Managing aggressive pets

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aggressive pets
Photo: Piotr Wawrzyniuk – 123RF

We all know a trip to the vet can cause many animals to become stressed and fearful. But what if you’re the vet on the receiving end of aggressive pets? By Rachel Smith.

Dr Sam Sorensen will never forget the day she was attacked by a border collie at a regional WA clinic while doing a routine vaccination.

“He was grumbling at me slightly, but I gave him the injection and as I stepped back, he launched at my face and bit me multiple times,” she recalls. “It felt like someone had punched me in the face. I left the consult room, showed a nurse my injuries and asked her if I needed to go to hospital. The horrified look on her face said it all.”

Dr Sorensen first went to a regional hospital but was transferred the same day to Perth to see a plastic surgeon. “I got the first of five reconstructive surgeries that day and although I went back to work, they didn’t want me consulting with clients,” she says. “So I was put out the back on surgical duty. I suffered pretty severe psychological trauma and anxiety.”

Seeing a psychologist helped, and Dr Sorensen also left the clinic where the incident happened to start her own—Yanchep Veterinary Hospital. Over the years, she’s built a reputation as a vet committed to using gentle techniques with animals, and says staff come to her first if a pet acts aggressive and they’re not sure what to do. Does she ever worry about being attacked again? “No, not at all,” she says. “I’d just be constantly anxious if I did.”

Another vet to suffer a traumatic event in clinic is Dr Leigh Davidson from Your Vet Online, a telemedicine veterinary consultancy service. While Dr Davidson jokes that if you haven’t been bitten by an animal you haven’t been a vet long enough, she admits what happened to her has scarred her for life.

“I was a student at the time and I’d just finished examining the animal—I wasn’t making eye contact or doing anything that was threatening, but the dog just lunged at me,” she recalls. “It ripped out some of my hair but didn’t manage to bite me, so I was very lucky. Still, that event made me lose my nerve. I’m fine with dogs or meeting friends’ dogs—but in clinic I act very differently. I’m far more proactive in how I deal with dogs that I know are fearful or anxious.”

To muzzle or not to muzzle?

Both Dr Davidson and Dr Sorensen say animals attack mainly out of fear, rather than aggression. 

My last vet told me I could never come back’ and I think that’s kind of disappointing. I think it’s our job to educate pet owners and rather than making the owner feel like they’re a failure and their dog is a failure, we should be advising them.

Dr Sam Sorensen, owner, Yanchep Veterinary Hospital

And Dr Davidson says he has no problem muzzling a dog, especially if she has to get close to its face, or asking a pet owner to sedate it. “Most clinics will also have notes on a pet’s record—whether it’s a dog, cat, horse—and colour-code the pet so it might come up as red in the database, and that helps you know what to expect,” she says. “I’ll always say to the pet owner, ‘I’ve got to look down your dog’s ears and I’m not comfortable putting my head near his face. I’m going to put the muzzle on. This is not going to hurt him. And they’re usually like, ‘That’s fine, not a problem’.”

Dr Sorensen tries gentle techniques before muzzling. “That might include making longer appointments, allowing the dog to come in and visit us and just have treats and leave without any treatment,” she says. “We might clear the waiting room or get the dog into a separate area of the hospital, and sedation can also make them feel safe and decrease anxiety.”

Educating pet owners

Mitigating the risk to vets often involves educating pet owners too. Many would be mortified if their pet attacked the vet, says Dr Davidson, though not everyone is the same. “Some pet owners I’ve encountered have an attitude problem, and aren’t accepting of the fact that their dog is very strong and they can’t control it,” she says bluntly. “I think vets are getting better at realising they don’t have to be a hero, and saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t work with your animal, you’ll have to give it medication at home first, so we can get the job done’.”

Dr Sorensen’s tactic is to ask owners lots of questions and focus on keeping both the owner and the pet as calm as possible. “If I manage this, it goes better for everyone. I might say, ‘Is he anxious? Okay. Let me just come up to him slowly. And please don’t tell him he’s a good dog when he’s tremoring. We’ll tell him he’s good once he’s settled and calm’.” 

She also runs a puppy preschool so dogs get used to coming to the vet and being handled. It also teaches owners how to minimise aggression. “It’s all about education. I’ve had pet owners say to me, ‘My last vet told me I could never come back’ and I think that’s kind of disappointing,” she says. “I think it’s our job to educate pet owners and rather than making the owner feel like they’re a failure and their dog is a failure, we should be advising them and if we can’t deal with the animal, helping them find a vet who can.”


4 steps to a safer clinic

Aside from minimising noise and keeping different species separate in the waiting room, you can reduce anxiety in fearful pets by doing the following: 

1. Use pheromones and music. “We have plug-in diffusers with synthetic pheromones in both our dog ward and cat ward, and we use pheromone sprays on our hands too,” says Dr Sorensen. “We also play specific calming music in both our dog and cat wards.”

2. Set up special consult times. “It might be the first or last consult of the day when the waiting room is quieter, says Dr Davidson. “Some clinics also block out the middle of the day for surgery, and you might want to use that time to book in an anxious dog.”

3. Neutralise odd smells. “Having separate consult rooms for cats and dogs helps, and we also try to minimise hospital smells as much as we can manage,” says Dr Sorensen.

4. Have larger consult rooms. “This one’s costly, as most clinics want to squeeze in extra consult rooms,” says Dr Davidson, “but a bigger room can help a fearful pet chill out. Having another exit is good too, so if something happens the vet can get out of there quickly.”

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