Visiting Vet: Elizabethan collars

When dogs dress like the Queen of England.

“E-collars” are used to keep pets from self-traumatizing. — C. Mclean

“Are you going to send Calvin home with an E-collar?” my assistant asked. We had just removed a tumor from the big dog’s front paw, then bandaged it to keep him from licking. “E-collar” is vet shorthand for “Elizabethan collar” — that “bucket-over-the-head” apparatus used to keep pets from self-traumatizing. Some fanciful veterinarian apparently thought the plastic cones resembled the ruffled collars favored by Queen Elizabeth I of England c. 1575.

You would think after 450 years we could have come up with something better than a plastic cone. Many have tried, but frankly, in my experience, none of the new concepts have been as consistently effective, reliable, and economical as that good, old E-collar. But depending on a pet’s specific needs and temperament, sometimes alternatives are worth exploring. Let’s look at the pros and cons of what’s out there.

Standard plastic E-collars come in many varieties. Snap on. Velcro on. Attached with plastic loops to a collar. They come in different weights of plastic. Some make narrow cones lying fairly close to Calvin’s head, others make wide, floppy cones. Most are clear but some come “frosted.” I have found that in most cases the best choices are as follows: clear plastic (animals like to be able to see), plastic loops that attach to a collar (so they don’t pull it off over their heads), plastic loop closures (snaps and velcro closures are too easy to get off), middle to light-weight plastic (doesn’t crack easily but isn’t too heavy), moderately narrow cone (so pets can move around without knocking into everything). Using an E- cone with all these features is generally tolerable and effective . . . except when it’s not.

Take Bouncy, the border collie. She’s high-strung and active. Put a plastic E-collar on her and she gets agitated, smashing into everything, until it breaks. Bouncy might do better with a collar made from softer, flexible material, like the “EZ Soft Collar” or “Comfy Cone,” that give a bit when she bumps into things. The disadvantages? These collars are solid, not clear. Most animals prefer to be able to see all around, so the sensation of being stuck in a tunnel may make Bouncy even more anxious. Cloth collars are harder to keep clean than the plastic and some pets manage to fold back or push aside the softer material so they end up being able to reach the area we are trying to protect anyway.

Another product we tried was “BiteNot” E-collars — contraptions made of flexible plastic and foam that look very much like the neck braces people wear for whiplash or other neck injuries. The idea is that by keeping Calvin’s neck in a straight, extended position, he can’t bend around to lick at something like an incision on the belly. Although these worked well in a few situations, we found that, over all, if the collar didn’t fit exactly right, both in terms of length and tightness, then the dog was uncomfortable. Dogs with narrow heads slipped out of the tube-like collars. There was no way to really clean the foam portions.They didn’t work for lesions on the forelegs or paws, and they were too expensive for a small practice like mine to keep a full range of sizes in stock.

Not long ago a Facebook friend asked my opinion about a post of a cat wearing a little flannel shirt to prevent self-trauma. First let me just say I prefer not to practice veterinary medicine on Facebook. Sorry. If I’m on Facebook, I’m either getting upset over politics or relaxing, watching cute kitten videos. If you have a veterinary question, call me at the office during office hours. That said, sometimes dressing up your pets is actually a good way to protect them.

Take my friend, Auggie, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Auggie had a salivary gland infection that lead to a massive infection on the underside of his neck. A small hole opened spontaneously, Mother Nature’s way of draining an abscess, but then Auggie scratched. The small hole turned into a gaping wound. After surgically debriding and suturing it back together (more or less), how would we keep him from retraumatizing it again with his scratching? A neck collar of any kind would rub right on the area that needed to heal. I suggested the owner buy childrens’ turtleneck shirts for Auggie to wear.

Baby and childrens’ clothes can often be adapted to protect various parts of pets’ bodies, but commercial products designed specifically for animals are also available. One such garment is a little suit called “Cover Me by Tui.” It comes in seven sizes and two styles — step in and pullover — with adjustable fit. Another company, VetMedWear, makes a product line called After Surgery Wear specifically geared toward protecting abdominal wounds, and is touted to ensure a “custom and secure fit for every animal” and to have “unpleasant texture” that theoretically discourages pets from licking. These kinds of items are undoubtedly useful in certain situations with certain individual animals, but any pet with a little determination would likely still be able to outwit such a piece of clothing.

If your special buddy has a boo-boo he needs to leave alone and you don’t think a traditional E–collar is right for him, it never hurts to do a little shopping . . . either locally or online. I had a friend who found an inflatable neck collar that worked well for her excitable pup post-spay. Auggie’s family bought a doggie “coat” that would have protected his neck wound adequately (though fortunately he stopped scratching after his surgery and healed well). My friend Calvin? I thought he might leave his bandage alone, but after a day or two he pulled it off and began licking. Luckily his owner stopped him before he did too much damage. We rewrapped his foot and sent him home with a good, old plastic cone, looking just like the Queen of England.