Does your pet have fear or anxiety at the vets? It is important to prevent and treat this, so your pet doesn’t have an unpleasant experience. Pets remember when they are scared, and are likely to get more fearful at the next visit. A fearful pet is more difficult to examine, and also has a higher risk of anaesthetic complications. Sometimes high levels of fear can lead to your pet showing aggressive behaviours at the vet.
Contact the clinic prior to the appointment
If your pet has special behavioural needs, please contact the clinic ahead of time to discuss these. You may need to schedule your visit to a quieter time of day.
Ask your vet if your pet would benefit from calming medication before their visit. It is best to first trial calming medication at home in the week before, because every pet can react a little differently to medicines, and the dose may need to be adjusted. If your pet becomes especially fearful at the vets, the medicine doses may need to be slightly higher and will cause some sedation at home. Nutraceuticals such as Zylkene, or pheromones such as Adaptil or Feliway may also help your pet relax.
The most common way to make your pet’s experience at the vets more positive is by the use of nice treats to create positive associations. Treats also helps keep your pet still and can distract him from a necessary procedure. Bring in your pet’s favourites! If your pet is going to be sedated or anaesthetised, please withhold treats and ask your vet’s advice first. If your pet doesn’t eat treats at the vet, it may be because he is already quite anxious, in which case he could benefit from calming medications. Your pet may also prefer toys or even being brushed to food, and these can be used to help distract him from the procedure.
If your dog has needed a muzzle in the past, or has shown aggressive behaviours at other times such as when being handled or towards strangers, it is a great idea to train your dog to wear his own basket muzzle. It will be much less scary for him to be accustomed to his own muzzle that you have previously associated with getting treats. You can even give your dog food when he is wearing the muzzle by using a squeeze tube filled with dog food or peanut butter, or a KONG easy treat bottle.
Preparing your pet for handling
At the vets, your pet needs to stand still on the floor or a table while he is being examined. Many dogs are worried about physical restraint by a stranger and find restraint more worrying than the actual veterinary procedure. The calmer your pet is, from prior training, calming medication, or being distracted with food, the less restraint needs to be used, and your pet will be more relaxed. If your pet is finding restraint difficult to cope with, and the procedure is necessary that day, it is often better for your vet to sedate him.
All pets and especially anxious ones, love predictability. They like to know what is going to happen, what they need to do, and that they are going to be safe. We can’t tell them “it will be OK”, like we can a child, so our best way is to prepare them for vet visits so that they recognize a pattern “this looks like the handling game, and it has been OK in the past”.
You can help you pet build his tolerance to handling. Hopefully he will even learn to love being handled by strangers such as the vet.
This is a handling game you can practice with your dog (or even your cat!). Before you start, it is very important to understand your pet’s body language of fear, anxiety or stress and not create more stress with this game! Have a look at Lili Chin’s great posters on signs of stress in dogs below. This should be a fun game that your dog wants to play with you. He should happily approach the training area, and not walk away, turn his head away or show other stress signals such as licking his nose or yawning.
It can be helpful to use a specific “treatment mat” such as a non-slip bathmat, and a treat pouch or container for your pet to focus on. You can take these with you to the vet visit to help provide familiar cues of what is going to happen. The mat cues the dog “this is where I stay, and I get treats!”. The container of food to focus on can help tell you how your dog is feeling - if he stops staring at his focus food container and turns his head away when you touch him, this tells you he is a bit uncertain about that touch and you should go back a step.
The game will look like this:
Say “hand” >>> then touch dog >>> then stop touching dog >>> then say “treat” >>> then give treat
The word “hand” is a predictor cue, it tells your dog you are going to reach and touch him.
The word “treat” acts as a safety cue – it means the interaction is over and now a nice treat is coming.
You then build up these steps with greater intensity and duration of touching. You can also use specific body parts, such as “ear”, as the predictor word.
If your pet shows any signs of fear, anxiety or stress; or has other fear and/or anxiety issues, please contact me for professional advice.