Study: How scared is that doggie on the table?

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Maybe a lot.

A new study out of Australia found that up to 40% of dog owners report their dogs are scared while being examined by a veterinarian. Globally, up to one in seven dogs show severe or extreme fear during an examination.

Researchers from the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Adelaide (SAVSUA) conducted the study based on 26,555 responses to the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), in which dog owners were given examples of mild-to-moderate fear, including: avoiding eye contact, crouching or cringing with the tail lowered or tucked between the legs, whimpering or whining, freezing, and shaking or trembling.

Extreme fear was described as exaggerated cowering and/or vigorous attempts to escape, retreat, or hide.

The study found that the most important predictors of fear in a veterinary examination were, in order: the dog’s breed group (27.1%), their history of roles or activities (16.7%), where they were sourced (15.2%), their weight (12%), the age of other dogs in the household (9.5%), and dog owner experience (6.3%). However, when combined, these risk factors only explain a total of 7% of the fear observed during veterinary examination.

The authors say that identifying these risk factors has important implications for veterinarians practicing canine medicine: scared dogs may be harder to diagnose, take longer to undergo a standard physical exam, or pose a risk of injury to themselves, the veterinary staff, and their owners.

Susan Hazel, DVM, PhD, senior lecturer at SAVSUA and a coauthor of the study, told NEWStat that she hopes the findings will encourage veterinarians to “think more about how we can reduce the prevalence [of fear] and make visiting the veterinarian a more positive experience for dogs” instead of accepting fear as a given.

That is, if the dog makes it to the hospital at all.

“I think dog owners change veterinarians and delay [going to the veterinarian] or [don’t] go altogether if their dog is very fearful,” Hazel added.

Hazel said veterinarians need to seek advice on fear-reducing changes they can make to their practice and provide extra training for all staff. “Most importantly, they need to not label dogs as ‘bad’ or ‘difficult’ but recognize most of them are so scared they’re just doing everything they can to protect themselves. We would do the same in their position.”

NEWStat asked researcher Petra Edwards, PhD candidate at SAVSUA and the study’s corresponding author, if she was surprised by any of the results.

“One surprising finding was that up to one in seven dogs are experiencing severe or extreme fear when examined by their veterinarian,” she said. “I knew it was common, but I didn’t realize that dogs were experiencing high levels of fear that often.”

Another unexpected result for Edwards was finding out that show dogs and dogs used as breeding stock were less likely to be fearful than companion-animal dogs. “We think this might demonstrate the value of grooming and handling practice that show or breeding dogs might receive from a young age.”

Edwards suggested that veterinarians might take note of a dog’s breed group or roles (e.g., show dog or breeding stock) as a way to predict how a dog might respond during the visit. “However, other factors—the clinic environment (e.g., sights, sounds, smells, surfaces), a dog’s previous experience, or interactions with staff—are likely much more important in determining fear of the veterinarian.”

Edwards says that’s great, because those factors are likely where veterinary hospitals can make the most difference: “Veterinary teams might benefit from continually reassessing ways to help the dog feel more comfortable in those settings.”

“Keeping a record of how the dog coped this time may help inform how the team should interact with the dog next time, too,” Edwards added.

Hazel said, “If we could reduce fearfulness in the dogs we see, I think that veterinarians would enjoy canine medicine a whole lot more.”

Photo Credit: © iStock/GeorgePeters