Perhaps unsurprisingly, aggression is the subject of much of the less medical kind of conversation that happens around the exam table. It seems clients are justifiably titillated by the more harrowing aspects of the veterinary profession. As in…
"How do you manage to keep all your fingers in one piece when Cujo here clearly wants to bite them off?"
No, it's not just the fang bang or claw mark sustained during a quick pass at our distal extremities. Consider also the deep puncture, a face grab, the bruising lunge, and even a full-on maul. Unfortunately, keeping all of one’s parts free of tooth and claw is no mean feat for veterinarians and veterinary workers.
Nonetheless, what I hasten to explain to my most dramatic or fearful clients is that most aggressive pets are more likely to leave behind relatively harmless claw marks or maybe a bruise in their half-hearted attempts to keep the vet at bay.
Still, that doesn't mean a 911-worthy mauling is out of the question. Luckily, I've had only one such call — that time after a Doberman mauled my head during my first week on the job. (Yes, I’ll agree it was an inauspicious start to my veterinary career.) And if the stats don’t lie, that probably means I’ll be in the clear for the rest of my career.
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After all, veterinary medicine is nowhere near as accident-fraught as it was back in the day when veterinary assistants were few and far between, and, in their absence, foul-tempered plow horses were wont to plant hoof prints on our backsides.
So what’s an understandably defensive veterinarian to do in lieu of a career in radiology, parasitology, nutrition, or some other such paws-off position? To answer this question (along with the earlier one about keeping all my fingers), here are the steps most of us follow in the service of our own personal safety (and that of our coworkers, of course):
1. Be wary.
To be on the defensive we must first be aware of the dangers. And being badly injured has a way of getting you into that mindset — fast! Yet we need not go there to change our behavior. Indeed, watching others suffer usually does the trick. The key is to always maintain a healthy degree of watchfulness. But that’s easier said than done. Here’s what works for me:
I do it the same way I do pretty much everything else that involves a bit of risk (driving a car, working with sizzling oil or molten sugar in the kitchen, riding a horse, etc.). I visualize the worst, ever so briefly, and that puts me into a conscious state of vigilance like no other technique I’ve ever tried.
2. Be chill.
I believe animals know when our nerves are jangling. Signs that may seem subtle to us are likely to send them for a loop. Why else would my most angst-ridden days involve more muzzles and chemical restraint?
It may seem like relaxation is exactly the wrong approach to these events. In many ways it seems completely counter to No. 1. But, believe it or not, you can remain on your guard and exude tranquility with no trace of recklessness or stress whatsoever. The key — for me — is to breathe deeply before entering any exam room or initiating any human-animal interaction. (And do a lot of yoga.)
3. Be precautious.
Yes, that’s a word. It means we should take all kinds of traditional precautions, including using notes in the records to identify and describe aggressive or anxious pets, employing well-trained assistants and muzzles, and applying chemical restraint whenever absolutely necessary (and it’s often the best approach for everyone involved, especially the patient).
We should also employ less traditional means of relaxing our patients. Adopting low-stress handling techniques and making our hospitals more hospitable to our patients is a great place to start, but recommending training and at-home relaxation techniques (among other nonchemical alternatives) is important too.
4. Be willing to listen.
Paying attention to what the actual pet owner has to say is a big part of the safety process. But trusting in what the trained professionals (like veterinary technicians) who work for us have to say is sometimes even more important. In other words, “Doc, you gotta watch this one” is a warning that should never go unheeded.
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5. Be legal.
Safety-based laws and regulations may seem onerous to us, but they’re there for a reason. Scofflaws flout them at the expense of their own skin — literally.
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Despite these many fine paths to safety, it can be a rough-and-tumble career nonetheless.
But me? Frankly, I’m more scared of injuring my back picking up a pet or standing for hours on end in surgery than I am about getting clawed or bitten. But perhaps that’s as much a function of my age as it is of being mindful of the above five steps — along with the wisdom that inevitably comes from more years in practice than I care to confess to.