Presence of owners helps reduce dog stress during veterinary visits
We'd like to dedicate this post to all the front line workers - namely the veterinary community that continue to show up for our animals every day.
A new published paper by Companion Connection's Dr. Anastasia Stellato, highlights the importance of having owners in the examination room during their veterinary visits.
With the current COVID restrictions, a lot of owners are not allowed to accompany their pet during their veterinary visit. These current restrictions are essential to ensure staff safety. Recent research (conducted prior to the pandemic to investigate how dogs respond to being separating from their owners) suggests that owners play an influential role in reducing their dog's fear levels during routine veterinary examinations.
The study by Stellato and colleagues (2020) was conducted at the Ontario Veterinary College at University of Guelph and involved 32 owned companion dogs. All dogs were exposed to a standardized veterinary examination, with 16 dogs accompanied with their owner in the exam room (owner sitting on a chair, holding the end of the leash) and 16 dogs with their owner waiting in the waiting room.
This photo was taken during the study, showing Dr. Stellato performing an examination on one of the study dogs, with its owner giving their dog an encouraging thumbs up.
Results indicated that when owners were present compared to absent, dogs had a lower rate of vocalizations, lower mean temperature, and older dogs had a lower rate of lip licking. When the owner was absent, female dogs had a higher heart rate.
In regard to the dogs' overall response to the examination, dogs were more likely to have a reduced body posture, to lip lick, and to be avoidant/try to escape during the more invasive physical manipulations of the examination (i.e., head exam, lymph node palpation, and body palpation).
The results of this paper suggest that dogs are experiencing greater stress levels when in the absence of their owner during a routine veterinary examination. In light of these findings, veterinarians should anticipate that dog's may be more stressed now that their owner is not permitted inside.
There are a number of tools/strategies that can be used to make the veterinary experience more positive in light of the current restrictions:
Not only can treats be a used to distract an animal during a procedure, but it can also serve to make the stressful/painful experience/procedure more positive.
2. Minimally invasive techniques and tools
There are number of minimally invasive techniques that have been described in detail elsewhere (Yin, 2009), but some examples include: using auxiliary temperature vs. rectal, use of least restraint techniques vs. full body restraint, performing exam on a traction surface on the ground/wherever the animal is most comfortable, etc.
When the animal is already known to be very stressed or even aggressive during their appointments, veterinarians can prescribe medications that can be administered before the appointment, so that once they are in the clinic, a more safe and easier examination can take place.
4. Be creative in finding ways to include the owner!
Depending on the medical concern and how worried the owner is, veterinarians can perform the exam outside (weather permitting). Video conferencing with the owner during the appointment can also be used; however, although it can serve to make the owner more comfortable, the efficacy of this technique in mitigating animal stress levels has not been evaluated. Also, if space permits and if the clinic has proper ventilation, the owner can be masked and a safe distance away from their pet (either visible through a glass window or 6-feet away in the exam room). We acknowledge that not all of these options are feasible or practical for every patient or clinic, these are just some examples of what has been done in some clinics based on our own personal experience.
You can read more about this paper in:
The Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/life/2020/12/07/how-do-you-handle-pet-stress-at-the-vet-when-youre-stuck-outside.html
University of Guelph News: https://news.uoguelph.ca/2020/12/dogs-separated-from-owners-show-stress-during-vet-visits-u-of-g-research-finds/
For more information on this paper, see below for the full reference.
References Stellato, A.C., Dewey, C., Widowski, T., Niel, L. 2020. Evaluation of associations between owner presence and indicators of fear in dogs during routine veterinary examinations. 257(10): 1031-1040. (https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.2020.257.10.1031)
Yin, S. 2009. Low stress handling, restraint and behavior modification of dogs and cats: Techniques for developing patients who love their visits. CattleDog Publishing, Davis, USA.