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How Scent Affects Patients and Clients in the Clinic

Susan M. Ewing

Both dogs and cats rely heavily on scent to interpret their surroundings while humans rely more on sight. Blindfold a human just before a visit to a doctor or emergency room, and the stress level would be higher than if the person could see, but most people would at least be able to hear and understand what was happening in the way of treatment. We can’t explain to our pets what is happening, or why they are in a hospital. Take away their sense of smell and you’ve taken away their ability to interpret their world, adding more stress to an already stressful situation. By understanding the effects of scents, you can help them stay calm.

Ban Bleach

No one intentionally stops a dog or cat from smelling, but disinfectants can do just that. Bleach and other disinfectants with a harsh odor can make a pet “nose blind,” creating stress when they try, and fail, to learn about their environment. In one study, “Minimising Stress for Patients in the Veterinary Hospital: Why It Is Important and What Can be Done About It” (published online in Veterinary Sciences, April 13, 2017), lead author Janice K.F. Lloyd cites Karen L. Overall, VMD, in the Manual of Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats: “A solution of bleach, even as low as 1 percent, can destroy olfactory neurones, resulting in a loss of information and heightening anxiety.”

While disinfecting is essential, using one that doesn’t have a harsh odor may help to lessen the negative effect on a pet’s nose. At Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee, Kathryn Primm, DVM, uses Rescue disinfectant, a hydrogen peroxide product with little odor, which also dries quickly.

Scents From Other Animals

When pets are able to smell, identifying stress in other animals can increase their own level of stress. Secondarily, humans may also experience some stress when smelling clinic odors. Most pets are quick to respond to their owners’ emotions, and if that emotion is stress, it’s going to affect the pet.

“When we have bad odors suddenly, like anal glands,” says Dr. Primm, “it is critical that they be cleaned and deodorized completely, or they will cause fear in all the pets that perceive them.” For those kinds of odors, Primm uses K.O.E. (Kennel Odor Eliminator) by Thornell, a product that quickly eliminates odors and comes in a concentrate, a spray, and individual wipes.

Sometimes, when possible, opening a window can help. Many pets will become distracted from their environment as they process scents from outdoors. Synthetic pheromones may also help to calm a dog or cat. Plug-in pheromone diffusers may reduce stress in a waiting room, and doctors or technicians can spray their clothes with the pheromones. Use diffusers or sprays with caution around birds and fish.

Many people appreciate the calming effects of lavender and chamomile, and both of these scents seem to calm pets, too. Be careful how you use them, though. Certain diffused essential oils can cause some respiratory distress in cats so use them with caution, and alert clients to the risks of active diffusers in the home to pets.

With so many pets depending on their noses for information, it makes sense to pay attention to scents.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.