Are you in tune with your patients' body language?

You can set the tone of a visit by reading each pets’ body language and knowing how to put them at ease.

“The veterinarian we had last time was great,” a client told me. “She greeted Bruno, he immediately liked her and she was able to do a full exam. The veterinarian we had today seemed cold. She rushed up to Bruno without greeting him and he got scared and growled, though she didn’t pay any attention to his body language. When she went to put a muzzle on, that was it. We couldn’t do anything with him after that. I don’t think we can go back unless we can get the friendly veterinarian.”

What makes one veterinarian so much better at handling pets than another? It’s all about reading an animal’s body language so you can recognize fear or anxiety, knowing how to avoid approaching in inappropriate ways that make the pet’s fear worse, and learning how to put the patient at ease. As a veterinary technician, you are often the first person to interact with each patient, so you can set the tone of the entire visit.

Recognizing FEAR

Most people recognize overtly fearful dogs. They show a cowering response by leaning away, making themselves small and averting their gaze. Muscles are tense, the tail is between the legs, and the ears are flattened to the back or side. Cowering is a very clear sign of fear, but many signs are more subtle and easily missed. When anxious or fearful, dogs may become hypervigilant, meaning they frequently glance in different directions in search of imminent danger. Or they may fleetingly try to hide or step away. They may lick their lips or salivate, yawn, pant or tremble when there is otherwise no reason for doing so. They may look sleepy or move in slow motion, which is often misinterpreted as good behavior. Fear can also show in the facial expression. The facial muscles may be tense, the brow furrowed, and the ears slightly out or back.

The highly aroused fearful cat will have piloerection of the hair from the back of the neck to the tip of the tail. He may stand in an arched-back posture with the tail straight up, while hissing at you. These are the most obvious signs of fear. The sign people often miss is failure to interact; cats deal with conflict by trying to avoid the situation. That is, they flee or freeze unless they are pushed to fight. In a new environment, a comfortable cat explores and is relaxed. In the exam room, many cats lie down in one spot with tail and paws tucked under. This lack of movement is a variation on the freeze response. If the object they are fearful of comes closer, they may become increasingly fearful until they attack. So if the earlier signs of fear are missed, the cat may be pushed to a stage of aggression where he can no longer be handled that day.

How veterinary staff can unintentionally worsen fear

Many people can’t understand why a dog or cat would be afraid of them when they’re obviously making friendly gestures. If you look at it from a different perspective, however,
the picture becomes clear. For instance, if you’re afraid of spiders and your friend shoves
a hairy tarantula in your face while reassuring you that it’s friendly, would you feel safe?

Similarly, if a dog or cat is fearful of humans and you stare right at him, lean into his personal space, place your face directly into his, or reach towards him, he may react defensively.

How to greet correctly

In general, if the pet is showing any ambivalence or lack of interest in you, assume he may
be fearful. To avoid increasing anxiety in a dog, stay out of his personal space and avoid
direct eye contact. Instead, let the dog approach you at his own pace and make first contact.

You’ll do even better if you offer him something he likes, by tossing tasty treats to him. This works best if the owner has been asked to withhold the dog’s food for the day and bring his favorite bite-sized treats. The dog is also more likely to eat if the hospital is comfortable – low traffic, quiet rooms, lack of sudden loud noises or echoes, and some washable throw rugs. The room should be comfortable enough that he will focus on the treats you toss to him, and that will put him in a calm, happy emotional state. If you have to move closer to him, you can do so by approaching sideways or backwards. Exams can even be performed from a position next to the dog and facing forward, rather than facing directly towards the dog.

We can often keep cats comfortable by providing a way for them to hide. Exams can be done with the cat in his crate with the top removed, or under a towel. Avoid automatically scruffing cats, since it can agitate some felines. Instead, control movement by placing your hand in front of his chest or wrapping a towel around the front of him so that if he pulls forward the towel puts pressure against his chest (Handling a Difficult Cat:

Continue your thoughtful interactions

Once you get through the greeting and the animal appears comfortable, it’s important to continue practicing thoughtful interactions. Any quick movement or change in position can cause the pet to become fearful and snap or flee. You’ll need to change positions slowly, and even give treats as you change position around a dog. Avoid leaning over a dog, reaching over his head or grabbing and hugging him, which makes him feel confined. Instead, move slowly and smoothly to give him a chance to back away. Most important, always be aware of the signals he’s sending you with his body language.

The body language you’d like to see when greeting a dog is one that says this whole business is ho-hum, like greeting a casual acquaintance. The dog should remain relaxed with his muscles loose rather than tense and stiff. His gaze should be steady and soft. His tail should either wag in a relaxed manner or hang loosely down, and he should never suddenly freeze. Beware of misinterpreting a tail wag. A wagging tail can be an indicator of high arousal or of a dog in conflict, debating whether to approach or flee, rather than an indicator of a friendly, happy pet. In general, a wide, sweeping wag in a tail held somewhat even with the body is more likely to indicate the dog is friendly and relaxed. For a cat, the body position should be relaxed and the tail should remain stationary rather than twitching.

What else can you do?

Correctly approaching a dog or cat and having thoughtful interactions is just the beginning of the simple changes you can make to help your patients. Others include:

1. Preparing the patient for the visit

a) Encourage clients to train cats and dogs to love their carriers and the car ride to the clinic.

b) Have them visit the clinic without an appointment.

c) Suggest that clients have a friend do a pretend exam on their pets.

2. You can also prepare the hospital by making it more comfortable for pets

a) Provide visual barriers in the waiting room so that pets don’t have to see each other.

b) Decrease noise by using sound-dampening measures or playing white noise or Through a Dog’s Ear CD.

c) Create hiding places for cats in their cages and block visual access for dogs who are fearful and in kennels.

3. Handle with finesse rather than relying on force

a) Control movement in a way the pet understands. For instance, it’s important to walk dogs from location to location in a way they know how to follow and be on a loose leash. Prevent pacing and squirming as both can increase the pet’s arousal and anxiety.

b) Often, you can calm a dog simply by placing a hand loosely on his collar so he understands you would like him to remain still.

c) Support animals in a way they feel safe. For instance, when repositioning dogs from standing to lateral, they frequently struggle and flail; however, when supported correctly, the transition is smooth.

Carefully approaching a dog or cat and having thoughtful interactions is just the beginning

These tips seem simple, but they make a world of difference between whether a pet is calm, relaxed and compliant, or aggressive and unsafe to handle. Practice them on a daily basis and your clients will see the practice as a pet-friendly hospital and you as the caring technician.

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Dr. Sophia Yin is a 1993 graduate of the University of Davis College of Veterinary Medicine. She earned her Master in Animal Science focused on animal behavior in 2001 from UC Davis. Dr. Yin ( has a behavior house call practice and works at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists. She has been a behavior expert for shows such as Dogs 101 on Animal Planet, and is the author of over four books, DVDs and publications, including Low Stress Handling and Behavior Modification. She lectures internationally and is on the boards of multiple veterinary organizations.