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My Pet Hates the Vet!

Pets can develop fear of the vets even if nothing seemingly unpleasant occurs

It is always disheartening to take your pet to see your veterinarian and have it turn into a nightmare. A lot of emphasis has been placed on socializing our puppies to new people and situations. However, many people forget to introduce their puppies and kittens to positive experiences and interactions at their local veterinary clinic. Think of what we put our pets through when we take them to the veterinarian. The only time our pets see the veterinarian is when they need their vaccinations or when they are not feeling well. They may initially be eager to explore a new place and get attention. Then suddenly they are firmly held and poked in the rear with an intrusive object. Just as they have gotten over that insult, ouch, they get poked with one or more sharp needles. Then they are ushered out and won’t see the inside of the veterinary clinic until one year later.

In another scenario, your pet is either not feeling well or in pain from an injury and its tolerance with dealing stress, strangers and pain may be at an all-time low. A dog or cat that may be tolerant of strangers handling him or her may suddenly exhibit aggressive behavior. This aggressive behavior is distance increasing behavior. If I wasn’t feeling well, I certainly would not want a random stranger to poke and prod at me. Unfortunately when an animal is injured or ill, the veterinary staff may need to perform some procedures that the pet may be less tolerant of. The increased stress the pet experiences even though the veterinary staff may have been very gentle, unfortunately may color this last veterinary visit. In the pets mind, they may have formed a very negative association with being at the veterinary clinic. Flash forward one year when the owner needs to bring the pet in for its yearly examination. All of a sudden, their previously tolerant and patient pet now is out of control lunging, scratching, vocalizing and may possibly try to bite the veterinary staff. The owner is embarrassed. Everyone including the pet are stressed and unhappy.

It is so important after a visit to the veterinary hospital to remember to bring your pet back for happy veterinary visits. They should enter the clinic and receive tons of positive reinforcement, tasty treats and praise from the owners and the veterinary staff. Therefore they ensure the pets’ last memories of the veterinary clinic is pleasant.

How do we help pets that have had negative experiences at the veterinary clinic?

The key to making veterinary visits better is desensitization and counter-conditioning. Desensitization is exposure of the pet to the veterinary setting at such a low intensity that he does not get upset. At the same time the owner is counter-conditioning by offering him tasty treats. This is a gradual process in which our pets are exposed to a scary situation and gradually learns that it is not so scary. We are trying to set up our pets to succeed. Many people think they understand the process of desensitization and counter-conditioning but frequently rush their pets through the steps. Then they become frustrated when their pets are not making progress.

How many sessions do I need?

It depends on your pet and how the last experience affected them. “Well, Fifi had a bad experience last year when I brought her in to see Dr. Jones. This year I will bring her favorite treats with me.” Unfortunately it is not that easy. In order to overcome a negative experience it may take 10, 20, 50 positive experiences to overcome that one negative but significant event. The hormones that are released when our pets are stressed during the veterinary clinic are the same hormones that are released when faced with a life threatening situation. These hormones also enhance our pets’ memories of those scary events. We know that there is no threat to their lives when we bring them to the veterinary clinic, however our pet does not know that. All they remember is that this place was scary and the last time they were here, something bad happened to them. They pick up on the cues that were present last time that were not apparent to the owners. It could be the parking lot, the lobby of the hospital, the smell of the hospital, the sight of other animals or the sight of the uniforms of the technicians or that white doctor jacket that triggers a fearful response. With each exposure our pets’ anxiety and fears are slowly building up. By the time we get weighed and go into the examination room, having a technician approach with a thermometer may be too overwhelming for the pet. They may struggle or exhibit aggressive behavior because they just want to leave the scary situation.

How can we help our pets?

First you will need to learn to recognize the signs of stress in your pet:

  • Head lowered
  • Tail tucked
  • Lip licking
  • Panting
  • Excessive salivation
  • Ears pulled to the side or all the way back
  • Hiding behind the owners or under the furniture (It is not cute, it is a sign of distress!)

Once you have recognized that your pet is stressed, re-evaluate the situation and see if there is something you or the veterinary staff can do that will reduce your pet’s fears. There may be nothing anyone can do to reduce your pet’s stress 100% but there are some simple approaches that can reduce some of the tension. Instead of approaching the patient head on, owners can position their pets in a certain manner or ask the staff to slowly approach facing sideways and not stare directly at the pet. Some dogs and cats respond much better to being handled if they cannot see the veterinary staff approach. Sometimes the pet does better being taken away from the owner and sometimes they are much calmer when the owners are present. Learn what works best for your pet by talking to your veterinarian. You may not be aware that your veterinary clinic may keep notes in your pet’s record on how best to approach and handle your pet with minimal stress.

Take home tips for forming positive experiences at the veterinary clinic:

1) Build a supportive relationship with your veterinarian and veterinary staff. Ask them to help you work out a strategy so that each person knows his or her responsibility (owners and veterinary team members). The veterinary team is crucial in helping build your pet’s trust and tolerance.

2) Familiarize your pet with each step of the veterinary visit to minimize fears and physical restraint.

3) Train your dog to wear a basket muzzle to increase safety during the visit.

4) Work on increasing your cat’s tolerance of being covered with a towel. Make the toweling exercise a pleasant experience by pairing it with wonderful treats and praise. If your cat is comfortable being covered with a towel, this will minimize stress. Bring your own towel that smells familiar to your cat. Allow your cat to remain in the bottom half of their carrier.

5) Learn to recognize when your pet has had enough and stop the visit before your pet reacts negatively.

6) Accept that short visits with minimal handling in which your pet’s fear and anxiety does not escalate does mean a win for everyone (pets, owners and the veterinary staff). “So we are not going to have all three vaccines performed today, but just one.” You will have to come back another day for another short visit but it will be with minimal drama and trauma.

7) In certain cases, the use of short acting anti-anxiety medications can be helpful to reduce your pet’s anxiety and allow them to have a more pleasant experience in the veterinary clinic. Please consult with your veterinarian to see which medication may be appropriate to use in your pet.

If you are at a loss or need more specific guidance, then seek the professional help of a veterinary behaviorist, certified animal behaviorist or certified trainer.

Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB

All Creatures Behavior Counseling

Kirkland, WA