Why Should You Care About Cooperative Care?

Last year my cat, Tricky, had a very serious injury to his tail. So serious that amputation was considered an option. The injury required an immediate trip to the emergency vet clinic. I had to wrap an injured and bleeding Tricky in a towel, place him in his travel crate, drive him there, and hand him over to strangers. All while he was in quite a bit of pain. Tricky stayed at the emergency vet being evaluated and receiving treatment for about five hours. He had an x-ray, his wound examined, evaluated, treated, and wrapped, and he received injections of pain medication and antibiotics. He came home wearing a cone.

First thing the next morning he went to our regular veterinarian. Again, into the travel crate injured tail, cone, and all. We again had to leave him for assessment and treatment. Luckily, it seemed possible to save the tail, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. He was going to need regular medications, bandage changes, laser treatments, and rechecks. 

We made vet visits 3 times a week for a few weeks, then twice a week, and finally he was healed and done with the vet for a while.

As you can imagine, this was terribly painful and stressful for him. It was stressful for us as well. We were suddenly in a situation where non-optional treatment was necessary; meaning that none of us had any choice, it needed to be done right now. If you own animals you will find yourself in this type of situation, it's just a matter of when. 

A Little Preparation Goes a Long Way: The Case for Cooperative Care

The good thing about what happened here is that we were prepared. I had been working with Tricky on cooperative care quite regularly and when we most needed it, the benefits were there. Everyone who interacted with him mentioned how easygoing and cooperative he was, no matter what they had to do to him. 

I don't think they were used to cats being that easy to manage! Granted, part of it is that Tricky is by nature of fairly laid back guy when it comes to handling. The larger reason for success though, is that I had prepared him "just in case" something like this ever happened. And thank goodness I had. It was one less stressor for all of us at a time of overwhelming stressors.

In this photo Tricky's tail is being examined by the vet while he licks cheese off Judy's finger. He is covered by a towel, which seems to make him feel more comfortable about the process. 

What is Cooperative Care? 

What, exactly, is cooperative care? It is an approach to training an animal to become a willing partner in the process of having their physical needs met. We can introduce cooperative care for grooming and veterinary procedures long before we ever need it. 

It is an insurance policy that helps our animals build up a foundation of good experiences with the types of procedures that are either likely or possible in the future. Cooperative care is in contrast to forcing, pressuring, or coercing our animals so that we can complete necessary procedures. This sets up a very negative association with this type of work and typically leads to more and more resistance.

I often say that I want my animals to think that any sort of physical handling that occurs is just "another one of those weird games we play" that end in lots of cookies. 

This is accomplished through hundreds of short (1-2 minute) sessions. The key to success is to always start below your animal's level of discomfort. We need to make some very fine distinctions about how to approach handling so that it's not too overwhelming, but instead builds up their tolerance levels over time. 

This process can be likened to an immunization. A small amount is protective. We can work on building positive associations with our weird games so that even brand new procedures can be managed through the process of generalization. The things we do to them have always paid off well, so even new and unexpected types of physical manipulation are likely to be fine as well.

This outcome doesn't happen unless we put in the groundwork. In an ideal world you would do this long before it is necessary. In the real world we tend to ignore husbandry training until a problem has already developed. At that point we are trying to play catch up and being reactive rather than getting ahead of any possible issues with a more proactive approach. This is a common situation though, and there's still a LOT we can do to make things better, even after our animals have developed negative emotional connections to procedures.

While I might say we were lucky with Tricky because we had a great foundation for cooperative care before his injury it really wasn't luck at all; it was forethought and planning. What if I hadn't done all that work up front? Then I would have been smart to get started right away! It's never too late to make things better! Husbandry training isn't an all or nothing process; doing something at any point in time is always the better choice.

Putting Money Back In the Bank: Our Next Cooperative Care Steps for Tricky

After Tricky healed I knew that I then had some work to do to get back to the level of comfort and tolerance he had before the injury and treatment. One place I focused was on his travel crate. It had become a predictor of a stressful and painful trip to the vet. So I needed to recondition it as a good place to hang out and relax. I needed to make going in and out less frightening by providing hundreds of good experiences again.

Here's a typical session:

Training for cooperative care is your responsibility as a caring pet owner. All animals will need physical care so ignoring that truth, then using force and pressure, is not an acceptable approach. Training for cooperative care is also one of the best gifts you can ever give to your animal. You are providing them with the ability to tolerate unpleasant experiences. You are strengthening their coping skills and improving their emotional health. This is a BIG thing! It makes their lives better in so many possible ways. 

E112: Debbie Torraca - "Long Backed Dogs"
E111: Petra Ford - Planning for the Obedience Ring