I’m going to muzzle your pet, and I don’t feel bad about it: You shouldn’t either

As a veterinarian I get to experience the whole gamut of animal behavior throughout each day. I may start the day with a cute new puppy that has never been to the vet and only wants to play. Later that same day, I may get an adult dog that hasn’t been to a veterinarian since birth, much less received any sort of training or socialization Finally, we may see a dog who, outside of the clinic is the friendliest dog in the world, but who is so terrified of me that they begin to act in a way their owners have never seen- lashing out in fear driven aggression. Each interaction is a little different, sometimes the dogs that have never been to a vet are the friendliest patients; and sometimes the puppy is so scared they will barely tolerate an exam. Veterinarians see dozens of patients a day, hundreds per week and thousands per year so eventually we develop some level of ability to read animals’ behavior and nonverbal cues. These nonverbal cues are important to assessing the need to change something about the exam, such as getting additional help or muzzling the pet.

As I’m sure most everybody is familiar with, a muzzle is a cloth device that goes around the snout of the dog and clips behind their ears. Many pets, especially those with long snouts, can actually still bite with a muzzle on. However, it prevents full opening of the mouth and therefore prevents the most severe types of dog bites that result in veterinarians or technicians having to make a trip to their human doctor. Bites from dogs wearing muzzles usually come from using their front teeth, or their incisors, which results in a much less severe bite wound.

The muzzle is far and away the most reliable way to prevent a serious dog bite if a dog is showing signs of agitation, fear, or aggression. Dogs have many nonverbal cues that they may exhibit and some verbal ones too. For instance, dilated, wide eyes and pinned back ears are a sign of significant fear which can be a first warning that a dog may be getting ready to bite or snap. Smiling, or curling of one of the upper lips over the large canine teeth, is another strong nonverbal cue. Growling is a verbal cue that is often times your final warning. If a dog begins growling, as a general rule, my technicians and I need to stop what we’re doing and reassess our plan. If we already placed a muzzle, then we may need to exercise better physical restraint over the patient. If we had chosen to try the exam without a muzzle, it is time to get one.

A muzzle should not be taken as a personal insult. I am not muzzling your pet because I feel that you did a bad job training them. I am muzzling them because a dog bite can not only be fatal, but it can also end the career of my technicians or myself. For instance, a bite to the hand or arm could permanently damage ligaments or tendons that I use every day during general examinations and more complex procedures like surgeries.

I repeatedly have people question whether their dog, “really needs a muzzle?” Well, if I am concerned for the safety of my team or myself, then the answer is yes. I am not going to allow myself, my technician, or you get bitten just to spare your feelings. Dogs don’t mind muzzles if we are being honest; surely, they aren’t their favorite things, but they are not painful, and usually are on for just a brief period.

A quick side note here – cloth muzzles should absolutely never be left on for long periods of time. Basket muzzles are larger muzzles (similar to what the dog is wearing in the cover photo) that won’t go as far at preventing a bite, but they allow dogs to eat, pant, and drink through the muzzle. These can be worn for longer periods of time with less concern. Cloth muzzles prevent bites, but do not allow any of these other activities and they can be dangerous if used improperly, even resulting in overheating and sometimes death. If you are interested in a muzzle for your dog for personal activities, a basket muzzle is what you will be looking for. But, as always, consult your Veterinarian first!

Beyond the most obvious reason for muzzling (the safety of everybody in the room), behind the scenes there is significant liability associated with interacting with your pet. While most people believe their pet would never bite them, the reality is that the pet probably would if something hurt or scared them enough. The responsibility for a bite that occurred because a muzzle wasn’t placed would fall directly onto the veterinarian as the “expert” in the room. Should a patient bite their owner while I am evaluating the animal, then I am directly liable for that bite. Therefore, I, or my practice, have the potential of being sued for negligence. So, while the law is probably not on the list of main reasons for the veterinarian requesting to muzzle your dog, it is still certainly a factor.

One of my biggest pet peeves is having to argue about muzzling a dog. I stress again, that I never muzzle because I am judging the owner. Muzzling is for my own safety. Muzzling is for my technicians’ safety. Muzzling is for the owner’s safety. Often times, I have to do things that hurt animals, like look into an infected ear canal. This puts my face literally inches from their teeth. Why wouldn’t I muzzle them? I don’t always need to, but it is an important step when I receive cues that worry me a bite may be imminent. Nobody’s dog bites until they do. It only takes one bite to potentially end my career, damage me permanently, or send me to an urgent care.

Okay, I’ll get off of my soapbox a little. Let’s use these analogies to try to help make sense of why I feel this request is so frustrating.

If you went to a construction site, would you automatically assume that everybody in hard hats didn’t trust the crane operator? Would you feel that all the workers on the ground judged who trained the crane operator? Would it make sense to think that they were inadequately trained? No, it’s a simple protective step to help prevent serious injury. They don’t try it first without the hard hats then put them on only if somebody gets hit in the head.

Or let’s say for example that you work as a chef. You spend all your working hours in a hot kitchen surrounded by stove tops, fryers, and any number of cooking devices depending on your restaurant type. Now, your boss says it is fine for you to use an oven mitt when you feel it’s necessary; however, the customer has requested that you try cooking without one first. They feel that the temperature they’ve requested their meat to be cooked to should not be harmful to your skin. Would you feel obligated to oblige this, or would you recommend you do what is safest for you? I assume it would be the latter option.

Or, in a different life, you’re a carpenter. You cut pieces of wood daily and assemble them to be whatever the client desires. Presumably you wear eye protection each time you cut the wood. Imagine a client requests you to not wear goggles when assembling their order because they feel their wood is unlikely to send splinters into the air. Would you take this risk? No, you would respectfully tell them that your eyes are imperative to your job and so you are going to wear them because it takes one splinter to prevent you from finishing the task they’ve requested.

I get that these examples sound silly, but if you think about it, they are the same. All a muzzle is doing is promoting a little workplace safety for the veterinarian and their staff. It is also preventing you from getting bitten by accident if your pet gets scared or hurt. Look, I understand that everyone wants their dog to behave well and be loved by everybody, but you need not worry. We are going to love and care for all animals that come to us with all of our hearts, even if they need to wear a, “party hat,” to keep them honest during their visit.

I hope that this sheds a little light onto what’s going on in your Veterinarian’s head when we inform you that we are going to muzzle your little fluff ball. I also hope that you all understand why I started the article the way that I did. I’m going to muzzle your dog, and I’m not sorry about it. I don’t care about protecting your feelings in this moment, because I’m trying to protect you and me. I went to eight years of school to become a Veterinarian; I don’t want to quit being one anytime soon. Thanks for reading!

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

2 Replies to “I’m going to muzzle your pet, and I don’t feel bad about it: You shouldn’t either”

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