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Dogs stressed, fearful when without owners during exams

Clinics should consider letting owners remain in exam rooms at a safe distance, OVC says

Dogs experience higher levels of stress when separated from their owners during wellness exams, the University of Guelph (U of G) Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) reports.
Photo courtesy University of Guelph

Dogs experience higher levels of stress when separated from their owners during wellness exams.

This is according to a new study out of the University of Guelph’s (U of G’s) Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), which found canines showed heightened levels of physiological and behavioural signs of fear and stress when examined alone as compared to having their owners in the room.

These findings, researchers say, are particularly of note amidst the pandemic, as many clinics are asking owners to wait outside of exam rooms during appointments, U of G says.

“We started this research before the pandemic because we wanted to see the impact of separating dogs from their owners, which we know happens often during veterinary procedures,” says the study’s co-author, Lee Niel, PhD. “But these findings are particularly relevant now, given how many clinics are asking owners to wait outside for the visit.”

The study looked at a sample group of 32 dogs, all of which underwent standard wellness checks that were conducted either with or without their owners in the room and recorded.

Researchers found dogs in the owner-absent group showed higher levels of physiological changes associated with stress (e.g. increased heart rate and temperature, trembling, shivering) and more vocalizations (e.g. growling, whining, barking) as compared to those in the owner-present group. Additionally, dogs without owners in the room demonstrated more behaviour changes, OVC reports, including a head held low, ears pinned back, or tail lowered/tucked between hind legs. These stress responses, the college notes, were highest during hands-on aspects of physical examinations.

Researchers say clinics should consider these findings when implementing updated protocols amidst the ‘new normal,’ as the challenges associated with handling stressed or fearful dogs can prevent these animals from being properly assessed during an exam. Further, some dogs may become aggressive when scared, which could put staff members at risk, OVC says.

“Negative experiences during a visit may make dogs more stressed the next visit, and the problem can compound,” says the study’s lead author, Anastasia Stellato, PhD. “We want to try to head off that cycle before it gets to the point where the dog might become aggressive.”

To help reduce stress levels, veterinary teams may want to consider holding appointments outside when conditions allow. Alternatively, if a clinic has large, well-ventilated exam rooms, owners could be permitted to stay in the room while their dog is being examined, even at a distance, OVC reports.

“Thinking outside the box for solutions, using minimal restraint handling, offering the dogs lots of treats and making the appointment as positive as possible—these are all good ways to reduce stress for our dogs,” Dr. Niel says. “Ideally, veterinarians should be using these techniques to reduce dog stress on a regular basis, but these efforts are particularly important when the owner is absent.”

The research, which was performed at the Hill’s Pet Nutrition Primary Healthcare Centre at OVC with funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), has been published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. For more, click here.

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