When you head to the veterinarian, you and your pet are likely both a little nervous. Whether it's for yearly vaccinations or to figure out why your furry best friend has been scratching or vomiting, you have to bring them in — and no one likes to be poked and prodded. By the time your vet appears in the exam room, you've both had time to worry about it and the doctor picks up on your combined nerves.
That's one of the reasons so many veterinarians will do an initial exam in the room while you're there, but will whisk your pet "to the back" for vaccinations, bloodwork and other procedures.
"Some pets are actually calmer when they are away from their owners, which makes it easier to perform exams or draw blood or administer a treatment," writes veterinarian Dr. Joanne Intile in PetMD. "This allows the veterinarian to accomplish tasks more efficiently and safely, reducing stress for the pets."
Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker agrees. "Your pet may actually be much more difficult (or even dangerous) to handle in your presence, either because he’s trying to protect you or is sensing your concern for him. For many pets, getting away from Mom or Dad and being handled by a confident, experienced, animal-loving veterinary technician means getting the procedure done faster and with less stress for everyone."
Especially if you happen to get a little queasy when it comes to medical procedures. If you get lightheaded while your pet is getting vaccinated or having blood drawn, no doubt he will pick up on that. And do you really want to see them getting a fecal sample or drawing a lot of blood (which they usually get from your dog's jugular)?
More room to work
In most veterinary clinics, "the back" refers to a large open area with access to surgical lights, equipment and more space to move around. It's a comfortable room where it's easy for vets and techs to work with your pet with all the tools they need close at hand.
"Exam rooms are generally smaller, with less room to maneuver, especially with the pet owner (or two, and sometimes children as well) taking up room without knowing the best place to stand or how to help — or even if (and when) staying out of the way is better," says Becker.
Often there are other staff members in the back who can offer an extra set of hands to help with restraining or calming your pet or getting equipment, medications or anything else that's needed.
In exam rooms, owners often insist on restraining pets themselves, but they aren't necessarily all that good at it. Owners have been bitten by their own dogs in exam rooms.
"Because veterinarians are liable for anything that happens to owners in the exam room, it's quite normal for them to discourage you from restraining your pooch when they have staff who are professionally trained to perform safe restraining techniques," writes behavior consultant and former animal hospital assistant Adrienne Janet Farricelli.
"Many years ago, I took my dog to the vet to have a painful wound cleaned. At first, I tried to help, but the vet said to me, 'Let me have my professionally-trained staff hold your dog for this procedure. We don't want him to associate this not-so-pleasant experience with you.'"
Less stress ... or not?
Although many vets will insist that pets pick up on their owners' stress, not all experts are convinced that dogs and cats are less likely to be anxious when we're with them.
Faricelli reflects on her own days working at an animal hospital. "The dog who I thought appeared to be 'calmer' when brought to the back room may have likely been frozen in fear instead," she writes. "Some dogs who initially tried to resist, and then appeared calmer afterwards, may have been a victim of 'learned helplessness.' This means that they simply gave up. Their behavior might be mistaken for 'behaving,' but, in reality, they are in a subdued state of stress and fear."
In the 2017 study, researchers in France assessed the behavioral and physiological responses in dogs while being examined by a vet. They found that signs of stress in dogs — which include an increased heart rate and lip licking — decreased when the owners stayed in the room, petting and talking to the dog during the exam. They also were less likely to try to jump off the exam table when the owner was comforting them.
The researchers concluded, "This study demonstrates that owner-dog interactions improve the well-being of dogs during a veterinary examination. Future research may assist in further understanding the mechanisms associated with reducing stress in dogs in similar settings.
If your vet takes your pet to the back and you aren't happy about it, talk about it. Your vet should be open to a discussion and should be able to give you a tour of the back so you can see what goes on back there. Either way, you'll get to stay in the room with your pet or you'll be more knowledgeable about where he goes when he's out of your sight.