Vets can't be too cautious. Unless you hanker for the notoriety that comes with starring on an evening news video clip that draws grimaces from viewers, you'll want to do everything you can to avoid large animal mishaps.
For tips on safety, BEEF turned to two experts - animal behaviorist Temple Grandin of Colorado State University and Jeff Tyler of the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. Here's what they suggest:
- Keep things calm. "I work cattle quiet and slow," says Tyler. "I don't use hotshots, excessive force or excessive noise. My father taught me that every cow is a mother and should be treated accordingly."
Allow cattle to settle down before you work them. "Let them calm down for 15 minutes before you bring them up to the squeeze chute," says Grandin. "It's important to have quiet animals around that chute. Bring the animals up quietly. Put the hotshots away."
- Apply the same rule to those around you. It does no good for the vet to act calmly if everyone else is whistling and yelling. Says Tyler: "When people get loud, working cattle becomes dangerous."
- Act like a vet, not a cowboy. "When we go to a farm, even if it's to treat one cow, we take a chute," says Tyler. "It's a lot easier than roping. I tell students that whether they know how to handle a lariat or not, tell clients you don't. Leave that to the people who have more skills."
- Watch cattle and horses for signs that they're scared, angry or upset, says Grandin. For instance, both cattle and horses tilt their ears forward toward things that intrigue or alarm them. They tilt their ears back when they're upset or angry. And they swish their tail from side to side when they're upset.
"Watch ears carefully," she says. "Watch his tail. The faster it goes, the more upset he is, and the more likely he'll blow up."
- Think like an animal. This means knowing the difference between an animal causing problems because it's scared and one being aggressive.
"People think it's a bad horse when it's a scared horse. If a bull charges you in a pasture, that's male aggression. If a bull gets upset in a squeeze chute, he's probably scared."
If an animal is scared, force won't help. Instead, try to calm the animal by getting rid of the things that are scaring it, she suggests.
- Remember that animals never forget. Fear memories can trigger dangerous behavior when an animal finds itself in a situation similar to the one that first brought on fear.
"One horse was terrified of black cowboy hats," recalls Grandin. "A man with a black hat had abused him." If you can determine what caused the fear memory, avoid a repetition.
- Don't corner an animal. "They might run back on top of you," says Grandin. And, don't leave just one animal alone in a pen while you're working with the others.
"They don't like being alone," she says. "A lone animal is more likely to get upset. That's the animal that can end up hurting someone."
And, remember that problems tend to get worse. "One scared animal can set the others off," says Grandin. "Fear spreads."
- Use handling equipment whenever possible. For instance, Tyler suggests setting up a corral near the corner of a pasture. This allows herders to move cattle down the fence line through an open gate that funnels into a chute. Work to improve equipment or eliminate problems with it.
"People should put solid sides onto their squeeze chute," suggests Grandin. "Cattle and horses are controlled by what they see. If they can't see anything, they're calmer."
- Make an animal's first experience with something new a good one. For instance, "the first time you bring cattle into a new set of corrals, feed them," Grandin suggests. "That way, they won't be afraid."
- Minimize animal distractions. Sometimes the distraction is nothing more than a sparkling reflection on a puddle or truck fender. Other distractions, says Grandin, include high-pitched noises, jingling chains, banging metal, hissing air, clothing hung on a fence, moving plastic, fan blade movement and simple things like a coffee cup left on the floor.
Smart handlers try to figure out what's spooking the animals and eliminate or minimize the problem. After all, it's easier to cover up a reflection than to control dozens of large panicking animals.
For a more extensive list of common distractions and other animal behavior information, see Grandin's Web site - www.grandin.com.
- Don't hurry. Vets are always looking for ways to shave minutes, but Grandin cautions against trying to save time by hurrying. Grandin says vets will finish a job faster if they work slowly and carefully. By doing so, the vet is less likely to precipitate a dangerous and time-consuming mishap with cattle or horses.