The more positive experiences your exotic pets have with veterinary medicine, the more Fear Free we can make your pet’s visit! There are even more behaviors you can work on at home to help your pets be prepared for a veterinary exam. We will build on some of the training strategies we discussed in our previous blog post, Getting your Exotic Pet Acclimated to a Scale.
After we weigh them on the scale, our next step may be to wrap your exotic pet in a towel to keep them safe and secure for their exam. For our avian patients, beaks and nails can not only injure our staff, but injure the pet themselves! And our rabbit patients are more delicate than you would expect; they can severely injure themselves with a big enough kick if we don’t keep their rear legs tucked in tight in their towel. Acclimating your pet to towel handling before their exam can be a fun and rewarding experience at home.
As with the scale, we want to desensitize the pet to the presence of and contact with the towel. Placing it in or near their enclosure is a great start! You can also leave treats or feed meals on the towel so the animal creates a positive association. Next, while your pet is touching the towel, try to shift the towel slightly or fold the edges up. This helps the animal become acclimated to the towel moving and bunching while being held. Don’t rush these steps; it’s okay if it takes several weeks of short training sessions to desensitize your pet to towels. As your pet becomes more and more comfortable with towels, you can try playing with the towels, such as creating tunnels for the animal to climb through or making a tent for the animal to hide under. You can see examples of these and other fun ideas here:
Another item we may use in the veterinary field is an oral syringe to deliver medications. Depending on the situation, you may even need to use an oral syringe to deliver medications at home as well, so teaching your pet to take food or treats from a syringe can be helpful for both doctor and client!
While some medications can be mixed into foods like human baby food or oatmeal to disguise the flavor, some medications must be given orally. We will start out similarly to desensitization for other objects: your pet should be able to see and touch the syringe on their own terms until your pet is comfortable and does not show any negative feelings towards the object. Placing food or treats on or near the syringe can help to create positive associations before we start our hands-on work with the object.
The next step will be encouraging gentle contact with the syringe without biting. This can be accomplished by holding a treat or food item in one hand while slowly bringing the syringe closer to your pet’s mouth. Ideally, you can keep the syringe far enough away for the animal to gently touch the tip of the syringe with its tongue or nose. Upon touching the syringe, immediately reward with food or treat to reinforce the behavior.
Once this behavior is well tolerated, you can try offering drops of water or soft foods on the tip of the syringe. While the water or food may be desirable, continue to offer a food or treat reinforcement after your pet exhibits the requested behavior. Gradually begin to practice depressing the plunger on the syringe a little at a time so your pet gets used to the movement of the syringe.
If these training sessions are going well, you can continue by filling the syringe with palatable fluids such as juices to practice receiving medications from the syringe. To take the training even further, very slowly add in unpleasant flavors such as apple cider vinegar (but always generously reinforce with a treat or food item afterward!) to acclimate pets to less palatable medications. Maintenance of this behavior could be as easy as offering different liquids from a syringe once a week!
Teaching these behaviors can feel too overwhelming, but training sessions are a great way to bond with your pet. Keep in mind, also, that we here at East Bend Animal Hospital are happy to guide and support you and your pet to help you both have a more Fear Free visit!
Written by: Lindsay Magill
Avian Fear Free Certification Module 7