The “scary vet syndrome” in horses

Do you know why it is still more and more rare to see a vet wearing a white coat? First, because it is practical and far more comfortable (especially for an equine or a large animal practitioner) to wear jeans and a vest or outdoor jacket.

And second, there is a white coat syndrome. In small animal practice, pastel colours which are less irritating, are recommended to wear so that patients feel more comfortable.

White coat syndrome?

A health care complication called the white coat syndrome was described in humans and in dogs (there was probably no study performed in horses yet).  It refers to symptoms like increased blood pressure (observed in both humans and dogs), hyperventilation and anxiety (seen in dogs) emerging after admission to a hospital (and being surrounded or handled by the persons in the white coats).

The results of such studies were objective reasons for replacing the white clothes with other colours in veterinary hospitals.

What’s wrong with the white coat?

There’s actually nothing wrong with the white colour or with the medical coat but with the association, the animals usually create with it. The white colour itself is not scary for animals but it is distinctive.

If the animals have made an association between a person in the white coat and fear, pain or other unpleasant stimuli, then the white coat becomes a quickly recognizable predictor that something bad is about to happen.

On the other hand, if, for example, a person in the white coat came every morning to feed horses or give them treats during the day, they would soon associate the white coat with pleasurable stimuli – it would become a predictor of food. Then, when a person in a white coat appeared, all the horse’s would greet that person whole-heartedly, awaiting their food.

Not just the white coats are to blame

Horses are excellent in making associations. After a few repeated expositions, they can identify a vet according to more subtle signs than a shining white medical coat.

When the previous vet of the National Stud walked through stables, every horse recognized him. Some of the horses suddenly started to be very reactive, anxious and hard to catch. A tall older man wisely walking through stables carrying his leather bag –  he corresponded to the description of a typical vet. For horses, he was easily recognizable.

When the vet retired and I’ve become the vet of the National Stud, my starting position was different for one simple reason: I looked more like an average horse girl than a vet. The horses were not used to a vet looking like this so they were not so suspicious about me.

However, that was not a reason to screw the low-stress techniques! Horses soon realized I was a vet anyway. If they associated me with fear, rough handling or pain, for sure I would become a trigger of fearful, aggressive or avoidance reactions very quickly.

What’s behind the “scary vet syndrome”?

Developing reflex reaction to a previously neutral stimulus after its repeated pairing with a stimulus which means something to the animal, is a definition of classical conditioning.

When it comes to classical conditioning, our first thoughts would probably belong to the Pavlov’s dogs, the sound of a bell and salivating. However, the reflex response can be also fear which is paired with a certain stimulus (presence of a vet, various objects or smells, certain procedure or a place where the procedure is held).

Conditioned fear

Because fear conditioning happens through the mechanism of classical conditioning, the horse doesn’t have voluntary control over making such an association. He doesn’t actively learn from the consequences. The horse’s brain, in fact, creates associations between things which happen to him.

Because he doesn’t have to think about it, these reactions are very quick after the horse is exposed to a fearful stimulus. The owners typically describe that the horse automatically reacts fearfully when he sees a vet or a syringe, for example.

(Classical conditioning works in the same way also in other animals and human.)

Feeling of fear is subjective and often invisible (unlike salivating) so it often seems unclear why the horse is so reactive when (from the human’s point of view) nothing bad has ever happened to him. From the horse’s point of view, it is enough that he has experienced fear in a similar situation earlier.

Such a horse will be more likely to react fearfully during the next veterinary visit (or during a similar procedure).

Creating pleasurable associations

How to prevent the “scary vet syndrome”? As written earlier in this article, neither animals nor humans have voluntary control over making or experiencing classically conditioned responses. So if you want your horse to be OK with the vet, it is wise to create positive associations from the beginning.

To associate the person of a vet or a procedure with food rewards looks like the simplest way (see the article about positive treat-ment). Even if the horse is not trained a specific behaviour, using treats helps to make the vet procedure a more pleasurable experience and the horse more willing to cooperate.

However, this is not the only way. When a horse is more stressed, he might not be interested in food rewards. His primary interest will be restoring the feeling of safety. It can be accomplished by giving the horse choice and control through gently applied negative reinforcement (see this article).

"Hello! My name is Katerina, I am the equine veterinarian interested in professional and sofisticated animal handling through applied learning theory. I help the horses and their humans go through the medical care in easier, less stressful, more ethical and safer way." Read more >