Can your pets love the vet? Michigan hospitals begin new program to calm them

DETROIT – Is it possible to convince your pet that going to the veterinarian is a good thing?

The staff at BluePearl Veterinary Partners believe the answer is yes.  All five BluePearl hospitals in Michigan have begun “low-stress handling,” a program designed to decrease the fear many pets experience at the veterinarian’s office or hospital.

The move is in keeping with BluePearl’s philosophy of superior specialty and emergency veterinary care and patient experience. The overall goal is to ensure visits are calm and pleasant for pets as well as pet parents.

“It’s about reducing the fear and anxiety that our patients have,” said Dr. Jill Sackman, who is senior medical director of BluePearl’s Michigan hospitals, as well as a clinician in behavioral medicine.  “With these changes, we’ll not only make a better experience for the pet, but also the pet owner.”

Dr. Jill Sackman (BluePearl Veterinary Partners photo)

Dr. Jill Sackman (BluePearl Veterinary Partners photo)

The low-stress handling and patient care program was specifically designed for BluePearl and is based on cutting-edge, sound, veterinary behavioral science. The approach focuses on the well-being of animals and the safety of people who care for them.

Many pets get stressed at animal hospitals because loud noise, bright lights and excessive handling scare them. If veterinarians can remove those factors and others, pets are less likely to get scared in the first place.

The low-stress methods at BluePearl’s Michigan hospitals include:

  • Giving out snacks, such as dabs of peanut butter for dogs. Over time, food provokes positive responses in animals. They start to associate the veterinarian’s office with something tasty.
  • Using pheromones. These are sprays which produce calming, soothing responses from dogs and cats. When dogs and cats smell these pheromones, it’s similar to a puppy smelling the scent of her mother, and suddenly feeling cozy and at home. The pheromones can be sprayed on pets’ bedding or bandanas.
  • Keeping quiet. Veterinary hospitals often are filled with howling and meowing animals, not to mention humans who talk a lot. All this racket can be distressing to sick dogs or cats. So where possible, the staff is working to keep pet patients away from especially noisy animals — and to talk in soft voices themselves.
  • Covering up. Cats like to hide when they’re stressed. Draping towels over their temporary quarters can make them much calmer.
  • Handling animals differently. Dogs feel intimidated when people approach them head-on, staring right into their eyes – but that’s how humans tend to do things. So BluePearl veterinarians will sometimes approach dogs sideways, not looking at them face-to-face at first. Instead of lifting cats by the scruffs of their necks, the staff may use less stressful techniques such as wrapping them in a towel before lifting.
  • Using medicines to reduce anxiety in dogs after surgery. Dogs can become anxious when they have to remain confined after surgery for proper healing. Trazodone can sometimes be a useful medicine for this purpose.

“There’s lots of data that say we can help our patients improve and do better by providing this kind of environment,” Sackman said.

BluePearl’s veterinarians, veterinary technicians and other staff have embraced the changes, although there is a learning curve for everyone involved.

Dr. Christine Swanson, a board-certified oncologist, doesn’t pat dogs on their heads at first, because that makes some feel uncomfortable. She’ll start on the back, which is less threatening. “It’s all designed to minimize stress and maximize comfort,” she said.

In low-stress handling, BluePearl’s veterinarians and technicians are trying their best to think about what a hospital visit is like through the eyes of a dog or a cat.

“Some of it, frankly, is about empathy,” Sackman said. In the veterinary profession, she added, “we need to put ourselves in the animals’ position more.”

The new Michigan initiative will be monitored and shared with BluePearl’s specialty and emergency animal hospitals across the country.