Implementing consensual touch for better patient care

Practicing consensual touch creates a safer and more positive environment for everyone involved in the veterinary care experience

Improve patient care by practicing consensual touch, establishing a less stressful environment both for you and the patient.
Improve patient care by practicing consensual touch, establishing a less stressful environment both for you and the patient.

For many years, working with animals in veterinary medicine was performed with a “get the job done” mindset. Restraint methods were primarily used to meet our own needs, get tasks done, treat patients, and keep all humans safe by avoiding bites or scratches. Minimal effort or consideration was put into how these techniques may feel for our patients.

Fast forward to 2022, and this mindset is slowly evolving and changing. Veterinary professionals are beginning to see major shifts in how patients and procedures are approached, with an emphasis on how to consistently maintain the emotional well-being of our patients during their veterinary experience. This shift includes deepening the understanding of our patient’s emotional state, how our handling affects that state, and how we can incorporate the idea of “consensual touch” into veterinary medicine.

What is consensual touch in veterinary medicine?

To understand consensual touch in veterinary medicine, it is important to understand consensual touch between humans, and how the two differ.

Consensual touch is mutually agreed upon between two or more parties. For humans, consensual touch is most often achieved via a verbal “yes” and not just the absence of a “no.” An example of consensual touch is an adult family member asking a child if they can give the child a hug instead of assuming the child is OK with a hug and not asking. Consensual touch would be the child clearly answering with a “yes,” with an understanding they are also allowed to answer with a “no.”

Since animals have a language unique to their species and do not speak ours, consensual touch for animals is more nuanced. While the meaning remains the same (touch that is mutually agreed upon), the means to get there are different. Additionally, it should be mentioned that veterinary professionals are not always given the option to bypass touch, specifically if their patients are injured or in need of immediate care and intervention.

How is consensual touch achieved?

Implementing consensual touch into the way veterinary staff handle their patients first starts with a shift in mindset. It requires a deep understanding of animal behavior, as well as a level of patience and consideration that has not always been incorporated into veterinary medicine. Certification programs are available to help veterinarians with the mind shift.

Inviting a reputable dog trainer to educate staff on basic positive reinforcement training or attending continuing education classes held by board-certified veterinary behaviorists are also steps clinics and veterinary professionals can take to become more comfortable with creating space for consensual touch with veterinary patients.

These professionals can help create basic strategies during everyday practice that encourage a positive and consensual approach to veterinary care and can also help provide training strategies for clients to practice at home.

Other ways to practice consensual touch with pets include:

  • Giving the animal options. An example here is honoring the least stressful place for handling, including various rooms in the clinic, practicing care on the floor versus exam table, utilizing outdoor spaces, and keeping cats in their carriers.
  • Observing behavior and body language. It is not enough to understand animal behavior and body language. Veterinary staff must listen to this language, as well. Allowing dogs and cats to move toward veterinary staff on their own free will and without force is an indication the touch is consensual. A cat or dog avoiding contact indicates they are not consenting to touch. Listen and document patient behaviors during veterinary visits.
  • Move slow. Whenever possible, build in extra time for appointments and procedures. Time leaves room for relationship building, and, therefore, will strengthen trust between veterinary staff and both the client and patient. This extra time may also provide enough space for a patient to become comfortable enough to initiate contact, a sign of consent.
  • Encouraging client participation at home. Encouraging clients to practice consensual touch can include providing easy at-home tips, such as allowing their pet to engage and initiate with them and rewarding this behavior, pausing every few seconds during the touch session to evaluate their pet’s response and gauge the level of consent. At-home participation can include training cues that indicate they are “in agreement” to specific touch.
  • Empower the client to say no. It is never acceptable to assume a stranger’s dog will enjoy your touch, and it is always good practice to ask the pet parent if touch is OK, in addition to gauging the pet’s social and behavioral cues. If a client knows their dog does not enjoy children or is in pain and may not want to be petted, they have every right to advocate these needs on behalf of their animal. Encourage this!

I understand these practices are not always possible, and sometimes the zany life of veterinary medicine gets in the way. However, these practices should always be your goal. Understand these changes will take time, and that’s OK.

When consensual touch cannot happen

There are many times in veterinary medicine when consensual touch may not be achievable and veterinary care must still be performed. In these cases, it is important to continue focusing on how to alleviate the fear, stress, and anxiety of these patients.

Here are a few ways to increase the well-being of all patients when full consent cannot be achieved:

  • Practice positive reinforcement. Provide high-value treats to every patient before, during, and after veterinary care. This will help create a positive association with you, the clinic, and procedures.
  • Practice what is needed versus wanted. Ask yourself and your team what is needed during a visit with a patient that is extremely opposed to touch. For example, if this patient requires a rabies vaccination and a nail trim, consider administering the rabies vaccine (need) at the visit and scheduling a follow-up visit for the nail trim (want). Alternatively, consider trimming only a few nails at this visit and completing the nail trim during a follow-up. Separating procedures into different appointments can help to lower the fear and anxiety of patients, helping to create a more trusting relationship between the animal, veterinary team, and client. It would also never be wrong to include chemical restraint when needed, to reduce fear and anxiety.
  • Practice a touch gradient. This term is used in the Fear Free certification program to describe passive touch that slowly increases in intensity. An example here is gently touching the area of a cat that is least painful, slowly working to the painful location.

We ask for a lot from our patients and pets. We ask them to sit, stay, and come on demand to ensure our own needs are met and to provide safety and control. Alas, how often do we seek their permission? Practicing consensual touch creates a safer and more positive environment for everyone involved in the veterinary care experience: the professional, the patient, and the client. When we seek to ensure all needs are met, we ultimately create safer and more fulfilling relationships. This is true for the animals that we work and live with, too!

Claire Primo is a veterinary nurse and certified animal massage therapist residing in Lyons, Colo. She offers animal massage therapy, laser therapy, hospice and palliative care and veterinary nurse needs through her practice, Peak Animal Wellness & Massage, while also managing a veterinary house call practice, Boulder Holistic Vet. She specializes in senior pet care, holistic veterinary nurse care, and empowering guardians with all the appropriate tools and guidance needed for a healthy and nurturing relationship with their pets. In her spare time, she can be found in her small mountain town playing and connecting with her husband, two-year old son, two dogs, and cat.


  1. Fear Free Veterinary Certification Programs. Fear Free Pets. 2022. August 3. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from

Post a Comment