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Safe animal handling for veterinarians (Proceedings)

May 01, 2011

One of the areas that is not covered in detail in most veterinary schools is safe handling practices. Likewise, once you get to a veterinary practice there are rarely opportunities to become highly skilled at this art. The result is that veterinary staff are regularly bitten as a normal side-effect of their jobs. Considering the important of your fingers to your practice, a nasty bite and be more than a temporary nuisance – it can damage your ability to do your work. Having additional information that can help avoid bites for yourself and your staff may pay off in the long run.

The following are reminders of some of the things that can cause a dog to react aggressively. It is rare that a single factor will cause a bite – but its rareness does not mean you can ignore the possibility. It is best to keep these in the back of your mind and over time, develop stragegies that allow you to avoid pushing the right buttons.

  • Pain- It is impossible to anticipate every animal's tolerance for pain. That means that any animal you handle could potentially bite you if the level of pain passes its threshold. This is not always true aggression but it will hurt just as bad. Dogs who feel cornered or overly restrained may offer this reaction out of the clear blue. Some tranquilizers have the ability to arrest motor function without preventing the dog from coming awake just long enough to nail you. It is a good idea to consider a reflexive bite whenever someone is holding a dog very tightly or the dog has been heavily.
  • Eye-Contact – Several simple physical signals are considered threatening by dogs. You can go through hundreds before you meet that one that has an extreme sensitivity to eye contact – but that dog needs nothing more than an extended stare to trigger a bite. Unfortunately, you are often required to do an eye exam that may trigger this reaction. A bright light in the eyes may cause an animal to be overly defensive. Additionally, the light may itself resemble a starting eye enough to make the dog uneasy.
  • Touching the head, neck and shoulders- If you've ever watched two dogs squaring off in a park you will note that the start the joust by making eye contact and then strutting forward with stiff-jerky motions. Their next goal is to put their chin, a paw or both paws on the other dog's neck or withers. This is usually the instant that a fight will start. This contact is a physical trigger that is armed when a dog feels intimidated or fearful. Starting the exam by touching the dog on the head, neck or shoulders may trigger this reaction. It may also heighten the dog's caution about your presence. If you do an eye exam immediately after touching a dog on the head or neck, you run the risk of giving a double confirmation that you are a threat.
  • Towering over the dog- Towering over a dog tends to increase anxiety and when added to another cue, such as eye contact or touching on the head neck or shoulders may contribute to a bite. A preferable alternative is to squat or sit down next to the dog, avoiding direct eye contact.

Preventing a dog from escaping by grabbing its neck or collar is a potentially dangerous practice. Whenever possible, consider simply letting the dog go and taking a break for a second. Unless the dog is in mid-lunge to bite someone, a time-out is usually a good way to cool down the situation.