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Why Do Vets Take Cats "Into the Back"? What Happens There?

Cats may be taken to "the back" for the safety of the cat, the vet, or the owner -- and vets might get sued if they don't!

 |  May 28th 2013  |   62 Contributions


The overwhelming majority of veterinary practices are divided into three areas. You'll be familiar with the waiting room and reception, where you check in for appointments and wait to go into one of the exam rooms. Speaking of exam rooms, you're also familiar with the area where they are located. But there is another area -- one that sparks curiosity and interest in some, and fear in others: "the back."

What's back there?

The back of the clinic is for employees only. Its centerpiece is the treatment area, where basic procedures -- blood draws, routine ear flushes, wound care, and, in many practices, dental work -- are performed. Most practices also have dedicated radiology and surgery areas. (The back of the clinic also usually houses doctors' offices and the staff break room, but client pets don't visit these.)

Veterinarians and staff members often ask to take patients to the back for minor treatments that they have deemed not safe to perform in the room. This may inspire you to ask, "Not safe for whom?" The answer is any of the following: the pet, the veterinary staff, or the client.

Cat at the vet by Shutterstock.

When I ask to take a cat to the treatment area, most clients readily assent. Some, however, worry about what will happen. Will the pet become more stressed? (Answer: Usually not, especially if they have owners who are prone to worrying -- such animals are usually less stressed when away from their owners.) Will something devious happen back there? (Where I work, absolutely never.)

Why are you taking my cat to the back, anyway? 

First, let me say that it's always optional. You are in charge, and you always have the right to say no (within reason) to any request from a vet.

However, if I have decided that a procedure cannot be safely performed in your presence and you won't allow me to take the animal to the treatment room, then I can't treat your cat. In these extremely rare instances, we can work out an alternative (and always inferior) treatment option. In some cases, the client simply elects to depart without treatment.

I'm sure what I'm about to say won't apply to the knowledgeable, dedicated cat owners reading this article, but here goes:

A large majority of cat owners get in the way, stress their cat out, and make things harder for their cat during blood draws, fluid administration, injections, minor wound treatments, and other procedures.

For instance, they hold their cat in a manner that places their hand where the needle needs to go. They also may get in the way verbally by asking why a cat is being held in a particular manner or insisting that something is being done wrong. (Amazingly large numbers of owners do this.)

Hiding cat by Shutterstock.

1. It's for your cat's safety.

Finally -- and again I'm sure this doesn't apply to you -- they actually increase their cats' stress levels by repeatedly shouting something like "IT'S OKAY, FLUFFY!!!" during blood draws. In addition to increasing stress for all involved, such behaviors increase the time it takes to be done with the procedure, which is not in the cat's best interest.

It's usually safer for me and my staff to perform treatments in the back. Most clients don't know how to restrain cats safely, gently, and effectively, which places the people working with them at risk of a bite or scratch. 

2. It's for your safety -- physically and legally.

Finally, and crucially, my liability insurance company insists upon it. Cats -- even friendly, loving, gentle ones -- may bite or scratch during procedures, and U.S. courts have uniformly determined that vets are responsible for determining whether the cat may pose a risk to its owner. If so, we must not perform any procedures (up to and including simple tasks such as weighing and examining) on your cat in your presence.

In other words, we must take the cat to the back.

If we fail to recognize that a cat poses a risk to the owner, then we are deemed legally responsible and we can expect to be successfully sued for your medical bills and lost wages (cat bites can even lead to permanent disability). This liability is absolutely the No. 1 reason why cats are taken to the back in most practices.

If you object, then I urge you to write to your state and federal representatives to urge them to support tort reform. I contact mine at least semiannually, but they haven't seemed to listen so far.

But why can't I come to the back, too?

Again, this is generally not allowed due to legal matters. For instance, you cannot be present when X-rays are taken because you might be exposed to radiation. The treatment area also contains sharp objects, anesthetic gases, and other animals that might harm you. This would be bad for you, but very good for your lawyer.

Cat being examined by Shutterstock.

Are vets or vet techs ever up to anything malicious back there?

Where I work, the answer is no. Period. I don't take cats back because I have something to hide. However, I have heard very rare stories of malfeasance. In one, a vet struck a dog on the head with a large book -- it caused such an uproar that I found out about it in a national veterinary magazine. I have also very occasionally heard of veterinarians (including some I have known personally) losing their licenses due to cruelty to animals.

If you don't trust your vet, don't let her take your cat to the back. In fact, high-tail it out of there and find a vet you trust.

In my experience cats (and all animals) do best with minimal, gentle restraint and calm surroundings. If these tactics don't work, then I recommend tranquilization. And I put my money where my mouth is, because some clients are always allowed into the back: vet techs.

It should come as no surprise that vet techs often own cats. Because they are professionals, they are not only allowed in the back; they also are allowed to hold their own cats for procedures. We draw blood, administer fluids, and perform wound care in their cats exactly as we do in client-owned cats. We restrain them in an identical fashion. If the cat becomes stressed, we give him a break or administer tranquilizers.

In other words, we do everything in exactly the way that is best for the cat -- whether the client is a vet tech or a lay person, and whether the owner is present or not.

Other stories by Dr. Eric Barchas:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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