Instead, this horse would calmly allow the vet to poke her neck with needles and the chiropractor to pull on her legs and apply pressure to different sore spots with no sign of stress or resistance. When injured once right above the eye, the veterinarian only used minimal local anesthesia to stitch her up. The entire procedure was quick and easy for both doctor and patient.
With dogs, preparing them for the different procedures could make a difference between a peaceful and pleasant visit to the vet or a traumatic experience that could compromise any future care of the animal. Surgery is an obvious source of pain, but other more routine procedures can also generate pain and discomfort, such as ear cleaning, anal sac expression and shots. Even physical restraint is very stressful. If we’re lucky these procedures will only be required once a year, but accidents and disease strike without warning. Unless we have desensitized the animal when no medical procedures were needed, it’s too late once they’re necessary.
With a little patience, a few special treats and a little technique, it’s fairly easy to desensitize a dog to manipulations. Many dogs are uncomfortable with restraint of any kind, even loving hugs can induce stress in dogs. Like every other form of desensitization, it’s important to stay below threshold. In other words, to touch or restrain the dog in places that are very comfortable at first, give him a treat, then let go. Just like any other form of training, sessions need to be short and as stress free as possible.
In horse training, some use a technique of approach-retreat , where the animal is encouraged to approach a scary object as close as it feels comfortable, then walk away, then repeat this sequence over and over. Little by little, the horse will get closer and closer to the object. A similar technique when desensitizing a dog to being touched in sensitive places is to touch him where he appreciates the touch, then stroke him gently towards the areas that he doesn’t like, then back to where he’s comfortable. So if he doesn’t like his paws touched, for instance, you can start at his neck or shoulder, then move your hand down towards his elbow, then back up to the shoulder. You can then keep stroking him this way as you gradually get closer and closer to his paw. When applying this technique, it’s important to watch for signs of tension or stress as you move closer to the sensitive areas and not cross over the threshold. It’s also critical to act as naturally as possible. If we’re overly cautious when doing this (or any desensitizing technique), the dog will respond to our perceived stress instead of relaxing. This should feel like a massage, not a creepy attempt to touch him in places he doesn’t like being touched.
Getting the dog used to having his ears cleaned or anal glands extracted is very similar to getting him used to the nail clippers or tooth brush. We can grab his ear, give him a treat, lightly put our finger in his ear, give him a treat, show him a cotton ball, give him a treat. Touch him with a cotton ball, give him a treat, touch his ear with a cotton ball, give him a treat, etc… The idea is to create a positive association with the manipulation.
The same technique applies to preparing the animal to other medical procedures, such as being poked by a needle. Just like with the cotton ball, we can start with a pen or other pointy objects, then transition to an empty syringe. Once the dog is completely relaxed with the instrument approaching and touching him, it’s time to teach him to accept the poke. Gently grab a fold of skin in his neck area, just like the vet would do, let go and give him a treat. We’ll repeat this process until the dog is quite indifferent to a firm pinch. We’ll then softly poke that fold and give him a treat and repeat until we can apply a firm poke without any signs of stress from the dog.
It’s also really helpful to take the dog to the vet when we don’t have an appointment. By giving him plenty of treats and attention, we help develop a positive association with the vet’s clinic which will help alleviate the anxiety build up as the animal approaches the door to the clinic.
We often take for granted that dogs should accept any form of manipulation from us. What happens from his perspective can be very different and he often needs a little extra help to develop the trust that nothing life threatening is going to happen. When words cannot explain a situation, gradual and pleasant exposure can make a difference between a traumatic experience and a neutral or even pleasant one. The time we take to help our pets learn what to expect in a particular situation really pays off in the long run. for all parties, the vet, the owner, but most importantly, for the dog.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.