Purrmission Granted: Asking Animals for Consent for Better Vet Visits
with Steve Dale
MVC 2024 Preview Series See All Episodes »
In the age of the Me Too movement, most people are well aware of the necessity of asking permission before touching another person. But why not apply that concept to animals as well? After all, animals have good and bad days. Sometimes they want to play and interact; other times they’d rather enjoy some alone time—just like humans. Implementing the same permission-seeking protocol with animals could have dramatic effects. The number of bite-related injuries would undoubtedly decrease. Behavior-related relinquishments would drop. And imagine how different veterinary visits could be, if pets could be trained to consent to treatment!
That’s exactly what certified animal behavior consultant Steve Dale reveals in this episode, the first in our 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference Preview Series. With his unique perspective bridging the gap between pet parents and veterinary professionals, Steve digs into the topics he’ll be discussing at the MVC, ranging from animal consent and behavior modification, to the evolution of pet ownership and the profound connections we share with our furry companions.
Self-professed “cat person” Steve Dale is a well-known pet expert, certified animal behavior consultant, and award-winning blogger who has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, National Geographic Explorer, Animal Planet Radio, and more. He writes for a variety of publications and speaks internationally on animal behavior and welfare topics. | Learn More »
Featuring 325+ hours of live and on-demand CE in 25 tracks, 100+ expert speakers, and nearly 200 exhibitors, the 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference is packed full of opportunities to learn and engage. Registration is now open!
Krysten Bennett: Steve, thank you so much for joining us today; we’re thrilled to have you.
Steve Dale: Happy to do it. It’s no problem.
Mia Cunningham: So for those in the veterinary pet care industry, your expertise is remarkably well-known, so we’re excited that we’ll have you speaking at the 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference. But for those of our listeners who may not be as familiar with your work, would you mind giving us a brief overview of your background and your experience in the industry?
SD: Well, I’m a certified animal behavior consultant, but what I think is most interesting and perhaps unique is that I have, on a daily basis, interactions with a wide variety of pet parents from all over the country, all over the world, really, because I host radio shows and because I’m on television and because of my blog, which creates interaction with people from all over. At the same time, I work with veterinary professionals and I speak at conferences—like this great conference that I have not been to in, I don’t know, since pre-pandemic sometime. Maybe 2016 or 17? So I’m so excited to come back.
But I’ve got one foot in the profession, if you will, and one foot on the pet parent side. And that’s, I think in part anyway, what makes me unique. For example—and I’m so honored to say this—I’ve contributed to veterinary textbooks, but at the same time, I’ve authored or coauthored books that are for the general public.
MC: Thank you. Now, before we get into your sessions, there are a couple more things that I want to know about you. One, where did your love of animals came from, and then two, what is your gripe with Christmas tinsel?
SD: (Laughs) The love of animals came from my father, I believe. So when we watched TV at that time—and I’m dating myself here; you will have no idea what I’m talking about—but we used to watch the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins. The host of that show was Marlin Perkins, who was a zoo director, who, incidentally, I later did get to meet, and the co-host of that show, Jim Fowler.
I haven’t thought about any of this in years! Jim Fowler would be the one in the field, and Marlin Perkins would famously say something—from a nice, warm, cozy studio—he would say, “And there is Jim now falling into the river! The crocodiles are eating Jim. And we’ll be back after this message from Mutual of Omaha.”
I mean, there was no Animal Planet at the time. That’s pretty much all there was, except an occasional National Geographic special. But my dad at one point wanted to be a zookeeper. And later in my life—I’m talking about when I was a kid, a young kid when I was watching these shows—but later in my life, I actually wound up working at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
MC: Wow. That’s cool.
SD: Now, about the tinsel? Yes, I do have a gripe with tinsel, and it ought to be banned. I don’t know how you know this, but you’re right about that. Too many cats—dogs on occasion, too—are so attracted by the movement, and it’s shiny. I mean, for a cat, something that moves and is shiny is something I want to play with and maybe swallow. And they do! And let’s get rid of tinsel. I will picket that any time. If you want me to picket on the street against tinsel, I am there. I’m your guy. I am.
MC: And I know that’s this is going to be for audio, but just so everyone can picture this: He’s sitting here with this recording with a “cat person” hat on, so it makes sense.
SD: Well, I’m proud to say I’m on the board, and have been for many years now, of the Every Cat Foundation, formerly the Wynn Feline Foundation. And this organization is, in some way, shape, or form, responsible for anything and everything all of you do for our cats, whether it be vaccines or treatments. Understanding diabetes, as one example; that was misunderstood for many, many years. And most recently, feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). And I’m proud to say I was the moderator of this meeting where this happened, the official rule change from FIP being fatal to treatable. It happened at the University of California, Davis, led by Dr. Niels Pedersen. There were tears in everyone’s eyes in the audience because, I mean, can you imagine? FIP, which was a death sentence for mostly kittens, now being treatable?
MC: That’s awesome—and another part of your legendary repertoire.
SD: Legendary? Kind of you to say, but I’m not so sure of that. I’d like to think I’m too young for that as well.
KB: I’m curious, how did you get from working at the zoo to where you are now, being a radio show host and a speaker and writer and all these other things that you do? It’s quite a big leap.
SD: Gosh. I’ll answer the best I can, but I’d so much rather talk about what I’m going to be talking about in Ohio!
KB: Well, we’ll get there soon, I promise!
SD: Okay. So, yes, I was at the zoo and it was a great experience, the details of which are kind of sad in a way. For example, one thing I did is what was called the Chimpanzee Tea Party at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Now, this never should have been done in the first place. But again, this was then. I was probably 20 years old at the time.
You know, what they did then, when there was a baby chimpanzee or gorilla—the two great apes at this particular zoo—they’d remove them from mom, thinking if they were raised in the children’s zoo, they’d be better off. I know that makes no sense, but back in the day, that’s what zoos did. What’s more, then they would use the chimpanzee—and “use” is probably the right word—in a performance before introducing the chimp, when it got too big and too strong, back to the group, which probably didn’t go well all the time. But again, it was a different era. I was the last person (to do it), and I’m glad they stopped it.
And I was, at the time, to do what was called the Chimpanzee Tea Party. So a chimpanzee named Chimmy the Chimp in my case would, with one finger, pull me on a Red Flyer wagon that I was sitting in, to the auditorium outdoors. And I would talk about chimpanzees, which was the good part of all this, for 5 minutes, maybe. Then we would sit and have a tea party. I don’t think they actually served us tea.
I don’t think it was alcoholic either. I don’t recall what it was. And then Chimmy would go, a keeper would take him away, and I’d bring out a ferret or something more appropriate—maybe a bunny rabbit or a boa constrictor. Something that was far more appropriate to talk about.
But I was glad they ended it. Lots of zoos did that, so I’m not blaming the Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s what was done back in the era, and that illustrates the differences, or some of them, between zoos today that now support wildlife studies and have and support researchers that are out in the field. Very, very different than what it was more years ago than I want to talk about.
KB: Interesting. Well, as you wish, we will now talk about your presentations at the MVC next February. So you’re going to be speaking in the animal behavior track on Thursday and Friday. And one of the things I noticed is that a common thread that runs through several of your sessions is this idea of consent. And that’s not just about getting the owner’s consent, but more importantly, the animals. So can you briefly explain this concept for our listeners?
SD: Of course. You know, since we’re talking about zoos… So if a Siberian tiger at a zoo, any zoo anywhere—and this happens on a daily basis!—can consent, voluntarily, to put a paw out for a blood draw, why can’t we do that with our cats, our domestic cats? And the fact is that we can. So in part, what I will be talking about is how consent, as it’s called—in other words, the animal participating voluntarily—so that whatever you need to do can happen. And that’s far better for everybody. It’s far better for the pet, obviously. But it’s also far better for the pet owner and for you and your own safety as a veterinary professional.
KB: The idea of training a tiger to stick out his paw for a blood draw is just bonkers. And, I mean, I think a lot of us can agree that that getting a cat to do anything is akin to training a cat to get the newspaper. So, can you talk a little bit about how that works, how the process of getting that consent begins?
SD: Well, it actually begins at home, to some extent. If we’re talking cats, that is teaching pet parents that they can do things like leave out the carrier all the time and how to drop treats into the carrier so it becomes an automatic food dispenser.
And incidentally, note that I said “pet parents.” Ten years ago, speaking at conferences, I said “pet owners” like everyone else. But today, that’s kind of the right word. Right? And I can talk about that at any point in time, that the human-animal bond is such, where millennials, particularly in Generation Z, their kids are their pets, quite literally, whether they have kids with two legs or not. And oftentimes they don’t. These days you have a more of a willingness, I think, among pet parents or pet owners to do these kinds of things.
So you leave out the carrier all the time, it becomes an automatic food dispenser, and then you take the cat around the house for a tour of your own house, unzip or unlatch the carrier and then feed the cat afterwards. So, being in it becomes a positive experience. And I can go on from there about carrier training and desensitization and counter conditioning to the carrier.
Back to what you were saying, though, it begins at home, because if the cat is so incredibly terrified, by the time the cat gets to your clinic and on that ladder of terror, if you will, it continues to grow. So in the house, the cat is chased around, stuffed into the carrier, screaming. It’s worse now on the car ride because the cat is even more terrified. And by the time the cat lands at your clinic—actually, I believe, and colleagues believe—in many cases that cat is actually probably thinking “I’m going to die,” quite literally. So you’re not going to get a cat to consent to anything under those circumstances except for the learned helplessness. So the cat actually can do nothing else—and is a good patient, in a way, I suppose. But that cat is so filled with terror. That’s not right. That’s not what any of us want. And it doesn’t have to go down that road. Instead, it can go down a completely different road. But what I’m trying to explain, is this all begins at home with pet parents. And now, interestingly enough, I’d argue for cats today even more than dogs, that pet parents are willing greatly to do what you’re asking them to do if they can understand it. And I’ll talk in part about how making all of that understandable.
MC: Kind of along those same lines, Steve, you mentioned the STOPP protocol as a part of getting consent from an animal. Can you clarify for our listeners just what the STOPP protocol is? Just kind of give us an overview?
SD: That’s in reference to dog bites, and it’s something new. So are you guys ready for this? I will be giving this talk for the first time—or maybe the second time by then. I think it’ll be the first time. And here’s how it all began.
First of all, let me back up a step, because it ties into what I was just talking about, about consent. I am a part of the Fear Free Advisory Board and also a supporter of Cat Friendly practices. And part of the reason why both of these initiatives, I believe, are so important and also so embraced now by pet parents is we have data, in fact, to demonstrate that—although anecdotally, I think most veterinarians would agree because it’s true with their own clients—that pet parents today are more interested and concerned about their pets’ emotional well-being than ever before. If they perceive that the pet is being handled poorly or treated poorly in any way whatsoever—which is why going “in the back” is more of a concern than ever before, because they don’t know what’s happening back there, right?—that they may not come to you any longer. Even a client that’s been coming for years, because the emotional connection and the concern about our pets’ emotions have increased compared to ten years ago.
Now, answering directly what you’re saying, what prompted me to reinvigorate this concern about dog bites—and it does tie in hugely to consent, so I’m glad you asked the question—is that, we know there are more dogs than ever before. We also know there are more dog bites than ever before. And according to the data that I’ve seen, although that data is different in different places, but what seems consistent is that the number of serious dog attacks exceeds the number of dogs, even through increased ownership. The number of dog bites is being overrepresented in the increase, and I’m talking about significant dog bites. A significant number of children are going to be bitten by their own dog or another dog at some point in their childhood.
Now, knowing that, here’s what occurred to me: The American Veterinary Medical Association and others for years have been supporting this idea that I’m about to explain, that everybody knows before you had a dog, ask the whoever’s with the dog and then pet the dog. We’re supposed to teach our children that. And we’ve known that from the time we were kids.
That’s excellent. I am not criticizing that. But what I am saying is, we have to do better. And what I thought about is this: Why aren’t we asking the dog? Because if the dog bites someone, which none of us want to see anyway, but if a client’s dog bites someone five miles from your clinic, that does matter to you. Because that dog may have to be relinquished. Also, that dog may never be looked at the same way. Dogs don’t get up in the morning saying, “I want to bite someone.” And these are not necessarily—though they can be—inherently, quote unquote, aggressive dogs.
So let me give an in-clinic example. Five people are holding down the dog for a blood draw. What is that dog feeling and thinking? Where are the cortisol levels? We actually know the answers to these questions now. And aggression begets aggression. So our aggression, if you will, toward that dog will make that dog more fearful in the next visit. This is almost all common sense, right? And if that is the case, it’ll take ten people to hold down that dog in the next visit.
What can we do so we don’t have to go that route? With what we know about behavior modification and the pharmaceuticals that can help us, we don’t have to go down that route.
A more simple example on the street is, let’s say you’re walking down the street and maybe you have a child with you or not; it doesn’t matter. You say to the dog’s owner, “Can I pet your dog?” And the dog’s owner says, “Sure, wonderful dog.” And it probably is. But the dog has its tail down—or it can be far more subtle. Maybe the dog is just stiffly looking the other way. That dog is saying, “I don’t want to be pet.” Now, does that dog necessarily respond with the dog bite? Of course not. But I also argue it’s a welfare issue.
So I am talking to you, Krysten. I’ve never met you in person. When I see you in person in Ohio, I run up to you, I grab you and I give you a great big hug. Okay? I’m thinking you’re not welcoming that by your response. What if, in fact, I’d never even talked to you or met you before?
We expect our dogs to respond in a welcoming way when that’s not fair. The dog may be in pain. The dog, I do believe, just like any of us, could be having a bad day for any number of reasons. And I’m not anthropomorphizing there. I don’t believe so, for two reasons, and I’ll talk about this in Ohio in a way that I have not even developed yet, to tell you the truth, because I’m still working on the talk. And I don’t believe that talk’s been given by anyone else.
Consent is a huge part of this. Let’s not automatically assume all dogs want to be touched. I’m not talking about in a veterinary setting, because you have to touch the dogs in a veterinary setting. I’m talking about in the real world.
MC: I’m learning so much, because I’m a pet parent and I’ve seen some of these things with my own dog. Something happened just the other day. We were out walking, and one of my neighbors was excited to see him, and Kobe just would not engage. And I’m like, “You go say hi.” And he was telling me like, “Mom, I don’t want to.” And I kept trying to force him to engage with my neighbor. I should have just left him alone. Now you’ve given me a different lens in which to, I think, appreciate him.
SD: Yeah, yeah. You know, anyone who does a behavioral consultation, you don’t need to see the behavior replicated. You don’t want to see an aggressive dog necessarily. You don’t want to have that animal practice the behavior. I wait till dogs or cats come to me, you know. And with cats, of course, an example is: You’re having a swanky dinner party. And I know you have those all the time! Next Thursday, you’re having another one, and you have 12 people over, including Aunt Zelda—you have an Aunt Zelda, right Mia?
MC: (laughs) Of course.
SD: And Aunt Zelda is the only one of their group who hates cats. Maybe she’s allergic. Maybe she just doesn’t like cats. She’s sitting in a corner. The cat wants nothing to do with anybody else except Aunt Zelda, right? I mean, we’ve all had that experience or have seen that happen. There are a variety of reasons. I don’t have time here necessarily to explain, but it is all about letting the animal make the decision. Let that animal decide, hey, I want to say hi.
MC: I’m sorry, Aunt Zelda, the cat’s saying hi to you.
SD: Aunt Zelda, of course, leaves your house and instead goes to Krysten’s house down the street where there are no cats, and she gets a free meal there.
KB: Crazy Aunt Zelda.
SD: She’s great. But yeah, she’s crazy.
KB: So as you mentioned earlier, pet ownership is on the rise, and we live in the era of pet parents and fur babies and owners who want their dogs to be on the same grain-free diet that they are. So that brings us to another common theme in your sessions, which is how the role of the pet has evolved in recent years, and how as a result, the human-animal bond has intensified. And one of your sessions poses an intriguing question: Is it possible to be over bonded?
SD: I don’t know that I want to answer that question right here, because I’d rather leave the teaser out there. What I like to do is give talks that others necessarily hadn’t thought about, and I don’t know that anyone else has giving that talk or not, but I think I was the first and still maybe the only. I don’t really know.
But I think it’s an important topic. I actually do serve on the board of the Human Animal Bond Association, and without the human animal bond, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. There would be no veterinary conference, there would be no veterinarians to have at a conference. So the human animal bond makes it possible. No one—I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican; I don’t know that any recent president of the United States has said, “You must have a pet!” It’s a decision we make, and it’s a decision we make because presumably we benefit by it. So I’ll talk about that a little bit. But I also want to talk about whether we can be over-bonded or not and what might that look like. And if true, are the pets paying a price? And I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, any more than that.
KB: Which means, listeners, you will have to come to the Midwest Veterinary Conference and attend Steve’s sessions!
SD: I will tell you, I’ve been to many regional conferences, and I miss your conference, because it’s the best—am I going to get in trouble now?—it is the best regional conference in the country.
MC: You will not get in trouble with us!
SD: Yeah. It’s what you guys do. And then I’m so excited that I also get to go to The Ohio State University. Dr. Lilly invited me to come and speak to students, which is an honor. I love doing that.
MC: I’m going to have to sneak into one of your sessions.
SD: Yeah, I hope so. And I’ll give you a great big hug.
KB: If I don’t get a hug, at this point, I’m going to be disappointed!
MC: So speaking of the conference, again, we run the gambit in terms of vet professionals who attend. With that in mind, like who do you see your core audience?
SD: Human beings? I am privileged, in my world—and I look at it this way, in all honesty—to speak at veterinary conferences all over the world. Why they keep asking for me, I don’t know. But I’m so lucky, because it’s my favorite thing to do, of all the things I do. And what I offer is not only some behavior expertise, but also a pet parent perspective. Because at the end of the day, because I’m not a veterinarian, I have a perspective that many other speakers don’t have, and hopefully I bring that as well.
Who is my audience? I love it when technicians are the bulk of my audience, because—and I say this before every talk, pretty much, and I mean it—without technicians, this profession would look so different. And I think that the general public, on one hand, has no idea about the services, the extent of what technicians can do and do. But frankly, within the profession, I think technicians are also under-appreciated. I am grateful for anyone coming to any of my talks, but particularly our technicians. I’m a huge fan.
KB: Awesome. Well, as we know, you have a big online presence. So for those listeners who want to connect with you prior to the conference, what are the best places to find you and get in touch?
SD: Thank you for asking that. So I’m at SteveDale.tv, and that is where you can read my blog. In addition to that, we have a kitten—well, not a kitten anymore; about a year and a half old at this point—named Groucho. Now, we were going to name the kitten Barney Fife, and if you ask me, I will explain why that didn’t work out. So we will wait until I get to Ohio for that. But if you’re on Tik-tok, you can go to @Groucho_thefunnycat. And in fact, you bet your life, Groucho is a funny cat.
KB: Love it.
MC: Well, before we let you go, can we take a quick photograph?
SD: Sure! I was the first one, I think, at a veterinary meeting—and now tons of people do this—to take selfies of everybody in the room.
KB: I hope you do that at Midwest!
SD: I will if the room is filled and it looks good.
KB: Well, we’ll do our best to make sure that that happens.
SD: Okay, then I’m going to do my best to take those selfies. I do all the time.
KB: All right. All right. It’s going to count down. Ready?
SD: I like that picture! Except I look too serious. I should have done what you’re doing.
KB: Do you want to do another one?
SD: Yeah, can we do another one? Now I’ll do what you guys are doing.
KB: All right, here we go.
SD: Wait, I’ve still got the Squadcast thing. I can’t see the count down!
KB: Uh oh, we missed it!
SD: I think you might have taken a picture of all that.
MC: Yeah. I wasn’t ready.
KB: I love it!
SD: Oh no.
KB: Okay, one more time. Third time’s a charm.
SD: Take three. Yes! … Oh no, it’s counting it down!
MC: That’s the one!
SD: Do other speakers do this?
KB: You’re the first one. I always forget about this feature. We should start doing this with everyone.
SD: I am the guinea pig.
MC: And you did good! Thank you.
KB: Yes. This has been delightful. So any time you want to come back on Fully Vetted, just let us know. We’d be happy to have you.
SD: I’m happy to do it any time you want.
KB: Awesome. And we might just take you up on that.
MC: Maybe something on site, too? I don’t know, maybe a little something while you’re there?
SD: Yeah, sure. You tell me where to go, and II’ll be there. And you won’t be the first to tell me where to go.
KB: Hopefully all the places you’ve been told to go were good?
SD: No, not at all!
MC: What is life about a little texture, you know?
SD: My wife tells me where to go on a daily basis. But that’s another story.
KB: Ah, marriage.
SD: I’m happy to do whatever you want.
MC: Thank you so, so much! Bye, Steve.