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Negative associations may undermine our pets’ relationships

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01 August 2015, at 12:00am

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI looks at the situations that can arise when animals may prefer one gender to another in certain circumstances but not in others, and how veterinary practices can deal with these

RETURNING to your roots is always interesting. It was with a sense of excitement therefore that I recently revisited the veterinary college where I spent six formative years.

Outside, little had altered. Neither, despite modernisation, was there any significant difference in the building within. A change though was discernable in the faces encountered and the facilities available to the students.

Gone were dreary common rooms; in had come a light, airy café-meeting area, gyms and dedicated union offices while for spiritual guidance a ladies loo had morphed into a chaplaincy.

Most strikingly, however, all the other “comfort stations” are now unisex in nature – a practical solution reflecting the radical change in the male:female ratio of the student body which, of course, has had a knockon effect on the public profile of our profession.

Times have certainly changed

Forty years ago an owner could sometimes consult a woman in a white coat but often it was far from easy to find one and few clients had much choice if they didn’t warm to the available female.

More significantly, if they did, when she was absent or if their pet, for whatever reason, “took against” the individual, they were stuck with seeing a man. This was probably quite an important, if unrecognised, issue.

Many pets are most comfortable with people of one sex or the other. Such a predisposition may relate to early socialisation, aversive experiences, temperament and general anxiety or simply the composition of the household in which they currently reside and the people with whom they are most familiar.

If when encountering professionals of “the other sex” they also find the veterinary experience generally intimidating and stressful, it can make handling them additionally challenging. As we all know, this may affect the way we manage such animals, investigate conditions, interpret blood results and even limit what we are able to use when treating identified diseases.

Therefore, it is an aspect of veterinary care that matters. Not only that: what happens in the clinic, especially when a pet suffers persistent poor health or prolonged intensive treatment, can also transfer to the home, affecting behaviour and most importantly relationships.

Consequences can be significant

Everyone is hopefully now aware that particular care and specific, wellinformed advice is critically important in multi-pet homes when one animal is receiving veterinary attention, especially if hospitalisation is involved. What we are perhaps not talking about enough is the potential influence on the patient of the sex of those involved in that care.

This was brought home to me by a case involving a “rescue” cat and a caring, childless young couple. It was a rather peculiar placement for a cat that had been living rough in a business’s yard, as his new circumstances imposed an indoor-only lifestyle in a far from spacious flat. In addition, he had arrived with a paralysed tail and badly burnt feet, presumably the result of contact with a hot vehicle engine.

Not a straightforward situation, and by the time of the consultation many weeks down the road, a great deal was going on in behavioural terms. What this poor chap did have in his favour was his intense but positive relationship with his new owners, who were prepared to fund whatever it took to rehabilitate him in every sense, and a veterinary surgery where the staff were prepared to “go that extra mile” to help achieve their aim.

The months of surgery and dressing changes were, however, taking their toll. This initially amiable pet was, perhaps unsurprisingly, now becoming increasingly grumpy.

His interactions with the wife, a recent arrival here, who was at home for much of the time, were particularly unpredictable. Consequently, concerns were growing that longer term the situation was simply not viable; a negative outcome would by this time be an all-round tragedy.

We learn from experience

There was inevitably much to consider and the behaviour consultation, though ultimately worth every second, quickly became a marathon. Some basic education with regard to feline behaviour and general husbandry was necessary with emphasis placed on the stresses imposed on indoor cats and the importance of environmental enrichment and interactional style.

However, unsurprisingly perhaps, in this particular case one really significant issue was the prolonged period when medication was required; frequent trips to the clinic for dressing changes, which understandably the cat had not enjoyed, were also involved.

All the home care fell to the wife and it was she who took him for treatment while female nursing staff almost exclusively dealt with his surgery aftercare. No wonder women were now increasingly repelled by this otherwise sociable cat – attack being the best form of defence and all that!

Clients and colleagues who throw themselves into any behaviour programme with gusto are always a joy. Not only that, serendipitously there was a male nurse at the clinic – another benefit of the changing sex ratio in the veterinary world.

The action plan

Complete reversal in terms of the good and bad things in this cat’s life combined with greater understanding and the agreed management regime was immediately instigated.

The husband took over medication duties at home, the wife becoming associated only with food, play and gentle, non-intrusive exchanges that were always controlled by the cat, not somewhat “needy” humans.

At the clinic females took a back seat with the cat treated in different rooms in the hope of also reducing any negative associations with previously used areas.

Fortune smiled

And teamwork triumphed. However, this case does highlight an important issue. How often when treating patients and discussing home care do we consider who is actively involved or what potentially harmful, but sometimes avoidable, associations are developing from our well-intentioned interventions?

Happily if we do, the last few decades of change in our profession’s gender profile have significantly improved our chances of taking action.

Now as well as appropriately advising clients, many of us also have the opportunity “to better match” veterinary personnel and patients, hopefully to the benefit of all concerned.