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What Is Cooperative Care in Veterinary Medicine?
Published: February 23, 2022

Rachel Lees LVMT, KPA CTP, VTS (Behavior), FFCP (Veterinary)

Animal behavior is a crucial aspect of veterinary care.  Whether your pet has pain or just “ain’t doing right,”  the pet’s behavior, body language, and overall demeanor is part of obtaining a thorough and precise physical examination.  Without this type of examination, symptoms and diagnoses may be missed that could make or break the treatment plans.  Without the ability to communicate, the pet may panic causing increased fear, stress, aggression, and anxiety that is associated with handling and restraint. When the veterinary staff is unable to successfully examine or handle a patient, it becomes a quality-of-life concern as the veterinary team cannot provide medical care. Observing behavior is an important part of every pet’s visit.  Staff should discuss behavioral concerns with you and give options for how they will make your pet’s visit as enjoyable as possible.   

Making Cooperative Care the Standard of Care for Each Patient 

Veterinary behavior professionals are often asked how veterinary staff can start using these techniques while keeping things straightforward.  Behavior medicine starts with opening the eyes of the veterinary team to “see” behavior.  Once you visualize a patient’s aggression as fear, stress, or anxiety, you cannot un-see it.  Implementing cooperative care techniques in practice is also a huge change for clinics.  Programs such as Low Stress Handling® and Fear Free® have created membership programs for individuals and teams to create a more behavior friendly atmosphere using special techniques such as towel wraps and minimal restraint methods.

You may notice food is often used during veterinary visits as a distractor. When using this method, it is important that the food be given just before the procedure begins. If your pet stops eating, then the team should stop and assess the emotional state of your pet. The goal is to make sure your pet always associates a positive experience with what’s happening. Sometimes other reinforcers are used such as play, scent, toys, petting, etc. depending on what your pet prefers. This method helps to prevent fear and anxiety but if your pet is already afraid at the clinic these distractors may not be enough. Cooperative care may be the next step needed to help your pet.

Cooperative care provides your pet with an opportunity to opt in or out of a procedure, communicating their consent to treatment. An example of this would be teaching a dog to go to a mat for handling. In training sessions, the pet learns that when they move to their mat, handling will happen.  Therefore, if the dog chooses to go to the mat, they are giving consent to touching.  This teaches them that if they are uncomfortable, they can simply opt out by moving off the mat. They do not need to go to extremes such as biting to stop the handling. Another example is an offered chin rest to allow eye drops, ear cleaning, or nail trims.

Cooperative care is not just limited to the veterinary clinic. Teaching your pet other behaviors to participate in husbandry procedures such as grooming, nail trims, topical monthly flea treatments, eye medicating, etc. can also be done. A cat that voluntarily enters a carrier on cue is easier to take anywhere and less stressful for all. Learning how to prevent certain stressors at the clinic and at home will help your pet accept procedures.

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