It’s essential to keep smell and sound under control in your veterinary practice—not only to keep sensitive animals happy and calm, but to create and maintain a good impression for paying clients. By Louise Baxter
Imagine walking into a clinic only to encounter a noisy waiting room, restless pets and the strong smell of antiseptic and musty air. If this chaotic atmosphere bothers you, it would certainly affect the heightened senses of your already-stressed animal.
Dr Lucy van der Weide, behaviour veterinarian at The Mindful Pet in Western Australia, says it’s important to be aware of the effect of excess noise and odour on both the animals and the human clients, as they create stress and the impression of an insecure environment. “Any external stimuli, such as noises they’re not familiar with, will affect the ‘fight or flight’ system in an anxious animal. General background noise, radio, banging things can be perceived as threats,” Dr van der Weide says.
“Smell is enormous for pets so if you’ve had an anxious puppy in a treatment room, the smell can linger. When other patients come in, they can pick up on that. If they’ve had a fearful experience that they associate with a smell, and it’s presented to them again, there’ll be a stress response.”
As practices cater for animals and humans, there are several areas to control with their own specific needs. That’s why a system is important for prevention, maintenance and monitoring of noise and odours, to ensure a happy and healthy clinic environment.
Tasks, responsibilities and standards need to be clearly set out and conveyed to the whole team. This may include a policy manual and a checklist of daily and/or weekly duties to ensure everyone is aware and on board. For example, the frequency of cleaning kennels; preferred products for cleaning instruments; or simply ensuring dividing doors are kept closed.
Dr van der Weide says an essential step is to communicate with your staff the effect of loud behaviour and why it’s important to keep it to a minimum. “First, there needs to be awareness of why it’s important to control background noise, chitchat, cleaning instruments, etc. If you’re not mindful of the negative impact, you’re less likely to do anything about it,” she says.
“Any external stimuli, such as noises they’re not familiar with, will affect the ‘fight or flight’ system in an anxious animal. General background noise, radio and banging things can be perceived as threats.”—Dr Lucy van der Weide, behaviour veterinarian, The Mindful Pet
“This needs to be communicated to the team from the beginning. If everyone is aware of what’s going on with your patients inside, their stress will be a lot easier to fix—making the practice much more pleasant for everyone to be in.”
She suggests having a policy of quiet conversation in the waiting room, which can be communicated through signs and led by example through the reception team. Separate dog and cat areas can also be a useful plan, with “environmental stimuli to keep them happy and occupied while they’re waiting”, such as stuffed Kong toys and soft, calm lighting. This will prevent a flow-on effect of disrupting other patients.
“If you have an excitable animal who won’t calm down, ask questions such as ‘How are they behaving? Is it because they’re stressed, bored, seeking attention? What can we do to make the experience more comfortable?’ This may mean an activity to distract them, or it may mean sedation.”
Soundproofing your practice
When dealing with animals, there will always be some degree of sound you can’t control. So, it’s vital to consider practical, noise-absorbing options for the walls and ceilings, particularly in the patient rooms where stressed sounds need to be contained.
Geoffrey Beilby, acoustic engineer of SoundFix Acoustics, says a clinic should have “50 per cent of the ceiling made up of acoustic panels” with a noise reduction coefficient rating of about .75, which means the product will absorb 75 per cent of the noise. “Ceiling panels are the best option. You want to stop the reverberation off the walls so you need to capture the sound. They work technically well, they look good and are also fire-resistant and not going to discolour.”
“Ceiling panels are the best option. You want to stop the reverberation off the walls so you need to capture the sound. They work technically well, they look good and are also fire-resistant and not going to discolour.”—Geoffrey Beilby, acoustic engineer, SoundFix Acoustics
You could also consider fabric-wrapped wall panels for kennels and consulting rooms, and ensure you have solid doors installed throughout the practice. A door separating the waiting area and treatment rooms can also help to buffer the sound.
There’s no point using odour-killing products if the source of the smell is still there. Regular, vigilant cleaning is essential to maintain a sterile and pleasant clinic environment. That means staying on top of cages, runs and waste areas, and having an efficient drainage system for the floor and plumbing.
Adequate ventilation also plays a big role in creating clean, fresh air, which is the first impression a client will get when they walk in. If the waiting room is stuffy and smelly, they won’t want to hang around (or return). Your air-conditioning and ventilation system should ideally provide new air regularly, rather than simply circulating the same air and pumping odour around the practice. Consider a system that allows you to have zones with custom requirements—for example, a treatment room or dog ward would need fresh air more often than reception. Exhaust fans can also help with this.
Once you’ve got these structural elements in place, you can enhance the smell of the clinic with pleasant scents. For human clients, you could use the standard, natural air fresheners for a clean smell in the waiting room. In animal waiting and consulting areas, Dr van der Weide suggests some more tailored options.
“Smell is intrinsically linked to the emotional brain so be mindful of that and use it to create an environment they want to be in,” she says. “We can use smells to our benefit, such as pheromone diffusers, or enticing smells like hot cooked chicken or cheese, to improve stress levels and associations to the experience.”