Utilizing Animal Handling Tools That Reduce Stress and Increase Efficiency and Safety for All
Animal handling tools are designed to expedite veterinary procedures and increase safety, which in turn reduces patient stress, reduces staff stress, and increases owner satisfaction. The key to successfully integrating handling tools into the veterinary practice is using them correctly, using them often, and using them early. Handling tools are most helpful if integrated early in the handling plan. Owners should be encouraged to expose their pet to these tools at home, away from the presence of noxious stimuli so that the tools do not become predictors of stressful events.
Canine Handling Tools
The “sleeve” style of muzzle fits tightly over the nose and mouth, holding the mouth closed. The pros of this type are that the muzzle can be placed quickly if it is the stiffer, leather type, and the animal can lick food from the open front of the muzzle. Cons are that the muzzle prevents the dog from panting and should only be worn for brief procedures, as the patient may overheat if wearing of the muzzle is prolonged. Furthermore, the dog can still bite with the exposed incisors. The “basket” style of muzzle is an open plastic or metal cage or basket which encloses the entire nose and mouth. The pros of this type are that the muzzle allows for some level of panting, making it safer to be worn for longer procedures and when a dog is kenneled, and that food can easily be smeared along the inside of the muzzle, which may encourage the dog to place its nose into the muzzle without a struggle.
Dog-Appeasing Pheromones—DAP (Adaptil, Comfort Zone)
This pheromone product is available in a spray, body-heat-activated collars, and plug-in diffusers. It is an analog of the appeasing pheromone produced by the bitch from the sebaceous glands in the inter-mammary sulcus, which serves as a signal of food, comfort and safety for the puppies. The spray can be applied to a bandana that can then be placed on the dog or applied to a towel and placed on the exam table. Never spray directly on a dog and be sure to allow a brief time for an application to “air out” prior to placing the bandana on a dog. Diffusers can be plugged into outlets in exam rooms, treatment areas, and kennel areas where dogs are housed.
Thunder (aka “Calming”) Cap (ThunderWorks, Durham, NC)
This is a sort of “blindfold” made of soft, semi-opaque fabric that covers the dog’s eyes in order to limit the intake of visual stimuli. This cap helps reduce the stress associated with the anticipation of procedures. When dogs do not witness the events prior to the procedure, the chances are much greater they will remain calm. It is helpful for dogs with aggression issues associated with the sight of unfamiliar dogs or people, when moving them from the car to the lobby, through the treatment area, or from one part of the hospital to another. Hospitalized dogs with dog aggression issues can wear this cap when confined, to prevent agitation from the sight of other passing or hospitalized dogs.
ThunderShirt (ThunderWorks, Durham, NC)
This tool is a body wrap that swaddles the dog, providing firm, balanced pressure around the chest and torso. Design is based on evidence that evenly applied pressure on the body may reduce anxiety and fear.
For dogs that are not safe to muzzle, the squeeze cage can be used to administer an injection for chemical restraint. The dog can be placed into the cage by the veterinary staff or by the owner, depending upon which option is safer and easier for the dog. Once the dog is contained, the back wall is gently pulled forward, pushing the dog up against the front of the cage. After the injection is administered, the back wall is released and the dog can remain in the cage until responding to the sedation. Alternatives to the squeeze cage may include a chain-link panel that swings out from the wall. The injection for chemical restraint can then be administered through the panel.
For dogs who cannot be muzzled due to brachycephalic conformation or intense fear of the muzzle, towels can be used to provide control of the head. Apply just enough pressure to restrict movement and not restrict breathing.
Elizabethan Collar Restraint
For dogs who cannot be muzzled due to brachycephalic conformation or intense fear of the muzzle, Elizabethan collars can be used to provide control of the head. If safe for the owner to place the collar, it may be best to have them place it at home, prior to entering the clinic. The head can be controlled, using two hands behind the collar to grasp the neck and head firmly but gently.
Feline Handling Tools
In cats, muzzles are typically used to cover both the mouth and the eyes. This provides safety to the handler as well as minimizing visual stimuli that may be stressful for the cat. Stiff leather or plastic muzzles are preferable for fractious cats, as they are unable to bite through the tougher material.
Head control and reduction of visual stimuli are the primary purposes of towels when handling cats. For fleeing or fearful cats, often it is enough to place the towel over the head, then push the towel under to include the head and feet. Any movement forward will be inhibited by the pressure of the towel and many cats will then calm down. The clinician then has access to the rear end of the cat for auscultation, abdominal palpation, and medial saphenous venipuncture. Be sure that the wrap is fit snuggly to provide firm, balanced lateral support. This will prevent flailing and help the cat remain calm, while preventing scratching with the front or rear claws.
Feline Facial Pheromones (Feliway, Comfort Zone)
Feliway is available in a spray and plug-in diffuser. It is an analogue of the facial pheromone released from the perioral gland of cats when cheek rubbing (bunting) on prominent objects, people and other animals. Placing synthetic facial pheromones in the hospital environment may help cats eat faster and be more tractable with handling. These pheromones should not be directly sprayed onto the cat. Instead, spray the exam table towel, cage padding, and/or the inside of a cage cover.
Clipnosis (KVP International, Irwindale, CA)
“Clipnosis” is performed using the proprietary Clipnosis Gentle Calming, or other tools such as binder clips, which provide firm, steady pressure when placed on the scruff of a cat’s neck. The pressure provided is greater, more evenly distributed, and more consistent when compared to hand “scruffing.” Scruffing a cat typically does not provide equivalent behavioral calming. Once the pressure is applied, there is a resulting pinch-induced behavioral inhibition. Cats reach a “trance-like” state, becoming calm, semi-immobile, and relaxed, without activation of a stress response. Note that all cats are not responsive to the clips. Cats that are averse to pressure on the scruff or are fractious with handling are not candidates for Clipnosis. Some veterinarians have reservations regarding the clipping procedure and its effects on behavioral inhibition through freezing vs. calming.
The cat’s own carrier can be a valuable handling tool, especially for fearful cats. A towel can be slid under the top and over the cat as the top half of the carrier is slowly lifted and removed. This method allows for the cat to remain in a familiar area and tends to prevent fleeing, as the sides of the carrier provide some sense of concealment. Soft-sided carriers are useful for cats in need of intramuscular injections for chemical restraint. Keeping the familiar carrier within the cage has been shown to help hospitalized cats go back to eating sooner during recovery. The carrier is a most effective tool for cats that have been conditioned to feel comfortable entering on their own and remaining calm in it during car travel.
EZ-Nabber (Campbell Pet Company, Brush Prairie, WA)
Mesh netting is tightly secured to a metal enclosure which opens and closes manually to allow for capture and restraint of cats. It is especially helpful for feral or fractious cats who are fleeing or housed in a wall-unit cage, as it puts a two-foot distance between the handler’s hands and the cat. It is used to administer chemical restraint intramuscularly, as injections can easily be given through the mesh netting.