“Muzzle? You’re Not Putting That Thing on MY Dog!” (Yes, I am.)

It’s rare that I have to muzzle a dog during examinations. But when I do, why do some pet owners object? Preventing dog bites is important!

Muzzle dance over

May 20th marks the start of National Dog Bite Prevention week. I have a personal interest and responsibility to keep dog bites to a minimum. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want my staff or clients to get bitten.

I want my patients who are biters to get training and help. Veterinarians and owners can work together to prevent more bites. I don’t have to tell you, dog bites can be serious and we, the humans, are often at fault.

It’s rare that I have to muzzle a patient, but when I do, it’s important. A small percentage of clients object. I call this “the muzzle dance.”

Here are a few of the lines I don’t like to hear from a client who owns a “caution” dog (any dog who poses a bite risk to me, the owner, or my staff):

  • “But he doesn’t really bite.” (Then I’m sensing a make-believe bite?)
  • “But he only dislikes men. You’ll be okay.” (Thank God I don’t have my man-vibe on today.)
  • “Oh, that’s okay. I’ll hold her. She’s good with me.” (But you’re not holding her head! Or her mouth!)
  • “He’s just nervous.” (So that guttural growl of death means he’s happy to see me?)

And here’s my favorite. With a 100-pound rotti on the exam table, growling, eyes bugging out of his head:

  • “Oh, he’s just talking. You obviously don’t understand Rottweilers.”

‘Baby’ and the Muzzle Dance

It’s my job to make the environment as peaceful and as nonthreatening as possible in my hospital. I don’t want the dog to feel confronted or nervous in the waiting room. I try to not make the dog wait at all! Get the dog placidly in an exam room as soon as possible and keep him comfortable. Know how to approach the dog and pick up all the behavioral cues within a minute or so to get a “reading” on the dog.

For a skilled veterinarian, this can all run as smooth as silk. And it does 95% of the time. But if my assessment is that the dog is still fearful, anxious or aggressive, I might suggest a soft, nylon muzzle in a peaceful blue color as the best way to avoid a dog bite. The muzzle often alleviates the dog’s all-consuming anxiety-driven desire to bite.

If the owner says”no” to muzzling the dog, the muzzle dance is in full swing.

Let’s say I try to appease the owner by not using the muzzle. We try no restraint, a little restraint, a soft voice, a cookie, and the dog is still trying to bite. This is now a dangerous circus as the client is braying at the top of her voice, “IT’S OKAY, BABY, SHE’S NOT GOING TO HURT YOU. NO, DON’T BE UPSET. IT’S OKAY. DON’T WORRY, BABY.”

“Baby” might be a 5-pound Chihuahua that looks like a possessed creature out of The Shining, or a 90-pound mutt with a lip curl and fire eyes worthy of a cameo in Game of Thrones. Whatever the breed or the size, “Baby” means business, and trying to get a muzzle on now is a game for fools.

“Oh, he’s upset now. You’ve upset Baby. He doesn’t act like this at home.” Okay, Mrs. Vile Denial. I would hope he doesn’t act this way at home. Do you routinely feel his junk, do a full-body cavity search and stick him with small sharp needles in your home? Or let me put it this way: Do you, Mrs. D, act the same in your home as you do at your mammogram appointment or your gynecological exam, or when you’re getting blood drawn? If you had the chance to bite a phlebotomist or a radiology technician from time to time, might you consider it?

These exams with these special care dogs usually end with my favorite request from the owner: “Oh, can you cut his nails? He doesn’t let me do that at home.”

You can’t cut his nails, Mrs. Denial? Really, why is that? Because he would BITE YOU? And you don’t want me to muzzle Baby, is that correct? Well, let me don my handy-dandy bite coat made of flexible steel that covers me from head to toe, allowing me to cut Baby’s nails while he bites away at my face and hands without penetrating my steel-skin coat. I have it right here on this hook. What would I do without it!

Dog bites are no laughing matter. Veterinarians and technicians do get bitten, sometimes badly. Owners of normally gentle dogs are bitten more frequently when their pets are stressed or hurt. We want to keep these events to an absolute minimum. Besides bodily harm, pain, disfigurement, loss of work and expense, there can be quarantines, lawsuits and loss of homeowners’ insurance. The risks are high, and clients need to understand that a little precaution can save a lot of headaches. It goes without saying that every time a dog bites, modifying the aggressive behavior with training becomes more difficult.

When Do Vets Get Bitten?

Gentle dogs sometimes bite when stressed or hurt. (Credit: insane photoholic/Flickr)

If we get bitten by a caution dog because we didn’t take the proper precautions or didn’t muzzle (to try to keep the client happy), it’s the veterinarian’s fault. We don’t usually suffer a bite from a dog we know is “iffy,” because we do take the proper precautions and muzzle. Most clients are absolutely fine with this. We get bitten by the dog that gives no warning. Couple that with a client who “forgets” to tell us they have a biter, and it’s a recipe for a dog bite.

Very occasionally, I come across a new client who says, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. He bit the last vet.” This makes me very angry. I feel like saying, “Next time I’m planning a car accident, I’ll give you a call ahead of time so you can be in the passenger seat.”

A person with a natural affinity for animals can read animal behavior. This is both a skill and a gift. Ninety% of the time, the dog gives very obvious clues that she is either aggressive or fearful and poses a bite risk. This might be that familiar “hairy eyeball,” or body rigidity, or obvious fear.

Before we get as far as a true growl or attempted bite, I have usually had an honest conversation with the owner, and most reasonable owners agree to muzzle. Most dogs actually calm down once muzzled. The exam goes quickly, everything gets done, the muzzle comes off and the dog is wagging her tail on the ground again. The dogs often even take a biscuit from the hand that vaccinated them because they know they’ve passed their physical! And it’s a no-brainer that I can do a better physical if I’m not in fear of facial mutilation.

The Muzzle Fighter

There is the muzzle fighter, a big ball of fur and feet attacking the muzzle and trying to scratch his entire head into oblivion to get the muzzle off. Time to regroup. A muzzle is not the answer in this case.

With my best technician on guard, if I still can’t do the exam without getting bitten, we have to come up with another plan. I would say this happens only once or twice a year. These dogs usually need mild tranquilization. Sometimes the owner can get the dog used to a muzzle at home so the dog can come into the office already muzzled.

I have been terrified by only a handful of dogs in over 20 years. Two of these dogs suffered from “rage syndrome” (a topic for another time), and one was a wolf. I had known the wolf hybrid since he was 4 weeks old, almost dead from parvo. He survived.

When he came in to be neutered and slipped his leash, he cornered himself in the surgical suite and stared. I’m sure he may have been terrified too, but he was perched to attack. Another Game of Thrones kind of stare. I had everyone quietly leave the room and close the door. I asked them to pass me the rabies pole through the door and dimmed the lights. I stood by the door, silent and motionless. After what seemed like an eternity, he began to prowl toward me. The rabies pole was around his neck and he was in a dog run. I’m not sure how I did this.

Then I peed my pants.

Zero Tolerance

I deeply respect my clients with difficult dogs who take the situation seriously. They seek help, work with the dog and always take the proper precautions. This takes great dedication and effort.

For clients who own “caution” dogs and don’t take it seriously, it is a very worrisome situation. If you are concerned that your dog may pose a threat to you or someone else, the best thing you can do is seek professional advice and training. We all should approach dog bites with a zero-tolerance policy.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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