As an animal owner and a future veterinarian, it is my job to advocate for better husbandry practices for all species. From my experience working with both my own animals and client-owned animals in a clinical setting, I have noticed that there are some procedures that tend to routinely put animals and their owners “on edge.” From trimming a dog’s nails to sticking a bitter-tasting tube of dewormer in a horse’s mouth, I have seen these situations quickly escalate until both humans and animals are extremely stressed out to the point one or both parties might be in danger. I’m writing this post to advocate for a better way to deal with these situations. A little practice and training before the big event can go a very long way to making a procedure not even an event at all. I think we could all do a little bit more to prepare our animals for these facts of life, and I’m going to share some ways that I’ve found to help ease tension in these situations.
Unless a dog is doing an extensive amount of running on hard surfaces or digging, it is most likely going to need its nails trimmed fairly often to maintain optimum joint health. For some dogs, nail trims can be a pretty traumatic experience. They may need physically restrained, muzzled, or even sedated to accomplish this task. How can we prevent this from having to happen? Ideally, we should begin positive desensitization with puppies from a very early age. Puppies should get accustomed to having their feet picked up and played with. When it comes time to clip their nails, go slowly and provide lots of positive reinforcement between each nail so that puppy begins to associate nail trimming with extra yummy treats. As a veterinary staff, we should be including this conversation with all new puppy appointments.
For older dogs who are already fearful of nail trims, it is still beneficial to practice messing with paws and providing positive reinforcement. Try to limit going over the threshold with these dogs as that can cause a regression in the improvements you’ve made. It is definitely more challenging to overcome these issues once an animal already has a negative association, so I can’t stress enough how important it is to start working on desensitization as soon as a new dog is brought into the family.
My experience with desensitization in horses stems from childhood memories of absolutely dreading deworming day. My mare hates having the deworming paste put in her mouth, and she will put up a good fight to not have to take it. I have seen horses rear up, kick, etc. all over having meds put in their mouth. With my younger gelding, who hasn’t been through this before, I decided there HAS to be a better, safer way to accomplish this key bit of animal husbandry. So, I came up with a plan. I got a curve-tipped plastic syringe and some cans of apple sauce from the store. About once a week, I am taking apple sauce and giving it to my gelding the exact same way I plan to deworm him in a few months. He LOVES it. He has developed such a positive association with the syringe in his mouth that when the time comes for one tube of deworming paste it won’t be a big deal to him. I’m still working to safely overcome these negative associations with my mare, but hopefully, I can help her at least a little.
These are just two very specific examples of what we can do to improve husbandry practices in the lives of our animals. I could write an entire post JUST about positively conditioning cattle to go through a chute system. Tools used to accustom a dog to having their paws messed with and nails trimmed are just as applicable to teaching them to accept a veterinarian performing a physical exam or checking their teeth. Teaching a horse to accept oral meds could save you a lot of time, money, and heartache should the horse require daily oral meds at some point in its life. Working with our animals does NOT have to be a rodeo, but it’s up to veterinary staff to educate our clients on best practices and to animal owners to follow through with daily training and conditioning.