Dog Stress During Veterinary Visits
Taking a companion animal to see the veterinarian is often stressful for both animals and people. The stress can sometimes be so acute that house calls are necessary. For dogs, an unfamiliar space with unfamiliar people combined with stress from other animals in the same space (and being sick or in pain), can make the visit an especially stressful experience. But measuring dog stress during veterinary visits is rarely done. This is due in part to a lack of attention from researchers and, in part, because stress can be difficult to measure; nonhuman animals often try to mask pain and stress as a protective mechanism.
Still, recognizing pain and stress in companion animals has advanced considerably in recent years. Researchers in Sweden are working to develop reliable and accurate ways to test stress levels at veterinary clinics. This study investigated how dogs experience such visits with a series of standardized tests and address whether the “type of relationship the owner [sic] has with the dog influences how the dog experiences the visit.” The researchers wanted to see whether or not different observers (veterinarians, nurses, test leaders, and animal guardians) reliably agree on stress levels. Also, to see how well the observations correlate with standardized tests to develop a “simple stress assessment protocol in the future.”
The study involved 105 dogs, all of whom had some ailment(s) for which they were receiving treatment. The researchers found that the human guardians and test leaders tended to agree with each other and that the veterinarians and nurses tended to agree with each other. The veterinarians and nurses assessed stress to be higher than the other observers. All four categories of people tended to agree on assessments of pain, but few dogs were perceived as being in severe pain, perhaps because of masking behaviors. The researchers found that a contact test is better for assessing stress than a play test or a treat test, and that “subjective stress and pain assessments by different observers were in good agreement.” More research is needed to validate the results, but these preliminary findings offer some promising signs.