safety first: the case for muzzling your pet at the vet

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jul 24 2013

As much as I hate to acknowledge it, I know that for many pets, coming to see me at the clinic is really at the bottom of their list of things they love doing. Now, I really do think that some dogs LOVE to visit their veterinarian’s office, as evidenced by the huge smile on their faces when they walk through the door. But for some dogs, a trip to the doctor can be quite an anxiety-ridden experience.

I try not to be offended by looking at it from their point of view. They were at home, enjoying a nap on the couch, when all of a sudden they’re loaded up and driven to a place that smells weird where strangers come at them with thermometers, stethoscopes, needles, and prodding fingers! It must feel a little like an alien abduction to them.

When confronted with scary situations like this, it is natural for dogs to be anxious. When our pets feel threatened, it takes a mountain of restraint for them to keep their cool. And for some dogs, it’s impossible. Super anxious dogs will snap and bite to try to protect themselves from perceived threats, even if the threat is only just trying to keep them healthy!

Animal bites are an occupational hazard for veterinarians and their staff, but one we do our best to minimize. We can usually recognize the warning signs – a curled lip, low growl, ears back – before it escalates to a dog bite situation. In these cases, using a muzzle is the best way to continue with the exam.

A muzzle is a soft, fabric restraint device that fits over your dog’s nose and mouth with straps that clip together at the back of his or her head. The muzzle will be snug, but not tight, and it doesn’t cause any pain or discomfort. Immediately after putting the muzzle on your pet, he may struggle to try to remove it. But generally when he realizes that it’s not coming off, your pet should settle down for the duration.

I love using a muzzle on dogs that may potentially bite because it allows me to do my job better. I no longer have to worry that the side-eyed look your dog is giving me may turn into a bite attempt. I am free to focus 100% of my attention to the physical exam I am performing on your dog.

And believe it or not, many dogs seem to relax when the muzzle is put on them. Remember back from the blog on compulsive behavior when I discussed your dog’s conflicted feelings? Well, it comes into play here. Your dog likely knows that he’s not supposed to bite people because he’s been trained not to. But if I make him feel threatened, he really WANTS to bite me, even though he knows he shouldn’t. These conflicted feelings resolve when the muzzle physically prevents him from biting.

Most veterinarians don’t just use muzzles willy-nilly. We generally reserve them for animals that we think pose a threat to us or our staff. Just because Rufus has never bitten at home, it doesn’t mean that he won’t try to bite us during an exam or procedure. If we suggest a muzzle for your dog, please don’t be offended. We are doing it for the safety of everyone in the room, including you. If you know that your dog may try to bite at the veterinarian’s office, or if he has a history of biting, it’s a good idea to invest in a muzzle that you can apply yourself before you come in.

We love seeing your pets, and we want them to love us, too. If you’re out and about with your dog, consider dropping by your vet’s office just for a “happy visit.” Stop in, have the staff give pets, praise, and treats, and then be on your way. It’s good to have your pet associate the clinic with fun times instead of stressful times!