Dreading a Visit to the Vet?

Vet anxiety can be reduced.

How to help prepare your pet and help alleviate stress

Trips to the veterinarian can be a daunting task for many pet owners. Sometimes Fido struggles to be still for a simple procedure, and other days it’s a drag just to get in the door. Cat owners also have difficulty getting their pets to travel in containers and have issues with restraint. Pets quickly form negative associations at the vet office due to their limited experiences, increased stress during exams, and lack of handling desensitization. Consider teaching these skills and exercises to ensure your pet gains confidence for future visits.

Handling and Restraint Desensitization

During a vet appointment it is inevitable your pet may be restrained or held by a staff member for a portion of the visit. Most veterinary practices will not allow owners to participate in the holding process in order to ensure animals are held in an effective, safe manner while minimizing bite risk. You can practice handling and restraint at home to better prepare your pet for examination. Hug your pet with one arm under their neck and another under the abdomen and have someone feed super-tasty treats. Practice holding targeted body parts that are often sensitive when confined, like the ears, legs, tail, and mouth. Give your pet multiple small treats when placing your hand over their muzzle and while inspecting teeth. Practice handling in short three- to four-minute intervals every day to prevent overstimulation. Soon, your pet will accept restraint and examination as part of their daily routine, and that skill will be handy when needed.

Carrier Training

Small pets and cats are best transported to and from the veterinarian in a carrier. This ensures other animals will not have access to them, and will keep your pet from escaping. Cats especially learn the presence of the crate indicates a vet visit and will hide or become avoidant. Teach your cat or other small pet to enjoy being in a carrier from the comforts of your home. Disassemble the top portion from the bottom section and remove the door. Start feeding regular meals near the container and gradually begin moving the food bowl inside the disassembled bottom. Once your cat has gained confidence, try putting the top on the crate and continue the process of feeding meals and treats. Lastly, add the door and start closing it for a few seconds at a time while your pet is eating. For super-hesitant animals, you may have to go slower and spend more time practicing each step and use novel, high-value rewards.

Routine Exam Procedures

It is common practice for veterinary technicians to begin each appointment with a brief history and assessment of your pet. Procedures include getting your pet’s weight, taking their temperature, and consulting with you on your needs before the doctor continues the visit. During this period, pets are often placed on a scale and have their temperature taken by a rectal thermometer. Both interactions can be overwhelming and frightening if your pet is not well-trained. To minimize fear of the scale, teach your dog or cat to put their “paws up” on various objects and reward with a high-value treat. This way, when you visit the vet, all you have to do is practice the trick at the scale. For thermometer readings, practice low-stress restraints (see above) and teach your dog or cat a “stand,” and “wait” or “stay” cue. This way they will focus on receiving treats for complying to the command, rather than paying attention to the process. As soon as the procedure is over, stop feeding any rewards for a few minutes so your pet can clearly associate the positive feedback with the interaction.

Confinement for Long-term Visits

Does your dog follow you everywhere? Full-day visits and long-term stays can be taxing on pets. Practice safe, positive confinement to prepare your pet for periods of separation. Periodically use baby gates or crates so your pet has limited access to you. Supply a stuffed food-dispensing toy with some delicious treats to alleviate stress.  This method will condition your pet to have positive feelings when alone.

Build confidence in your pet. Photo courtesy of K9ology

Building Confidence

For a successful visit, consider draping carriers and kennels with a blanket or beach towel to limit your pet’s visual stimulation. Identify things that might cause stress and try to either prevent them or manage your pet’s behavior appropriately.

In extreme cases where aversion to the vet exists, try to build confidence outside the vet’s building first. Bring your pet and feed him lots of high value rewards in the car, parking lot, or just outside the facility. After you notice an increase in confidence, and fewer signs of stress and avoidance behaviors, slowly make your way into the waiting area, continuing with rewards as you enter. This procedure may take multiple months to accomplish results. A visit once every one to two weeks for training and socialization will be plenty. Once your pet is happy to enter the practice, ask staff to reward your pet to help create positive associations with the employees. Next, visit exam rooms without any procedures and create an introduction to the scale, practicing light restraints and handling.

Addressing Reactive Behavior

Owners with reactive dogs may want to schedule appointments first thing in the morning, later in the evening, or during low traffic periods to avoid clashing with other pets that are waiting for appointments. Keep your dog’s leash short, and practice rewarding him when he pays attention to you rather than correcting him when he gets distracted by other things in the room.  Heavily reinforce the command “leave it” and ensure your dog is kept at a good distance from stress triggers to create optimal conditions for redirection and training. In cases where extreme fear or anxiety persists, consult your veterinarian for a supplemental anti-anxiety medication to temporarily calm him.

Muzzle Desensitization

When animals feel trapped, threatened, or in pain, they can resort to aggressive behavior. They will try to create distance from the threat and will signal distress. Any dog, regardless of bite history or friendliness, may bite if provoked, which is why muzzle desensitization is vital for all dogs. A basket muzzle is ideal for practice as it allows you to effectively feed you dog small treats while it is worn. Begin by presenting the muzzle and rewarding your dog heavily for inspecting it. Next place a treat inside the muzzle to encourage your pet to stick their nose in. Introduce the cue “muzzle” and reward your dog for sticking their nose in, and then try feeding from the outside. Practice putting the muzzle over your dog’s head with only the neck strap on and reward. After some practice, begin putting the two together—place the neck strap over the dog’s head, then reward once you have slipped the basket part over the nose. Reward heavily to reassure the dog that this is a positive experience. Once your dog is comfortable putting the muzzle on, slowly increase the time he wears it before adding additional training into your routine. Learning to happily wear a muzzle will ensure your pet does not experience additional stress when it is needed.

Regular handling, desensitization, and examination will ensure your four-legged friend is confident when going to the veterinarian. Identifying triggers and creating positive experiences significantly reduces stress and makes for a productive visit. Your dog will thank you—and your vet will too!

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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