Behavior basics for veterinary emergency clinicians and technicians

Keep patients free from fear, anxiety, and stress in even the most trying clinical situations

An unfamiliar environment can cause fear, anxiety, and stress for pets. Minimize the chances by keeping patients with their owners for as long as possible.

Veterinary emergency clinicians and technicians are often faced with urgent cases and fast-paced environments. Unfortunately, this setting is not always conducive to caring for patients’ emotional needs. Here are some easy ways to help them feel more at ease in even the most trying situations.

Keep patients with their owners for as long as possible. Being in an unfamiliar environment can cause fear. Having a familiar person there is one way to help minimize fear, anxiety, and stress.



1. Control pain.

Pain can contribute to fear, anxiety, and stress. (Remember, acepromazine is contraindicated for treating anxiety and aggression.1)

2. Provide a comfortable kennel.

Adequate bedding goes a long way toward patient comfort. Give large dogs lots of padding. Inexpensive bolster beds are easy to wash, and small dogs usually love them. Cats like to hide, so provide a box or cover part of the kennel with a towel or blanket. Giving cats their own quiet space in the clinic will help reduce their stress levels.4

3. Keep things quiet.

If there is a howler in the hospital, do something about it. Not only for the howler’s sake, but also for the rest of the hospital’s sake, humans included. Loud environments cause anxiety and stress in humans and animals.4

4. Move pets out of recovery kennels.

“The House of Pain” can become a real thing. For patients that come to you postoperatively, they are often not only in pain, but fearful as well. In some cases, moving the pet out of the recovery kennel a day or so after will help negate the pain and fear they recall upon waking up.2

5. Go slow.

True emergencies require a deft hand and haste! However, not every case that walks through the door will be an emergency requiring immediate care. If it doesn’t, take the time to make the pet comfortable. When trying to move too quickly, patients inevitably get handled more roughly, and this will lead to fear, anxiety, and stress. It can also lead to a bite or other injury for an employee.

6. Tap out if needed. 

Getting frustrated? It happens to everyone. When you begin to feel the frustration rising, ask someone fresh to take over. Patients can feel your frustration and will respond, sometimes violently.

7. Ditch the cloth muzzles.

Cloth muzzles greatly reduce the pet’s ability to pant and breathe normally. Think about how it would feel to try to breathe with your mouth taped shut during a high-stress event. Opt instead for basket muzzles. There are various styles on the market. For cats, the Air Muzzle is a great option for keeping staff safe and cats less stressed.

8. Minimize temperatures and other stressful handling.

If a patient isn’t febrile or at risk for it, there’s just no need for rectal temperatures every four hours. Yes, there are cases where Q4h temperatures are warranted, but in these cases, perhaps use an ear temperature probe instead. Think of what treatments and monitoring cause patients the most discomfort while in hospital. If it is possible to minimize or change how these are done, it will go a long way toward making your patients less stressed.

9. Take care of basic needs.

Food, water, and bathroom breaks seem like easy enough tasks to remember to tend to, but often, due to caseloads or other reasons, these things are overlooked or skipped. These care essentials will keep your patients more comfortable and less stressed.

Fear and anxiety are not the same thing. Fear is a natural response to a potentially dangerous stimulus. Fear leads to anxiety and prolonged anxiety leads to stress. Stress also can be caused directly from stressors like pain and discomfort.4

Patients that are stressed are less likely to eat while in hospital; those that do not eat are often hospitalized longer. Patients that are less stressed in the hospital setting will recover faster, leading to faster dismissals, higher employee satisfaction, and happier clients.3

Using techniques to reduce fear and stress benefit everyone. The client feels better about how their pet is handled, the pet experiences faster recovery, and the client faces a less costly bill. Staff will feel better about how patients are treated, enjoy more job satisfaction, and suffer less injury. The hospital owner profits from fewer workers’ comp claims, more clients from satisfied client referrals, and less employee turnover.

Giving cats their own quiet space will help reduce their stress levels. Cater to cats’ desire to hide by providing a box or covering part of the kennel with a towel or blanket.

1 Frank D, Gauthier A, Bergeron R. Placebo-controlled double-blind clomipramine trial for the treatment of anxiety or fear in beagles during ground transport. Can. Vet. J. 2006;47, 1102 -1108.
2 Grandin T, Dessing M. Distress in Animals: Is it Fear, Pain or Physical Stress? Accessed 12-6-12 at
3 Hekman J, Karas A, Sharp C. Psychogenic Stress in Hospitalized Dogs: Cross Species Comparisons, Implications for Health Care, and the Challenges of Evaluation. Animals. 2014;4(2), 331-347. doi:10.3390/ani4020331.
4 Lloyd J. Minimising Stress for Patients in the Veterinary Hospital: Why It Is Important and What Can Be Done About It. Veterinary Sciences. 2017;4(2), 22. doi:10.3390/vetsci40200222.

Melissa McLaughlin, CPhT, RVT VTS (ECC), KPA-CTP, who has more than 21 years of experience in veterinary medicine, is the owner-instructor for Proper Pets LLC, and works in the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital critical care unit. She shares her life with five dogs, four cats, two birds, two guinea pigs, a betta fish, and a very patient and understanding husband.


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