Thanks to a certain Pixar movie, we all know our dogs' Elizabethan collars by another name: the cone of shame.
Of course, the dog cone of shame is a misnomer. Contrary to the punishing intentions of Dug's evil master in Up, the cones serve an important purpose in real life. They keep our dogs from nibbling or licking their wounds, which can keep them from healing.
We can appreciate that, but many of our dogs don't. It hampers their playtime and makes it harder for them to eat and drink. Discuss with your veterinarian if an alternative might be an option—perhaps a doughnut-style collar—if your vet feels that it still serves its protective purpose.
Roy Wilson, DVM, and a regional medical director for VCA Animal Hospitals, walked us through all you need to know about the so-called cone of shame.
What Is an E-Collar for Dogs?
E-collars are another name for the cone of shame, a shortened version of Elizabethan collars. Why Elizabethan? Because they look like the collars humans wore back in the 16th Century.
For the dogs, the cones are for protection after they sustain a wound or have stitches leftover from surgery, including spay and neuter procedures. They have a "natural instinct" to chew or lick it, Wilson says. Those actions can prevent healing and allow bacteria to infiltrate the wound. In extreme cases, Wilson says some dogs will even try to eat parts of their own body.
So unless you want to head back to the veterinarian sooner than expected, you need a cone—and oftentimes some pain and anti-anxiety medication, Wilson says—to keep your dog on the mend.
We'll get to some alternate options, but be prepared: The large, plastic cone does the best job letting your dog heal. Just work with your vet to make sure it fits on correctly.
"Other than the anxiety it can cause in a few pets, and the inconvenience of it for the pet and their caretaker, the only time I consider it harmful is the rare cases with skin lesions on the neck," Wilson says.
Preparing Your Dog for the Cone
If you know your dog will need the cone ahead of time, there are several things you can do to make both your lives easier:
- Get them used to the cone. Like with dog boots, you can start by letting them sniff and investigate the cone before placing it over their heads.
- Practice runs. Try the cone on a few times, rewarding the dogs with treats every time you put it on. Then the dog associates the headwear with something delicious.
- Distract them. Once they have the cone on, give your dogs something to do, like a food puzzle or interactive toy, that helps them forget they have the cone on.
- Give them room. They won't be able to see very well with the cone on, so remove obstacles that could get in their way (along with any breakable objects you treasure).
Cone of Shame Alternatives
The cone is the surefire way to protect recovering dogs from themselves, but there are other options. It all depends on the dog and the injury they're recovering from, Wilson says.
These are the inflatable doughnut collars, the ones that make your dog look like he's put on a neck pillow for an overnight trans-Atlantic flight.
They're still cumbersome, but your dog can at least see everything in front of them and still eat and drink relatively freely. The downside is some dogs will probably be able to work around it to get to their wounds, Wilson says.
This is the cone of shame, just softer and inflatable. Wilson says it has the same drawback as the inflatable collar—some dogs can probably get around it—but it'll be much easier on your coffee table if your dog bumps into it.
Shirts and Socks
Maybe you don't need a cone or collar at all. For some dogs, putting on a T-shirt or socks is enough to cover the incision. Then they can walk and act normally, making it easier on everyone.
If that sounds too good to be true, it probably is for some dogs. Wilson says clothing can move around too much and irritate incisions and rashes. They can also allow moisture to collect around the skin, which can cause additional damage.
And, of course, dogs can freely use their mouths to try to nibble or lick their wounds through the clothing. Clothing alone is probably not the best idea for most dogs. Some dogs run the risk of ingesting socks or pieces of clothing, and this may set them up for a risk of a GI foreign body and additional surgery.
In a 2020 survey that shows disadvantages of the cone, University of Sydney researchers discussed how cones affected pets ability to eat and drink regularly, play, and navigate their homes. Some pets even removed the collars by themselves.
Researchers recommend inflatable collars and clothing as alternatives—but also visors, muzzles, and neck restraints. Those, combined with anti-itch medication, pain killers, or topical anesthetics or sedatives, could possibly substitute for the cone in a few circumstances.
Yustina Shenoda, a then-vet student who led the survey, said vets should advise their clients on what their pets could experience while wearing the cone.
“At a minimum we recommend giving owners tips around assisting their animals with drinking and eating, and encouraging owners to monitor their pets when wearing them," Shenoda said in a news release.
Talk with your vet. If you have concerns about your dog wearing the cone of shame, the two of you can work together to decide the best alternative for your dog. Be aware that the hard plastic cone provides more protection than many alternatives, and in some cases this may be the best option for your pet. Consider the duration of the inconvenience of the cone in contrast with the longer healing time, risk of complications, and even repeat procedures or surgeries, as well as additional medical costs if your pet is able to access the wound/incision leading to further injuries to your pet. Ask your veterinarian for input on alternatives before purchasing, and consider investing in time with your pet to get them used to a cone.