How veterinary practices can support guide dog owners

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An accessible, local and caring veterinary practice is a critical element of every guide dog partnership. Guide dog owners rely on their guide dogs for their independence and freedom every single day – if ever their dog is unwell, has health problems, or is injured, they can’t work together.

We'd like to ask veterinary professionals to consider how they can make people with sight loss feel at ease when visiting, and ensure they're giving them support and advice tailored for their needs.

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Why it's important to assist a visually impaired client in your veterinary practice

Everyone at a veterinary clinic has the responsibility to ensure clients are catered for with compassion and dignity. In the case of someone with sight loss, there are simple steps and communication skills that can ensure a visit is smooth and a client feels involved and informed when it comes to their working dog’s health care and well-being. Taking this extra care and attention can help ensure a guide dog has a long and healthy working life, as well as a good quality of life in their well-deserved retirement.

Not only this, but a guide dog is as much a part of the family as a beloved pet is for pet owners; they're constant companion animals, and the bond runs deep. A guide dog in need of veterinary care can cause great distress on so many levels.

Before the veterinary appointment

First of all, make a note in the appointment diary that the client has a visual impairment, and ensure the veterinary team who will be at the appointment are aware ahead of time. Reception veterinary staff should watch out for the client’s arrival, to ensure they find their way, and introduce themselves, all while ignoring the guide dog. If the client has come alone, ask how they would like to be assisted – some may instruct their guide dog to follow the staff member and find them a chair, and some may ask to be guided by holding on to a staff member’s left elbow.

Many guide dog owners have some residual vision but not enough to get around safely without a service dog or some other mobility aid. It's perfectly acceptable to have social interactions to ask how much vision a person has, as this will influence how much support they need. Individual guide dog owners may require different levels of assistance, so always ask what they would like.

The waiting room

In the waiting room, find space for the client and their guide dog away from any other large or small animals. Being situated away from other animals, such as dogs and cats, is less distracting for assistance dogs, who are still ‘at work’ at this point. Assistance to find a seat in the waiting room and details of how long they may need to wait, and who or what else is in the waiting room may help the guide dog owner to orientate themselves and feel comfortable.

  • It's important to identify yourself and make sure the client knows that you are addressing them.
  • If guiding the client to a chair, tell them whether it has arms, and then place your guiding arm’s hand on the back of the chair. This will allow the client to feel down, find it for themselves and sit down.
  • Let the client know when you're leaving a room and when you return.
  • Let them know if there are any other people or animals in the room with them.

Veterinary consultation

When the vet is ready, approach the client and see if they need assistance to the consultation room. At the appointment itself, the option of having a chair in the consulting room is useful. Once a client is settled and aware of everyone in the room and where the consultation table is, the appointment can proceed. Always direct any questions to the guide dog owner themselves, even if they have a sighted family member or friend with them, as they're the primary carer.

When attending to a guide dog, it's valuable to describe what you're doing and seeing, talking through that you're checking the dog’s ears, for example, and explanations of decision making. This helps the client build a picture of what's going on. Describe any equipment you may be using and discuss and describe any paperwork and veterinary medicine thoroughly.

Touch is important to people with sight loss, so try where possible to make any demonstrations or explanations as tactile as possible. For example:

  • Allow a client to feel their guide dog’s leg as you flex and extend a joint so they can feel the stiffness they can’t see.
  • Add a piece of tape or a rubber band to a dosing syringe to show the volume of the medication.
  • Allow the client to feel the shape and size of different tablets if they have been given two or more medications and put them in packages of clearly different sizes or textures.

If in doubt, ask your client what works for them; many people with sight loss have devised inventive ways of accessing the world and can share their insights with you.

It's also critical to remember that guide dog owners, particularly if they live alone or with another blind or visually impaired person, may struggle to spot health concerns with their dogs that have visual symptoms. Common issues, such as skin conditions or slight limping, can be missed. The same can be said about monitoring a dog’s weight and diet – it can be more challenging for a guide dog owner to notice a gain or loss. A guide dog’s weight should be recorded at every visit; the nature of some of the breeds we use, combined with positive-reinforcement training, can mean an overweight guide dog is a reasonably common occurrence that should not be ignored.

Veterinary treatment

When working with guide dogs, it's important to be aware that they can be impacted differently by various treatments or surgeries when compared to a pet dog. Any ailment affecting the area where the guiding harness is fitted may mean it will have to have a break from work. A guide dog can't and shouldn't work if wearing a protective cone collar and needs a full 24-hour break from guiding if put under an aesthetic or given a sedative. Drugs that affect a guide dog’s mental state, such as tramadol or gabapentin, should not be given if the dog is expected to work. Treatment that affects a guide dog’s working ability should be discussed sensitively between the vet practice and the client, and as far in advance as possible, as this could affect how the client gets home and their routine for the coming days.

If the guide dog owner is required to administer treatment at home, please ensure that they're shown how to do so. All clients will have been taught how to give tablets, liquid medication, and ear treatment but they may not have practiced this for some time and may appreciate a refresher.

Post-veterinary visit

Make a note of the client’s communications preferences for their future appointments. Telephone calls, text messages, and emails are likely to be much more accessible than printed vaccination reminder cards or letters in the post.

Guide Dogs covers the costs of all of its working guide dogs, including veterinary bills, as a person’s financial situation should never be a barrier to having one. This means guide dog owners must contact their Dog Care and Wellbeing Specialist at Guide Dogs if their dog requires more than a routine consultation or treatment.