The Role Of Veterinarians In The Behavioral Welfare Of Cats And Dogs
Veterinarians play a significant role in the wellbeing of companion animals by helping them maintain their physical welfare on an ongoing basis. However, veterinarians can also have a huge impact on the behavioral welfare of our animal companions and can influence this welfare during vet visits and beyond.
Stress associated with vet visits is one of the main reasons given by animal guardians for not bringing their companion animals in for regular checkups. In office, there are a range of common-sense ways that veterinarians can reduce fear and stress in their patients, which can not only make for a safer, easier experience for the patient and humans involved, but can also increase the likelihood that animals will be seen by a vet. Beyond the visit, veterinarians can offer training advice and other education which can help guardians address behavioral issues, reducing the chance that the companion animals will be given up or euthanized.
There is a clear link between veterinary care and animal welfare, and though formal assessment programs have been developed for many agricultural species to evaluate this link, similar programs that focus on the welfare of companion animals don’t really exist. This study set out to address this knowledge gap, by developing and evaluating a tool that can be used to assess behavioral welfare of dogs and cats in everyday vet practice.
The assessment tool has two main components: a verbal interview and a clinic visit to observe live appointments. For the study, thirty small animal veterinary clinics were selected and visited on days when there would be at least three appointments to observe.
The verbal interview asked open-ended questions that were focused on evaluating behavioral welfare practices, including questions about approaches used to examine aggressive patients and recognize and minimize patient fear, as well as behavioral recommendations made to guardians. The appointment observation was completed by installing multiple video cameras in exam rooms in a way that they would capture multiple angles but not interfere with the examination. Appointment observations evaluated handling practices such as allowing the patient time to acclimate (eg. allowing cats to come out of carriers on their own) prior to the examination, using positive reinforcement, and the use of physical restraint and sedatives.
Results from the interview assessment indicated that the majority of veterinarians had high scores for confidence in their ability to offer behavioral advice, in using approaches that were appropriate in minimizing patient fear, and in recommending appropriate/discouraging inappropriate training methods for puppies and kittens. However, in areas such as recognizing aggression in dogs and cats, and in providing information that would prevent behavioral issues in puppies and kittens, veterinarians scored relatively low.
During the appointment observation, it was found that 76% of cats and 47% of dogs were fearful, with 5% of cats being aggressive. In addressing this fear, there were several handling techniques that were used with high frequency (allowing the patient time to acclimate, examining the patient where they are most comfortable, and increasing surface traction during physical examinations), although there was also a high degree of variation in the frequency of use of these techniques. The use of diverse handling techniques (those that would allow adaptation to individual patient needs) and the use of sedatives and anxiolytics, as well as techniques for reducing stress (e.g. towel wraps and pheromones for cats) were used infrequently.
In addition to using the tool to evaluate the participating clinics, the assessment was tested for reliability (are the measurements repeatable and consistent?), validity (do the measures assess what they intend to?) and feasibility (practicality, ease of use and cost effectiveness) in order to determine if it would be a useful model moving forward.
It was found that reliability was higher for the verbal interviews than it was for the evaluations made during the observed appointments, and that the interviews were more feasible to conduct than appointment observations. However, there were some discrepancies between the responses given during the interviews and what was observed in practice. The study also found there was enough variation between clinics based on their behavioral welfare practices, indicating that the tool could be useful in evaluating areas where welfare improvements could be made.
The findings from this study are somewhat varied, and future research with a larger sample of clinics would be useful. However, the takeaway for animal advocates is that utilizing a mix of interview and appointment observation is a good first step in defining an appropriate assessment tool. This study, along with future research, can lead the way in understanding the impact vet clinics and individual vets can have on the behavioral welfare of the animals in their care, while highlighting the ways welfare practices can be improved.