Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Veterinarians are typically passionate animal lovers who are well-versed in the comfort that can be brought by the presence of a pet but should they have a place in the clinic space? Tracey Porter investigates.
When Dr Stephen Cutter opened the doors to his Top End animal hospital 14 years ago, he aptly dubbed it The Ark. Like any typical veterinary practice, his clinic plays host to an assortment of regular fee-paying clients, consisting mainly of small animals, with an assortment of exotic pets thrown in. What makes his workplace different from others however is that it also has an inordinate number of freeloaders.
Not only is there the 3000 or so wildlife cases he and his team treat pro bono each year but also the clinic pets which at last count consisted of four cats, one snake, two tanks of native fish and a miscellaneous group of joeys, baby birds and possums.
Past clinic pets have included a lorikeet, a black cockatoo and an Australian tarantula while the clinic regularly fosters animals with medical issues in-house while being treated.
Dr Cutter’s reason for having such a menagerie at his place of work is simple. “We are in the animal business—the sort of people we hire have to be animal people and a big part of why I became a vet is so that I can spend my days surrounded by [them].”
And he’s not alone. In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of pets in the workplace. So much so, that many firms now use a pet-friendly workplace as an added incentive for attracting talent.
Power of distraction
According to the Australian HR Institute there are many benefits to having pets at work, with research showing they act as “social catalysts” by encouraging collaboration among employees and boosting morale.
Other studies suggest that workers tend to place more trust in their colleagues, show increased creativity and productivity and show more team cohesion where pets are present.
Yet while this may be the case in offices where people outnumber their pets, there is much more at stake in clinics where ill, injured and anxious animals go to get better. An issue further complicated by the fact predator and prey are sometimes only a hiss, a tail flick or a bark apart.
Others warn of the potential risks to staff and clients in terms of productivity loss, the impact of allergies and hygiene issues.
Sally Nus, the owner and practice manager at rural Tasmania’s Brighton Veterinary Services, says while she has her reservations about the benefits of having clinic pets, in the past she’s had three onsite. Nus says while she understands the benefits to staff and clients from a therapeutic perspective, she says the practice of veterinary medicine can be stressful enough without adding further complications such as introducing a clinic cat when the area already has a problem with ferals.
“It’s not that we’re not animal lovers but personally I’m not a fan of it. I don’t like the idea of free-roaming pets because our workplace is a clinical area. I think it could be a distraction in many forms. I have been to clinics which allow their cats to sit on the counter but in a situation where you’ve got dogs coming in, I think it could be stressful for both parties.”
Dr Bruce Gardner, owner of Belmont Avenue Veterinary Hospital in Perth, currently has two clinic pets, Brian a 10-year-old black and white cat and Tink, a smokey food-obsessed feline.
He believes before making any decision on whether or not to have a clinic pet, those involved need to take into account their chosen pet’s behaviour traits, vaccination history and the suitability of the location. To avoid any threat to the safety of clients and patients, Brian and Tink are encouraged to keep to the rear of the clinic in the kennel area but will often wander past the windows of the consult rooms.
Dr Gardner says such has been the impact of past pets, that some clients still ask about a particular clinic cat who moved on more than a decade ago. “I think clients enjoy seeing familiar little faces every time they visit, they ask after them and are saddened when they pass. It closes the gap between staff and clients having that common love of having your pets around. Stress relief is just a cuddle away, hilarious moments have the staff all sharing a laugh, clients enjoy the personable nature of vets having pets.
“[That said] of course there are dangers in having free wandering cats in a clinic. At times they’ve needed to be locked up due to upsetting a dog or two.”
While he concedes pets in the workplace can be a distraction, the benefits to the staff and clients far outweigh “the annoying parts” of clinic pet ownership, Dr Gardner says.
The Ark Hospital’s Dr Cutter agrees. He says while it requires some thought and care in the planning and design of the workplace, typically having clinic pets makes for a much better and happier workplace environment.
While the odd “incident” has occurred, such as when the clinic’s resident cockatoo had to be moved elsewhere after she started imitating dogs waking up out of anaesthetic, generally there have been more positive than negative contributions made by the clinic’s pets. There are also unexpected benefits, he says. “The clinic cats definitely have a calming influence on other animals. They provide a distraction to the dogs and a talking point with owners. One of the cats seems, in particular, to take a shine to critically ill patients and sits with them.
“It also means we have a ready source of blood donors and willing volunteers to try new products—especially treats.”
From a staff perspective, Dr Cutter believes having clinic pets helps reduce anxiety and extreme emotions in the workplace while clients love to see and meet staff pets, and it gives added authority and expertise to the advice he and his team offer, he says.
“It also helps demonstrate our caring and empathy as well as gives clients the opportunity to discuss how we care for our animals.”