Just a few days ago, I was bit in the face by a bulldog at work. Incredibly, and probably because of his bulldog short-face conformation, none of his teeth connected on my skin and I stood up unscathed but rattled and covered with bulldog drool.
“Mack” was immediately friendly and excited when I entered the exam room. He has wonderful owners and lives the spoiled life. He came right up to me and started wiggling in circles for me to pet him. We were getting along just fine as his owners and I talked about his recent health.
After 16 years of practice, I have gotten pretty good at quickly and accurately judging the temperament of dogs and cats when I come into a room. Body language is loud and clear when it comes to most dogs:
Running right up to me, jumping on me and licking, rolling over to present the belly. These are generally good and reliable signs that I am with a fun, safe dog with nothing to worry about.
Wagging the tail and looking excited, but staying between the owner’s legs, wide eyed. This is a dog who I just need to go slow with, probably just scared but okay with people.
Hiding under the bench, eyes wide and terrified. Use caution, this dog is really scared and truly thinks something bad may happen and could definitely bite out of presumed self-defense.
Growling and lunging, owner the owner holding the dog back from me getting my throat ripped out. Yeah, this one is going to be tricky!
Cats are less suggestive in their body language but are still mostly predictable. The majority of cats never leave their home, so they are already very nervous that they have been shoved in the carrier and driven in car, an experience they often do only once or twice a year. So, when they arrive at the veterinary office, they are usually more than happy to stay in the carrier, leading me to ask myself, “Hmmm, what’s in the box today?”
Most cats “shut down” at the vet. They become very reserved and submissive and simply sit there as we examine them. No growling or hissing and a “shy” face are generally good signs that we are safe.
Overly confident, walking all over the room with the tail up. These cats are great to interact with—for a bit—but I find they usually do not like to be held still, examined, or have shots given to, so we have a limited window before they demand their independence back with force.
Hissing, growling, ears back. Now we are entering the really tough cats. Still, with patient handling, calm voices, and using things like towels and pheromones, we can examine and do what we need to with these cats. But it is just like we are handling a bomb. Caution, it may explode at any minute!
Growling, screaming, and aggressively swatting the door of the carrier. Yeah, this one is going to be tricky!
Every day as veterinarians, we are encountering situations where we can be seriously injured by scared or aggressive pets. I hesitate to even say aggressive, because really the majority of “aggressive” pets are just anxious and following their instincts. It’s not some choice they are making, like, “Hey, I’m choosing to be a total jerk today!” They are simply responding to preprogrammed instincts of guarding, protecting, and self-preservation. Some dogs have completely lost these instincts. Take my goofy Labradors for example. Their friendly, “I love everybody” demeanor is really not a good survival trait and is far from the natural behavior of wolves. But thank goodness we humans have been able to somehow change the instincts of wolves from nervous, guarded, and aggressive as needed, to friendly, dopey, and trusting. Yet we are challenged daily with intuitively assessing each pet to see “how scared are they, how likely are they to take this right to self-defense…” It’s interesting how it becomes a rather automatic task and, overall, we rarely have anyone getting bit despite probably 20 percent of our cases being pets that absolutely will bite us if not handled properly.
And when I say handled properly, I’m not talking about muzzling, restraining, or putting cats in cat bags (yes, that’s actually a thing). I am referring to patiently assessing a scared or aggressive animal and trying to defuse them, develop some level of mutual trust, and getting the unpleasant things like examination and needle pokes done, all within a 30-minute appointment slot.
For example, most nervous “Caution, Will Bite!” dogs are totally manageable if I simply separate them from the owner in the room. Examining them just four feet away, facing their owner, is a completely different experience, and risk, compared to trying to reach under the owner’s legs to check them out.
Or for the aggressive cat, managing to get a hand on their neck and trying to hold their scruff while they scream and scratch is much less effective compared to simply putting a towel over their body and calmly examining them one exposed bit at a time.
Sure, there are plenty of pets who definitely need a muzzle or whom we simply can’t examine because we know we WILL get bit. However, when we are able to patiently develop just enough trust to get done what we need to and didn’t have to escalate to a muzzle or a harsher restraint, we have set that pet up for a life of much easier exams and handling vs. preparing for a fight every time they have a vaccine due.
“Mack” was just one of those unpredictable cases and I simply lost focus. I took his happy wagging and licking as a sign that I was in the clear and I let my guard down. Rule number one: don’t get bit! Then I just got a little too close to his face with my eye scope and in an instant he went from smiling to his huge mouth hammering into my face from forehead to chin. Although my mouth took a blow like being punched, I stood up somewhat shocked at what just happened, but okay! The owner was horrified and apologetic, but I quickly told her not to apologize. It was my fault. Once I got my bearings, I was able to complete the exam on Mack, without a muzzle, and get everything done while becoming friends again. A little squeeze cheese and some treats helped that!