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Does your clinic’s entrance frighten pets?

First impressions are lasting, and that’s even truer for pets

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If you want to see first-hand one of the problems our profession faces, spend a couple of hours on a clinic stakeout. Park your car outside a couple of veterinary hospitals and watch pet owners enter the practice. You’ll witness them trying to coax dogs to enter or carry them inside. Then, park outside at a few local pet stores and watch dog and after dog tow their owners into the shop with enough power to pull them on water skis.

The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study tells us that pet owners have been avoiding taking their pets to the veterinarian, while pet store trips have increased dramatically in recent years.

All is not lost, however. We have the tools to fight back, reclaim our authority, and be busier than ever. We can compete to win. The strategy is straightforward: We must put science and sizzle in place to make a trip to the veterinary hospital a better, higher-value experience for pet and owner than a trip to the pet store.

To do this, we must first look at what we can do to eliminate or decrease the fear, anxiety, and stress triggers that act as barriers to entry. Here are five things to consider.

Make removing No. 2 a No. 1 priority

Did you know that feces from dogs experiencing stress contain fear pheromones (anal gland secretions on the feces) that alert other dogs of danger? If you don’t want the steaming equivalent of flashing red lights lining the sidewalk on the way into your practice, you must search out and pick up feces several times a day and seal it shut in a disposal bag—don’t just toss it into the trash. The same goes for anal gland expressions in the exam room.

The outside vertical surface makes dogs fear the inside

Did you also know the vertical surface just outside your front door, portico, or building corner probably has thousands of invisible signs that scream danger to dogs as they stop, sniff, and check pee-mail before entering the clinic?

Clean vertical surfaces with a solution of accelerated hydrogen peroxide at least once daily, and pressure wash/steam clean monthly. Spritz the area with pheromones several times a day—doing so can turn a negative into a positive.

If a new or particularly sensitive dog is scheduled to visit, instruct the pet owner to call you once she arrives so you can go outside and place a trail of treats leading to the front door. It’s even more powerful for the pet owner to place the treat trail from Point O (outside) to Point I
(inside) to Point E (exam room), according to Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB.

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Face the front door challenge

The typical swinging door of a veterinary hospital, whether singly or as a double set with an enclosed entryway, is very difficult for pet and pet owner to navigate. This can be even worse for elderly or infirm clients who are trying to handle a scared dog, have multiple pets, or are holding a carrier. Hold the door (or the carrier) for clients entering the practice.

Go for the greeting

Wherever the first contact with a patient and client happens, and if the pet desires closer contact, ensure the team member knows these dos and don’ts, according to Dr. Radosta:

• Don’t make direct eye contact with the pet (it’s a threat)

• Don’t face the pet when saying hello

• Don’t reach down to touch the pet

• Don’t put out your hand for the pet to smell

• Don’ttouch the pet on top of the head

• Do turn sideways when greeting a pet

• Do crouch down if you can (decreases our perceived size and threat level)

• Do toss down treats so the pet can get closer if she wants to. If she doesn’t, don’t force it. Maybe try higher-value treats

If you’re going to touch the pet, do it on the sides of the neck/chest and the base of the tail (for dogs), and under the chin, the hairless areas above the eyes, and the base of the tail (for cats).

Ban the waiting area

If a veterinary behaviourist were tasked with designing the most stressful place possible for pets, it would be what already exists in veterinary clinics across North America—the waiting area.

Do what thousands of veterinary practices have done and usher pets and owners directly into the exam room to be checked in (and out), or have owners check in and then return to and wait in their vehicle with their pet, who is isolated and smelling familiar smells, entering the practice only when the exam room is ready.

“For those times when animals absolutely must spend some time waiting in your lobby, visual barriers can help reduce stress,” said Heather Lewis, AIA, principal of Animal Arts and co-author of the Practical Guide to Veterinary Hospital Design: From Renovations to New Builds. “Arrange seating in groupings that can allow separation of cats and dogs, and use temporary visual barriers.”

In short, the check-in area should be calm, quiet, and welcoming for pets and people. Don’t use bleach to clean; use accelerated hydrogen peroxide.

First impressions are lasting, and that’s even truer for pets who have little control over their fate once they’re on the way to our hospitals.

Marty Becker, DVM, is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News Canada.

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