Which Dogs Are Most Likely to Be Afraid of the Veterinarian?

Fear of veterinarians is predicted by a dog's breed, size, and other factors.

Posted Aug 02, 2019

Scott Air Force Base photo-CC(0)
Source: Scott Air Force Base photo-CC(0)

Because of news reports that some raccoons in our local area were carrying canine distemper, and the fact that health officials believed that interactions with these animals were responsible for the deaths of two unvaccinated dogs just outside of the city, I had advised the members of our club's beginners dog obedience class to make sure that their dogs were up to date on their vaccinations.

One member of the class, a woman with a small Pomeranian, commented, "Just how likely is it that one of those infected raccoons is going to make it into the city? My problem is that Foxy is terrified of the veterinarian. She stalls in front of the door to the clinic and I have to carry her in, and then she whines and whimpers the whole time that she is in the waiting room, and cringes and yelps when the vet goes to examine her. I mean, she is so afraid of the veterinarian, that I would rather take a chance if the danger isn't imminent."

This situation worried me because it clearly indicated that a dog's fearfulness of a veterinary examination might prevent it from receiving needed healthcare and prophylactic treatment. Ever since then, I have been on the alert for new studies which looked at the issue of canine fear of veterinarians. It turns out that there is a new, large-scale study which has just come out of Australia.

The investigative team was headed by Petra Edwards, who is at the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the Roseworthy Campus of the University of Adelaide. Data were obtained from a large online survey which used the C-BARQ (a behaviorally validated questionnaire that has been used in many other scientific studies). In this case, data was obtained from a huge sample describing the behaviors of 26,555 dogs.

The crucial item in the survey required dog owners to indicate the level of fearfulness shown by their dog during a veterinary examination. C-BARQ provides dog guardians with clear examples of what mild to moderate fear may look like in their pet. This includes: “avoiding eye contact, avoidance of the feared object; crouching or cringing with tail lowered or tucked between the legs; whimpering or whining, freezing and shaking or trembling.” Similarly, extreme fear is described as: “exaggerated cowering, and/or vigorous attempts to escape, retreat or hide from the feared object, person or situation.” (All of this sounds much like the behavior that Foxy's owner described.)

I was somewhat surprised to find how many dogs were afraid of the veterinarian, at least according to this recent data collection. It appears that 41 percent of the dogs exhibited mild to moderate fearful behavior, and a total of 14 percent of dog owners reported that their dog showed severe or extreme fear during the veterinary examination. That means that over half (55 percent) of all dogs were showing some evidence of fear associated with the veterinary clinic.

The single most important factor in determining whether a dog would be fearful appears to be its breed. In this study, the breed groupings that were used were those of the Australian National Kennel Council. The study found that the most fearful dogs were the Toy Dogs, followed by Mixed Breeds and Hounds. The lowest degree of fearfulness was found in the Utility Dogs (which includes guard dogs, like the boxer or Doberman pinscher, as well as draft dogs like the Siberian husky and the Bernese mountain dog). Extremely low levels of fearfulness when medically examined also appeared in the Gundogs (for example, spaniels and retrievers).

However, the lifestyle of the dogs was also important. Relative to all possible roles or activities, dogs used for breeding and showing, as well as dogs with a working background, showed the lowest scores for fear when examined by the veterinarian. Conversely, companion dogs with no history of formal working roles or activities were most likely to be afraid of the vet.

Where the dogs came from was another factor. Dogs acquired from a breeder or bred by their guardians were the least fearful in veterinary situations. Dogs acquired from a friend or relative or those purchased from a pet store had the highest fear scores when examined.

A dog's size also predicted their fearful behavior when encountering a veterinarian. Larger dogs (those over 22 kg, or 48 pounds) were considerably less afraid of the veterinarian than were smaller dogs.

The dog's social environment was also important. Dogs that were living alone in a home were found to be more fearful than dogs living in a household that contained other dogs.

Finally, there was a significant owner variable, in that the first-time dog owners had dogs that exhibited higher scores for fearfulness during veterinary examination.

Some of these results I found to be surprising since, looking back on the many dogs that I have owned, none of them showed any particular anxiety associated with visits to the veterinary clinic. Part of this may be due to the fact that my dogs are socialized and familiarized with the veterinarian quite early in their life. I always obtain my dogs from a breeder and bring them home at the age of eight or nine weeks.

Although I know that the pups have already been seen by a veterinarian for their first round of shots, I still take them in to be examined by my own vet. This provides the pups with exposure to the veterinary clinic, in a context which involves lots of touching and examination, but nothing painful, followed by a big treat at the end of the visit (always given by the veterinarian). Then a couple of weeks later the puppy goes back to the veterinarian for the second round of shots (with lots more touching—and that treat again). Finally, a few weeks later, the puppy returns for his final set of vaccinations, with more touching and treats.

At least as far as my own experience goes, these three visits to the veterinarian—all nonthreatening with lots of social interaction—within the first six months of the dog's existence seems to be sufficient to desensitize the dog and prevent fearfulness in the veterinary context for the remainder of its life. But of course, that is anecdotal evidence based on my own experience; however, I do think it might be interesting if some investigative team would look at how early experience with the veterinarian predicts—or perhaps prevents—later levels of fearfulness in dogs.

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Edwards PT, Hazel SJ, Browne M, Serpell JA, McArthur ML, Smith BP (2019) Investigating risk factors that predict a dog’s fear during veterinary consultations. PLoS ONE 14(7): e0215416. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0215416