Human/Animal Bond

Even Big Burly Guys Faint at the Vet's

At the clinic, vets see a pattern to the pre-fainting routine

January 19, 2015 (published)
"Whatcha doing down there?" Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler

If you have fainted at the vet's, you're hardly the only one. Some of us just have squeamish stomachs. The sight of blood outside the body, an open view of your pet's innards, or seeing your pet in a shape nature never intended can cause faces to meet floors.

My vet knows me all too well. I am incapable of watching needles poke through skin - I can't watch news stories about flu vaccines. Phlebotomists used to ask if I was going to pass out or vomit because those seemed to be the only two options, so life is easier if I just look away. My vet works with squeamish people like me all the time. Rather than taking the time to go to the back where I can't see needles entering my beloved's body, my vet simply says, "Turn your head." She knows I won't peek. I am thrilled that I have never fainted there, or anywhere, but she and I both know it could just be a matter of circumstance before it happens.

It should be no surprise that I never wanted to be a veterinarian; I just wanted to be a pet owner. In 7th grade French class, I accidentally said I wanted to “give birth to dogs” instead of “I want to breed dogs.” It was a language fail, not a lack of physical understanding. To me, medicine is interesting intellectually. The physical sphere of medicine is a whole other dimension. Once you start bringing inside parts to the outside, I'm outta there. If you are dying of a terrible disease, I'm the one you want holding your hand, giving medicine on time (like a Fascist, actually), and acting as your advocate. I rock at that stuff. If you slice your finger to the bone chopping vegetables, you’re on your own.

At the clinic, vets see a pattern to the pre-fainting routine.

The client's face starts turning white, and then keeps getting whiter and paler and whiter and paler. That's when the vet knows it's time to catch clients under the arms just as they begin to slump slowly towards the floor. Most clients who pass out don't fall hysterically to the floor, screaming for the short duration of the flight. Instead, they melt into the floor Wicked Witch-like. It’s not usually a freeway collision.

Of course, there are always exceptions.

Before he was a cardiologist, Dr. Paul Pion was an intern in a big animal hospital. One crazy busy day, he needed to take blood from a pet. To take blood, vet techs first snuggle the pet next to their body, using their right hand to block off the vein in the front leg while the left hand keeps the animal's head and associated biting parts away from the vet. Without an available technician, Paul asked the client to squeeze her dog's vein shut for him. At the first drop of red, she crashed like the 1929 stock market.

Vets know the client most likely to pass out is the big, burly guy, not the sweet little old lady who weighs 85 pounds and whose main companion in life is on the exam table. Big, burly guys are the classic. One look at something icky going on with their pet, such as when things that belong on the inside, such as bones and intestines and such, are now on the outside, and a pale, slow-motion slide may begin.

After expressing a dog's anal glands, Dr. Sharon Gwaltney-Brant opened the gauze to see if she got it. The football player-type leaning in the corner of the exam room just slowwwwly slid down all the way. There wasn't any blood, just brown goo. It is possible the smell alone knocked him out.

A 20-something guy brought in his dog, who was dangling a broken leg, to Dr. Wendy Smith Wilson. She took care of the dog and then showed him the radiographs. He stood in front of the x-ray viewer while she pointed out the broken bone. With no wall nearby, the guy collapsed to the floor in a heap, fell backwards and bonked himself on the head. He could handle the dangling leg, but not the x-ray.

Sometimes fainting is not caused by seeing the pet fall apart at the seams. Dr. John Daugherty sees clients pass out about two or three times a year. He insists it is not his bedside manner, even though that seems like a suspiciously high number of fainters for one veterinarian. John says it is almost always from anxiety. His fainters are worried sick about their pet, and wondering if their pet might die. One of his clients was in with a pet who turned out to be diabetic. The client's daughter was diabetic, and thinking about her pet having the same disease made her faint.

Vet techs are adept at catching fainters, and tech Charlotte Waack says they need to be because they are usually standing next to the client while the vet is on the other side of the table. It sometimes happens with a simple heartworm test (needles! panic!).

"If we're drawing blood, sometimes we do it in front of the client," Charlotte says. "You see the face get white, and that's where we usually catch them and tell them to sit down and put their heads between their knees. A couple of people I've seen just pass out too quickly. We gave them smelling salts from the human first aid kit, and then we called someone to pick them up because we don't want the client driving."

A 23-year old client of Charlotte's was just talking about neutering, and said he was going to pass out just before he did.

Fainting at the vet's happens even in people you would swear could handle it.

After he went hunting, a man brought in his dog as an emergency to Dr. Teri Oursler. His hunting dog's foot was cut. The hunter, who was presumably out in the woods shooting animals to death with a gun so he could eat them, passed out watching Teri examine the foot. He fainted the first time this happened, and the second time as well.

He had to be a big burly guy. They're like caramel apples: tough exterior with a soft interior.

A big, blond, burly guy ran in to Dr. Christy Corp-Minamiji's clinic clutching a lamb. His pet lamb had been playing with his dog in the back yard, and the wee fluff ball sliced open his belly on the sprinkler. A loop of the lamb's intestine was hanging out. Big Blond Burly Guy said to do whatever was possible: "I’m a cop. I’m used to stuff.”

He wanted to help during the surgery. As the scalpel blade broke the first thin line of scarlet across the lamb's pink skin, Christy felt a shudder sweep through the room. She looked up to see his clammy face. He was about to faint, and soon. She told him to go find a technician, which he was able to do. After surgery, she went to see if he was conscious.

"I’m so sorry," he said. "I don’t know what happened to me back there. I’ve seen so much worse as a cop.”

As Christy pointed out to him, it's different when there’s an emotional attachment.

If you faint at the vet's, don't worry about it unless you hurt yourself. Vets get it: it's difficult to see your pet in certain medical situations. Fainting can happen when we love our pets, and there's no need to be embarrassed. That emotional attachment vastly improves our lives, even if it means that once in a while we become one with the linoleum.

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