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Sound advice (and more)

When carving out space for alternative medicine treatments, your goal should be to create a calming atmosphere by reducing noise, odors and other distractions.

Sound advice (and more)
A warm color scheme and rich textures soften the room and take advantage of ample natural light.

I’ve witnessed many changes in animal care over my almost 25 years of designing veterinary hospitals, from technology and standards of care to treatment options and growing awareness of preventive and wellness care, to name a few. To me, the biggest change has involved pet owners and their mindset that pets are no longer merely owned objects but are living, feeling, contributing family members.

It’s no secret that pet owners today are more open to treatments that are both medically essential and quality-of-life enhancers. In support of this, my company is frequently asked to include space in our designs for treatment modalities such as acupuncture, acupressure, therapeutic massage and physical therapy.

Such a request calls for calming space because an animal that is not comfortably relaxed will have difficulty benefiting from treatments that fall under the alternative medicine label. A well-designed space will reduce stress and anxiety in a patient and put the practitioner and owner in the right frame of mind.

Few practices can accommodate separate rooms for each modality, so multipurpose space is often the answer.

Here’s what to consider when constructing such a room.

1. Overall Ambience

Compared with people, animals have greater sensitivity to sounds and smells, and they see color differently. So, the room should feel calm, quiet and subdued. Isolating the room from more hectic areas of the hospital is preferred.

veterinary exam room

Soft client seating and a wall-mounted water feature set the mood.

2. Acoustics

My firm addresses the auditory aspect in two ways: Reduce or eliminate intruding noise, and incorporate replacement sound.

Noise can be lessened through separation, insulation and absorption. Walls can be made more sound resistant by adding mass and vibration dampening, sometimes by installing additional layers of drywall to outside wall surfaces using acoustic adhesive rather than screws. The resilient glue reduces transmitted vibrations. Depending on how loud surrounding spaces are, more than one layer of drywall might be necessary.

Flanking noise, meaning noise that goes up and over the ceiling, should be investigated. A sound-resistant wall that does not go high enough to prevent noise from going over the top and down into the multipurpose room is of limited value.

Sound produced inside the room can be deadened through the use of soft surfaces such as acoustic ceiling tiles, wall coverings, carpet tiles or washable area rugs, and upholstered furniture.

The right type of replacement sound can add significantly to a calming ambience. Commercially available frequency-tuned music from companies like iCalmPet and Pet Acoustics has proven effective in reducing patient stress. Typically, these systems play classical music modified to be more appealing to the canine and feline ear. I know from my boarding, shelter and service-animal projects that these systems work for the majority of animals.

You also can install water features that trickle or spout, adding to the space’s acoustic personality. Tabletop water features can be inexpensive.

I suggest staying away from so-called “sound generators” or sleep machines. These produce inauthentic versions of natural sounds that can be more distracting than helpful.

3. Color and Light

Avoid bright or splashy schemes. Walls painted in pastels, both warm and cool, work much better.

The lighting should allow for a range of brightness. During treatments, subdued lighting is preferred. Natural light is best, so if possible, consider incorporating a window or skylight that offers brightness control.

The color temperature should be on the warmer side, between 2300K and 3500K. Cold white and blue light fixtures are to be avoided. Red-shifted light mimics early evening natural light, triggering our brain to produce melatonin as our bodies start shifting to sleep mode.

veterinary exam room

A large window area requires light-mitigating treatments. Soft seating and washable floor coverings help reduce anxiety in animal patients.

4. Flooring

A wood or stone texture underfoot adds to the sense of nature. Since a multipurpose room is considered a light clinical space, my firm often uses luxury vinyl tile or planks, which are both attractive and easily cleaned.

5. Scents

As for a room’s smell, the strategy is like that used with noise: Reduce the unwanted and install positive replacements. Animals can smell anxiety and fear, so an alternative medicine room should not share air from waiting rooms, wards and treatment areas.

If the room can’t be isolated, a separate heating and air conditioning unit, like a minisplit, can be used. A unit that introduces outside air will positively pressurize the room so that odors are less likely to migrate from adjoining spaces.

Replacement scents can supplement filtration, especially in spaces that cannot be separated. Commercially available pheromone diffusers that emit calming scents made specifically for dogs and cats are effective. Don’t use household floral air fresheners.

6. Filtration

A purpose-built unit normally used for allergy control can effectively eliminate odors. Commercial units like the MinusA2 from Rabbit Air perform well. Remember that the room should remain closed off from adjacent spaces and that the air should be filtered long before the patient arrives.

7. Room Size

An alternative medicine room need not be overly large. A 6-by-6-foot floor space is usually enough, but remember to add to the dimensions any casework or furniture.

8. Work Surfaces

Soft and warm surfaces will calm dogs and cats. A foot-high, vinyl-covered, padded table will raise the animal enough to allow you to kneel without having to bend over. (I have not found one commercially, so the table might have to be custom-built.) Covering the table with a washable blanket or fleece will make cleanup easier between sessions. The surface should be large enough so that the entire animal, including legs, is fully supported.

9. Casework

An alternative medicine room might double as an exam or euthanasia room out of necessity. A wall-mounted folding exam table can be concealed inside a cabinet. Also, remember to provide enough countertop space for a laptop or computer, and think about cabinets to store supplies for all functions.

The evolution in veterinary care has been exciting to watch. Not only are our pets better cared for, but the opportunities opening within the profession are substantial. A well-designed alternative medicine space can add to your practice’s service options.

Constructive Criticism columnist Paul Gladysz is the principal architect at BDA Architecture. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, firm specializes in the planning, design and construction of animal care facilities.