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Vet Talk

Why Whiskers is Whisked off to the Back Room
February 9, 2015 (published)


Photo by Dr. Gregory Tackett

A few nights ago, I was at rehearsal for our local community symphonic band, where I play keyboard percussion — xylophone, bells, marimba. It’s like playing piano, but you get to hit stuff, which is pretty awesome. An old friend of mine was visiting, and I needed his help selecting some new mallets.

As rehearsal started, I discovered that I couldn’t play a lick with him standing there. I’d met this kid when he was still completely wet behind the ears, but after all these years, he suddenly made me nervous! I couldn’t concentrate on playing or on trying out the mallets he was handing me. It was a mess.

Musicians call this phenomenon performance anxiety. We can play our parts perfectly a hundred times in the relaxed, familiar atmosphere of a rehearsal, but when it comes time for an audience, things can blow apart. As I considered the possible reasons for my collapse into a gibbering idiot unable to hold the mallets properly, it occurred to me that this anxiety was a similar feeling to the one I get when pet owners insist on “coming to the back” with their pets in the small animal hospital. (This has never been an issue with livestock; the owner is always standing right there with you. I don’t know why it’s different, but it is!)

When animals go “to the back” in a veterinary hospital, they’re worried. Of course they are! Scary place, scary smells, scary noises, scary other animals, scary strange people. It takes a confident beast to walk into a place like that, look around and say, “This kingdom is MINE!” (We do see that attitude in some of the dogs who are frequent flyers in the boarding kennel, but otherwise, it’s quite uncommon.)

Because we know that the animals will be scared and intimidated by the surroundings, the doctors and staff “in the back” need to concentrate on keeping Rover or Fluffy as calm and secure as they possibly can. The minute Mommy or Daddy insists on walking back to witness things like temperature-taking and blood sample-drawing, it tends to destroy the normally Zen-like atmosphere.

Particularly with dogs, the anxiety level goes up dramatically when accompanied by the owner. Dogs are goofy but not necessarily dumb. When Mommy is walking anxiously beside them in this scary place, repeatedly cooing, “It’s okay honey, nobody’s going to hurt you,” yet obviously worried that someone is going to hurt her baby, they pick up on that vibe. They aren’t reassured by Mom’s presence, they’re more worried because SHE is worried.

Additionally, the staff is more worried. Believe me when I tell you that the vast majority of Moms, when in the scary noisy unfamiliar back rooms of a veterinary hospital, tend to get in the way and booger up what is normally a smooth, famliar routine. The folks handling the pets are taught to do so in as efficient and low-stress manner as possible, and when Rover is jerking his head around trying to pinion Mom with his “GET ME OUT OF HERE” stare, it’s really tough to get a quick, simple blood sample.

Cats seem to be a little less affected by having Mom or Dad along. They tend either to hunker down or go into full-out assault mode with or without their owners present. However, as they are armed not only with teeth but also multiple weapons on their feet, it’s super-important that the staff members in charge of doing what needs to be done while avoiding anguish and bloodshed are able to focus their attention fully on Fluffy. Few events in a veterinary hospital are less fun than having Daddy stick his fingers in there to give a reassuring little pat only to draw them back quickly, painful puncture wounds bleeding freely, and suddenly need an urgent trip to the ER himself.

In addition to causing a potentially dangerous distraction to the staff, who now have to divide their attention between the owner and the pet, veterinary clients may not fully understand what they see “in the back.” In order to get samples (blood draw, stool retrieval, skin scraping), the pet must be appropriately restrained so that a) the sample can be obtained, b) the pet isn’t injured and c) the doctors and staff aren’t bitten or maimed. Some clients believe that we are trustworthy, but those who don’t often see safe restraint as a form of torture. It’s not, I swear. We really prefer that our patients not fear us and we work hard to prevent that from happening; it makes for a much happier long-term relationship.

Some owners may think they’ll be perfectly fine with the sight of blood and those sometimes unpredictable bodily excretions, but when they wander into the back to see a newly-repaired leg fracture patient recovering in a soft pile of blankets, or even more fun, the newly-fractured leg with the bone sticking out and the animal in acute distress, sometimes they get sick or even hit the floor. Legally, pet owners cannot accompany pets to get x-rays taken, as the only people permitted in the room are the ones who work there and are participating in taking the radiographs.

I don’t even go in the room when my own dogs or cats are getting radiographs; it just distracts them and makes things harder for the technicians who are trying to take good films. As a matter of fact, I make it a point not to be in the room for ANY procedure done on my own dogs or cats, not even drawing blood, for all the above-mentioned reasons. (No worries with my horses; somebody has to restrain them, right? And they don’t seem to hold grudges the way household companions do. Maybe it’s their “We live in a barn, we can take it” can-do attitude.)

I’ve had owners ask to watch me perform surgery on their pets. I have to say, that’s when I have to play the “No way in h***” card. Talk about performance anxiety! The last thing I need when trying to handle delicate tissues and make sure to cut only the right bits is an owner standing over me. I’d probably start babbling, trying to explain what I’m doing and why they shouldn’t worry about what they’re seeing, then end up taking three times as long as necessary or making some ridiculous mistake. (Okay, maybe not, but that’s how I’d be FEELING the whole time, and having my focus divided while performing any delicate procedure seems like a singularly bad idea.) Some vets don’t seem to mind, it’s very much an individual preference, but many of us are just not comfortable with an audience. Sorry about that, sure hope you understand.

Some veterinarians do simple procedures, such as toenail trims and blood draws, in the room with clients. It’s entirely dependent upon the pet, the client, and that veterinarian’s individual comfort level. Certainly not all of us do things the same, and we don’t all do it the same way with each client and patient. It’s definitely a case-by-case judgment call. When we ask to borrow your pets from the exam room to “go to the back,” we’d love it if you’d trust that we’re not going to torture them or perform horrifying experiments in the short time that they’re away. Our goal is to keep them as calm and stress-free as possible and do what we need to do in the shortest amount of time so that they can get out of the room in the back. We promise to return them to you safe and sound and profoundly happy to see your smiling, comforting face after having survived a trip to that very scary place.

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