By Kim Everson, DVM
I have only been solidly bitten twice. On the hand each time. And it was definitely my fault! My fault for being rushed, not paying attention to my patient’s body language and not following the basic rules of safe conduct with animals. People often assume veterinarians get bitten by their canine patients on a regular basis. I can’t speak for all of my colleagues, but getting bitten is actually a relatively rare and seriously embarrassing mistake. Because a veterinarian’s interaction with animals inherently involves some degree of discomfort — after all injections can sting no matter how much peanut butter you spoon into a puppy — the assumption that our patients want to bite us is not unfounded.
Interestingly, this summer I experienced the flip side of this assumption — that a desperate animal instinctively knows the veterinarian in the crowd is the best chance for aid and will seek her out. This warm and fuzzy theory may seem a little far fetched, but when you read about my adventure on Abbey Road in London, you’ll see there may be some truth to it and for the same reason veterinarians are bitten less frequently than some would think.
I feel sorry for the Londoners who live in the Abbey Road neighborhood. The iconic Beatles album cover depicts a quiet crosswalk on a tree-lined street which may have been true at one point. Now, however, the intersection throngs with an international mob all dashing dangerously into the busy street to pose on the crosswalk as traffic not-so-patiently waits to get where its going (frankly I would avoid driving this route at all costs if I was a Londoner). What’s worse you have competing picture takers coming and going on the crosswalk simultaneously forcing tourists to try again and again to recreate the iconic long-legged Beatles pose.
I was one of these foolhardy tourists, and sorry to admit that several attempts to recreate that image failed to produce a worthy picture. Abandoning what was obviously a futile task, my attention turned to watching other tourists play the game, heart in my throat as cars swerved and honked. As I admired one particularly patient and cocky group of be-ribboned women in flowing hippie clothes capture the moment, the babel of voices around me clarified into a clear message: “It’s a lost dog! Someone catch that little lost dog!”
Standing on the edge of Abbey Road, I noticed the sea of people shifting and sighing like a flock of starlings moved by an invisible force running along the ground. Suddenly my own cluster of friends became agitated as a frantic little grey poodle popped out at our feet. One after another of my traveling companions leaned over in an attempt to grab the poodle’s collar, which was met with a ear-splitting squeal and gnashing teeth. I had a horrible premonition of spending part of our whirlwind European tour in a hospital with a companion getting rabies inoculations and nursing a bite wound. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Everything that happened next occurred quickly and without conscious planning. As the dog barked and whirled around menacingly at his would-be rescuers, I crouched down on the curb facing away from the dog. I think I mainly wanted to keep the poodle hemmed in a bit and out of the street. And I started looking for something to use as a lasso or leash — detachable purse strap? tour company neck lanyard? As I crouched there the poodle continued to edge away from the eager towering strangers nearer and nearer to me and the road. Suddenly, I found myself with a grey poodle in my lap! Like a flash, the dog had leapt into my arms. I think he was as surprised as I was.
Picking up a terrified animal can be dangerous. Holding onto such an animal much less so. Now that I had the little dog in my arms, I hugged him securely to my chest keeping his head secured in the crook of my elbow to prevent his turning to bite me or another person. At this point, the Hippie Women had meandered over, and I was inspired. “Can I have one of your ribbons?” I panted. “For a leash?” Happy to help, one lady tied an end of her ribbon to the poodle’s collar, but before we even had time to look at his tags a new commotion started at the edge of the crowd.
“Toby!? Toby!? That’s my dog!” a woman with a London accent shouted. The crowd parted helpfully and I stood rather awkwardly in front of her with a wriggling, squealing poodle clutched to my bosom. As I gladly thrust the creature into his tearful owner’s arms, my friends declaimed loudly and repeatedly, “Don’t worry, she’s a veterinarian!”
My head spinning and heart pounding as I began to process the part I had played in this drama, I listened to the woman’s story of elderly Toby’s escape from a nearby apartment and her search for him. She had followed his heart-wrenching screams to Abbey Road. My companions — animal lovers all, of course — volunteered theories of how I had “captured” Toby. The conclusion was that he had chosen me because he must have known I would help him; he must have sensed I was a veterinarian!
As much as the compliments warmed me, I knew there was more to the dog’s behavior than simply sensing my profession. The interested bystanders melted away, and Toby and his grateful owner turned toward home. Likewise, my companions and I began a pleasant evening stroll back to our hotel. I replayed the exciting events in my mind. Everything had happened so quickly, and I had acted on instinct. But in my mind’s eye I have since been able to parse out the pivotal moments of the incident, and they are absolutely textbook for safe animal handling.
There is a popular movement in companion veterinary medicine called Fear Free that strives to use proper handling to reduce stress and fear in dogs and cats receiving veterinary care. I’m proud to say my professional interest in creating a safe environment for pets, owners and veterinary staff started long before there was a catchy name for the philosophy. Using strategies developed by the late Dr. Sophia Yin, my veterinary practice has its own program (#CalmAtTheClinic) that is apparently a muscle memory.
Here’s why a desperate lost poodle literally jumped into my arms when given the choice of numerous rescuers:
- People are tall, loud and scary. The excited would-be rescuers on Abbey Road were shouting, moving rapidly and leaning over the poodle. Leaning down over a dog is very threatening to them. Leaning over and snatching at a dog is seen as doubly aggressive. A dog has two options in this position — fight (bite) or flight.
- Grabbing a dog’s collar is also threatening and puts your hands uncomfortably close to their best defensive weapon, their teeth. Even a pet dog can resent being grabbed and moved by their collar. (In fact, one of the two bites I received was because I carelessly grabbed a kenneled patient’s collar in order to remove her from the kennel for a toilet break. A caged, scared dog grabbed by the collar is a dangerous dog. Distracted and hurried, I paid for my mistake with a nice scar on my wrist.)
Without even realizing it, I provided the otherwise friendly but desperately scared poodle his best option in a sticky situation. I crouched down on his level. I faced away from him in the least threatening way possible, as though I didn’t care he was there. I did not grab at his collar. As an older, beloved pet dog Toby had a basic understanding that humans can offer security. Ultimately, he did not choose me because I was a veterinarian. He chose me because I was the least threatening human who might offer him safety. But then again maybe that’s the same thing.
And maybe it’s no coincidence that a shining moment of Fear Free veterinary care should take place on Abbey Road. After all “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”