By MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

Like most veterinarians, I genuinely love animals, but the sad fact is that not all of my patients love me back. For every pet that greets me with a wagging tail and happy kisses, I get at least one who gives me side-eye and a stony expression. I can’t blame them, of course. I invade the personal space of every one of my patients when I do a physical exam, and further indignities and discomforts come with almost everything I do. Some patients take it all cheerfully, others tolerate it, and then there are those who put a furry foot down and say, “No way.”

This is where muzzles come in. Some dog owners find muzzles scary. They can look like torture devices, although they don’t actually hurt the dog, and it is possible to buy cute ones. Dogs dislike the muzzle, and owners find this upsetting. “Why do you need to muzzle my dog?” they sometimes ask. “He’s not going to bite you! What kind of veterinarian is afraid of dogs?”

Well, it’s like this. I’m not afraid of dogs; if I were, I couldn’t do my job. I do, however, have a certain respect for what their teeth can do. It’s born of seeing many a dog bite injury in my career: many of them on my patients, some on my co-workers, and a few on myself. Our furry best friends come with teeth that were designed to cut and crush flesh, and they’re pretty good at it. Big dogs of course can be more dangerous, but size doesn’t always matter. Almost any dog can, if motivated, give me an injury that will put me out of work for months.

What are the odds that any particular dog will bite? Unfortunately, that dog’s owner isn’t always the best person to make that prediction. Dogs that are angels at home with their people sometimes make bad choices when they’re in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, feeling threatened, or cornered or in pain. Some dogs will even bite their owners when they’re at the vet’s office. In this game, there are no bonus points for doing things the reckless way so I prefer to err on the side of safety.

Placing a muzzle on an uncooperative dog can actually make the process of providing veterinary care easier on the patient. It isn’t immediately obvious that this would be true, but it is true. Some dogs, when muzzled, just freeze. You have seen this phenomenon in action if you have ever seen a rowdy puppy annoying an older dog until the adult has to give the pup a correction; they do this by taking hold of the pup’s muzzle to make it stop misbehaving. In the same way, some dogs, when muzzled, seem to get the message that it’s time to stop snapping and struggling. That means I can do my job quickly and thoroughly rather than having a prolonged wrestling match that’s far more upsetting to the patient than whatever it was I was trying to do in the first place. Of course, the process works best if the dog is muzzle-trained, and I encourage every dog owner to do so.

But even or especially in patients that won’t give up resisting, a muzzle ultimately reduces the risk of anyone getting bitten. And while I selfishly want to keep my skin intact, I also want to avoid bites for the dog’s and the owner’s sake. Wisconsin state law is quite strict on the subject of dog bites. Any medical care provider who treats a person that was bitten by a dog is legally required to report the bite to the authorities, and the dog is then subject to rabies quarantine. This is expensive for the dog’s owner and means extra visits to the veterinarian’s office for the dog that didn’t enjoy going in the first place. If the dog dies or is euthanized for any reason before the end of the quarantine period, its body must be tested for rabies, a process that can also be expensive for the owner.

Of course muzzles aren’t the only tool I have to keep teeth off skin. I rely on my expert staff to distract and safely restrain pets, and I use all my training and experience to make veterinary care as painless and reassuring as possible for the patients. But there are times when a muzzle is the right choice, and then I don’t hesitate. It’s for everybody’s protection.

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