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Improve staff safety through positive handling

To  be bitten, scratched, or lunged at daily is a staff expectation for many veterinary clinics.   If you have worked in this industry at all, it is  likely you have become injured by an animal you were trying to help.  It is almost a job description for our staff to be willing to be injured by an animal.  The AVMA-PLIT has published articles and statistics over the past few years revealing the financial impact of animal bites and scratches during handling.  From 2002-2004  over 94% of all workman's compensation claims were due to dog and cat bites and scratches(1).    The average cost per claim was $1500 for dogs and $1200 for cats. To compare,   Large animal injuries represented 0.3% of workman's compensation claims with an average cost of $9,900.00.  In most industries, numbers like this would be a huge wake up call.  While the use of protective gear such as muzzles and gloves can prevent some injury, many of the readers will agree that a dog can bite through a muzzle and worse, the fighting of the animal during handling can result in injury to the pet.  Now you have a practice liability case on your hand.  What a nightmare! 

It is possible to markedly decrease the aggression of pets and have safer handling by using rewards during the exam.  This is hard for many veterinary staff members to imagine.  Few technicians or veterinarians have learned how to read a dog or cat's body language to understand why that pet is escalating in fear. Body language courses are not a part of the standard curriculum of veterinary school or tech school.   Most of the information regarding safe handling has been written by non behaviorists.  So the methods touted for better handling are not based in knowledge about the animal, just the mechanics of keeping teeth off your skin.  The aggression  we see in practice is due to the learned association of pain, fear and forceful handling the pet has received   during past exams.   80% of the pet  handling claims occur in the exam room, treatment area or getting animals out of cages.   Decreasing  pain , anxiety, and rewarding  calm co operative behavior in the clinic, you will decrease staff injury.

Veterinary technicians and assistants have  the highest rates of injury, with veterinarians, receptionists, and kennel staff less involved.  Is it a wonder that there is high staff turnover in these positions? Not only do these workers have a low pay scale but a certain likelihood of injury on the job.  How much better does a tech feel  when you buy a bigger pair of welding gloves compared to training how to  use  a muzzle as a treat mask?   There are articles, videos, and products available to educate your staff and make work safer and more pleasant.  The Bella Behavior Label System ( pat pend) is a quick start up   positive handling  system to have   your staff  getting  co operative exams  from even the most aggressive patient (   Dr. Sophia Yin has written an instructional book and DVD "Low Stress Handling and behavior modification of dogs and cats rich in photo graphs and demonstrations on specific handling techniques(  These are 2 resources to immediately help your staff have better handling skills and consistently use what makes this exam best for this pet.  Now this pet will learn that the exam and handling is not so scary, painful or stressful. 

Many of the techniques in the above resources may go against other recommendations about safe handling.  Understand that the traditional handling techniques using snares, scruffing, and  3 assistants on a  struggling animal are designed to  keep the veterinarian safe from teeth and claws.  There is no regard for the experience of the animal(2) . So these traditional handling techniques are not really preventing injury by decreasing the real source of the injury - aggression.   Often animals see the safety tools such as muzzles or cat bags and they become even more aggressive.  Maybe this is why 53% of the attacking animals did not have muzzles on(1).  It is likely these animals did not have treats or positive handling while wearing a muzzle.  Rather, struggling, pain and fear is what the pet experienced.   My staff had difficulty getting muzzles on dogs before using them as a treat mask . Now we have dogs that love their muzzles! We still use them for safety but safety is fun not scary.  You can see video of how to set up a muzzle for treats at    We will need to use protective gear and should for our own safety.  It is our job to make it easier for the pet.  Make it positive - use them in fun ways when the pets are young.  

Staff morale improves when you have pets that are not only more co operative for exams, but enjoy coming to your office.  Many of the technicians and assistants are in veterinary medicine because they love animals.  They want all the animals to love them too.  We all know the feeling of dread when we have to examine an aggressive dog or get a fractious cat out of a cage.  Having a better understanding of why they are upset and what to do to help the pet increases the skills of the staff.  Increased skills that are used in work is a great way to improve morale and work esteem.  Staff injuries hurt your staff physically and emotionally, not to mention your bank account.  Help  your staff  reduce the source of the risk - aggression.   Please  review my previous articles in the Butler magazine  outlining how rewarding is not spoiling.   Start today and track the progress.
It is my  hope that many practices will be  using  positive handling as a standard for all patients.  It will improve the welfare of our patients and our staff.  Both are essential to our profession.  I would love to hear your comments, thoughts and questions about positive handling during exams.  Please email me at or join me on face book. 

Sally J Foote, DVM  CFBC-IAABC
Okaw Veterinary Clinic Tuscola IL

1.)          "The price of pain" DVM 360 May 1 2010 Rachael Whitcomb
2.)          "Aggression in the clinic" K Moffat DVM ACVB Veterinary Clinics of North America Volume 38 Number 5 Sept 2008

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