The veterinarian shakes the carrier, and the cat drops to the floor with a thud. The dog groomer looks like she’s wrestling with her canine client, as she attempts to clip the nails. These are very common practices, but they’re wrong, says veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin, author of “Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats.” She hopes this ground-breaking book will change how pets are dealt with at veterinary practices, shelters, groomers and even in our homes.
Yin says Cesar Millan, TV’s ‘dog whisperer’ seems to have success by forcing the dogs in what he calls submission. Yin says too many veterinary professionals and groomers use the same techniques every day. Yin concedes she once did too, “It’s what I was taught, and I didn’t know any better than using force. For us, at that time, what mattered is that we were able to get the procedure completed.”
Yin continues, “What he (Millan) says he does is to make himself a pack leader. That’s not the case. What he’s really doing (called forced helplessness) is like if you’re afraid of spiders and freaking out because they’re all around you. But you’re being forcibly restrained. You finally realize you are helpless; you can’t do a thing about it. You finally give up. But that doesn’t mean you are any less anxious. In fact, you are likely to be more afraid. Forcible techniques don’t help, except to intensify fear. The goal is to implement techniques help to make the pet more secure.”
The outcome of force may cause a previously content and amicable dog or cat to have other problems. For example, Yin says that one cat named Skippy was so terrified of vet visits, he simply didn’t go. But the owners did hire someone to trim nails in their home. However, the cat was terrified of him. As a result, Skippy has become aggressive to any stranger entering the house.
For cats or dogs who detest having their nails trimmed, the process is called desensitization and counter-conditioning. Take the clipper out and simply feed your dog as you hold the clipper. Yin adds, “Now, touch the dog’s feet and offer a treat. Stop giving the treat as you stop the handling. Soon, the pet will figure out, ‘wow, this is fun, she touches me and I get fed.” Yin adds that a veterinary professional or groomer should take the time – and we’re only talking 10 minutes or so – to desensitize the dog rather than to allow the anxiety to heighten with each visit.
You can even teach a cat to actually enjoy or at least accept taking a pill. Yin says all cat owners should be instructed to purchase a pill gun device (available at some pet store and online), and place some moist food, or baby food on it. Once every few days, offer the treat. A few months or a few years later, when the cat does really needs to accept a pill, he’ll likely be happy about taking the treat or baby food as he always has.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, on average, cats visit the veterinarian about half as often as dogs. As a result, there are many cats who die from diseases which may have been treated if only they were discovered earlier. Many more cats simply don’t get treatment because visiting the veterinarian is such an ordeal.
From the cat’s point of view, the trauma begins when the carrier is pulled out. Cats know exactly what that means. Some cats desperately attempt to run off, others hide. The owner feels awful because he has to stuff one very distressed cat into the carrier, and the cat may even be thinking ‘I’m going to die.’
There is an alternative, says Yin. “Cats are actually sometimes easier to train than dogs, and you can teach them to go right into the carrier on command. Begin by keeping the carrier out all the time. Drop treats and kibble around it. The cat’s curiosity and hunger will take over. Once the cat is willing to eat near the carrier, place the entire meal inside. Soon the cat may even choose to sleep inside the carrier because it’s a secure place.”
Once the cat feels comfortable inside the carrier, walk to another room in your house with the carrier, unzip and let the cat hop out. Repeat and repeat many times. Now, finally, just before dinner time, take tabby for a car ride. Head around the block and return home to give your cat dinner. So, instead of the destination being a vet office, it’s a yummy meal.
Of course, puppies and kittens can easily be desensitized to veterinary clinics. “Take them there for treats,” says Yin. “My dog loved the veterinary clinic because it’s a fun place, good things happen there.”
“Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats” includes 1,600 photos with captions describing various training techniques. Still, it’s sometimes better to watch, and a DVD, included with the book, features many demonstrations. The cost is $157, available at www.askdryin.com.
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services