We switched to a new veterinarian last year. We made the change on a good friend’s recommendation and could not be happier. Our new vet is thorough, compassionate, smart as a whip, and an outstanding diagnostician. Her staff members are also competent and welcoming. An additional virtue of this clinic is the topic of this article. Our new veterinarian’s standard policy is that owners remain with their dogs and cats for physical examinations and for all health-care procedures that good veterinary practice allows.
Here is an example: Last summer, one of our Goldens, Cooper, developed an ear hematoma. I was away, so my husband, Mike, took Cooper to the clinic.
After an initial examination (conducted with Mike holding and talking to Coop throughout), our veterinarian recommended a relatively new approach to hematoma treatment, in which the site is drained with a large-gauge needle and an anti-inflammatory agent is injected directly into the remaining pocket. It is an outpatient procedure, does not require anesthesia, and is less invasive than traditional treatment protocols. But because it is a sterile procedure, Cooper would need to be treated in the clinic’s pre-surgery room.
Fortunately – amazingly – the vet told Mike that the pre-surgery room has a large observation window, so Mike could watch as Cooper was being treated, if he so desired.
Mike did so desire. As Coop looked back at him through the window (wagging his tail the entire time), Mike witnessed both the procedure and the gentle way in which Cooper was handled and spoken to throughout treatment. After the procedure, the veterinary technician (Cooper’s new best friend), brought Cooper back out to Mike, and they were good to go.
Again, for emphasis: Throughout the entire examination and treatment, Cooper was either with Mike (for weighing, examination, and diagnosis) or Mike could see him through the window (during treatment).
Being in the Room Should Be Standard Procedure
As many dog folks know, this level of transparency and owner involvement is no longer standard practice at many veterinary clinics. It is quite common today for clinics to require that owners relinquish their dog to a staff person while still in the waiting room. All physical examinations, vaccinations, and treatments are then conducted out of sight of the owner in a treatment room and the dog is returned to the owner at the end of the appointment.
I am going to be blunt; I have a strong opinion about this. There is absolutely no chance that I would allow any of my dogs to be taken “into the back” at a veterinary clinic for anything short of surgery. Our new vet does go above and beyond with her clinic’s degree of owner involvement, but we have never been clients at a clinic that required our dogs to be taken away from us for examinations.
Just as I assume that parents would not accept such a policy from their child’s pediatrician, I would not expect owners to agree to be excluded from their dog’s veterinary examination. Yet, this is not only standard protocol in many clinics, but also a requirement of some for acceptance as a client.
Yeah, that’s not going to happen to any of my dogs. I am my dogs’ advocate as well as their source of comfort and security. Our dogs trust us to have their backs and at no time is this more important than when they are nervous or frightened, a common state of mind of many dogs during veterinary visits.
Until recently, this was a matter of opinion. However, a new study, conducted at the National Veterinary School of Alfort in France, examined whether a dog’s stress level during a veterinary examination was influenced by having their owner present and providing comfort*.
*Source: Csoltova E, Martineau M, Boissy A, Gilbert C. “Behavioral and physiological reactions in dogs to a veterinary examination: Owner-dog interactions improve canine well-being.” Physiology & Behavior 2017; 177:270-281.
The objectives of the study were to measure dogs’ physiological and behavioral responses to a standard veterinary examination and to determine if having the owner present and providing comfort reduced the dog’s level of stress.
A group of 33 healthy dogs and their owners were enrolled. The dogs were at least six months of age and all had previous experience at a veterinary clinic. Heart rate, rectal temperature, ocular (eye) surface temperature, salivary cortisol, and stress-related behaviors were recorded before, during, and after a physical examination conducted in a clinic setting in two distinct conditions:
1. Contact: The owner stood next to the examination table at the dog’s side and comforted the dog by gently petting and talking to him or her quietly.
2. Non-contact: The owner was in the room, but did not interact with the dog and sat quietly in a chair located about 10 feet away from the exam table.
A balanced, crossover design was used. This means that each dog experienced two visits (timed one to two weeks apart) and was subjected to both conditions. To control for an “order effect,” the sequence of the conditions varied and was randomly assigned. Examinations lasted about five minutes and included mild restraint, examination of the dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, and teeth; palpation of the lymph nodes and abdomen; manipulation of joints; and heart and lung examination with a stethoscope.
Unsurprisingly, veterinary visits are stressful to dogs:
Waiting Room Stress
All of the dogs experienced at least a low-level of stress during the pre-examination period in the waiting room. As they waited, many of the dogs showed frequent yawning, which is considered to be a displacement behavior during periods of emotional conflict. Some of the dogs also whined and vocalized.
The researchers found that all of the dogs, whether or not their owner was comforting them, showed a measurable stress response during the veterinary examination. Heart rate, ocular temperature, and lip-licking all increased during the examination period.
Owner Being There
When owners stood close to their dogs and provided comfort by talking to and petting them, the dogs’ heart rates and ocular temperatures decreased when compared with the condition in which owners were not interacting with their dogs. Both of these changes are associated with a decrease in stress. Dogs also attempted to jump off of the examining table less frequently when their owner was providing them with comfort than when the owner was not comforting them.
The authors conclude: “The well-being of dogs during veterinary visits may be improved by affiliative owner-dog interactions.”
Up On My Soapbox
I know, these results are a no-brainer for many dog folks: Veterinary visits are stressful to dogs and being present to comfort and reassure our dogs reduces their fear and stress.
Unfortunately, in my view, this study did not go far enough, since it did not study the condition that I am most interested in learning about: when dogs are taken away from their owners and examined out of the owner’s presence.
Interestingly, the argument that is made to support this practice at the clinics that insist upon it is that they remove dogs from their owners because the presence of the owner can cause the dog to be more stressed, not less so. Well, at the very least, these results provide evidence against that excuse.
And – an excuse it truly is. Perhaps this sounds harsh (remember, I am standing on a soapbox!), but my belief is that these policies are in place more for the convenience of the clinic than for the benefit of the dogs. No doubt, reducing client interactions in an examination room is more expedient and efficient (for the clinic).
And, there is also that pesky issue of transparency. An owner who does not have the opportunity to witness how her dog is handled, spoken to, examined, or treated cannot question or criticize. There is really no other way to say this: The risk of owner displeasure and complaints is reduced by not having owners present while dogs are being examined and treated.
So, personally, I am happy to see these results, as they can be used as evidence when responding to a clinic that insists it is less stressful for dogs to be removed from their owner during examinations and routine procedures. Petting and talking to our dogs when they are upset during a veterinary visit reduces their stress. We have the data. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but these results also provide more ammunition to combat the still-present [and false] belief that calming a fearful dog “reinforces fear.” I address that particular issue in more depth in my book, Dog Smart).
Hopefully, we will see a follow-up study that examines dogs’ responses to “no owner present” policies. Regardless, the data that we currently have encourage us to stay with our dogs during veterinary visits and examinations. It is quite simple really: Just. Be. There. Insist upon it.