The vet can be a scary place for many dogs. So what can we do to help them?
Try to see things from their point of view - vets are bright, smelly and sometimes noisy, and dogs are often handled in ways they are not used to
Add to that we may do something that actually hurts, like an injection or an operation, or they may be in pain already, and it’s no wonder they’re worried!
Knowing your dog’s body language, and responding to it appropriately, is key to helping them
There are lots of strategies we can use to help fearful dogs - we need to find the best combination for your dog
If we work together as a team, we can help your dog to feel safe with us!
Why doesn’t my dog like the vets?
A veterinary practice can be full of stimuli that can trigger anxiety and stress, such as sounds, smells and being handled in an unusual way.
Some dogs have had negative experiences at the vets, for example if they were brought in and examined while painful or very ill. Other dogs are simply not used to this new environment. And whilst we understand why we might need to do things we find scary, our dogs do not!
So if this is a common and understandable problem, can we do anything about it? Vet visits, like doctors visits, are a fact of life. But what if they could be less stressful? At MyDogDoc, we believe they can be, with a bit of team work between you, your dog, and the vet teams involved in their care.
Is my dog misbehaving and should I punish him?
No, your dog isn’t misbehaving, they are trying to tell you something! Your dog is very likely just trying to avoid a situation that makes him or her uncomfortable. Studies have shown that punishments (such as shouting, pulling the lead, using physical punishments or withholding toys/treats) can increase anxiety and make the situation worse - and will certainly damage the trusting bond between you and your dog, making training much more difficult for you both.
How do I know if my dog is fearful or stressed?
Dogs experiencing fear, anxiety and stress can show a range of behaviours such as:
trying to escape - this can be subtle, such as standing next to or looking at the door frequently
avoiding contact with the owner or the vet
lip licking, turning their gaze away, panting
barking, growling and snapping
When our dogs start displaying these behaviours, how we react is very important. If we continue and make them feel even more scared, we reinforce the behaviour, making it more likely they will act this way in future. If we really don’t listen, they may resort to biting. So what can we do when your pooch needs to see the vet, but is afraid of them? Let’s look at what strategies we can use to make things more pleasant for them..
What strategies can we use to reduce fear, anxiety and stress?
habituation and positive visits
desensitization and counterconditioning
rescheduling a visit
pre-visit medications and nutraceuticals
referral to a behaviourist
Let’s have a look at some of these in more detail.
Like lots of people, dogs like predictable situations that they know they can cope with.
Preparing our dogs in advance for the veterinary visit means that when they need a booster, or their nails clipping, the experience will be smooth, safe and pleasant for all involved.
This process is called habituation: this means teaching our dogs that all the components of a vet visit are safe and predictable.
This process works best for dogs that are not scared or nervous at the practice, so it’s the ideal thing to do with many puppies!
We use what we call positive visits to habituate your dog to visiting the clinic: use any occasion you have (like picking up your flea and worming treatment, a weight check) to take the puppy to the practice. Bring your dog’s favorite food and toys: he will soon learn that the vet equals good stuff! While you are there, ask if it’s possible to put him on the scale. If you pick a quieter time of the day, your puppy is very likely to get a lot of attention from the reception team as well!
Many practices are now embracing fear free medicine, and will offer nurse consultations to get your puppy used to going into the consult room and being examined.
There is plenty of work to be done at home as well - from the beginning your puppy can be taught that being touched is ok.
Unfortunately, despite having lived with humans for thousands of years, dogs don’t yet come with a default tolerance of nail clipping and ear cleaning! Our goal is to teach pets that being groomed and checked over is normal and not something to be afraid of: the secret is to take it step-by-step and listen to your dog. Think about the procedures that your dog will likely need in the future, such as nails clipping, ears cleaning, teeth brushing, checking feet and tail, etc.
Now break them down in little steps and focus on one at a time. For example: having a paw touched first, then lifted, then turned to look at the pads.
Don’t rush, one little step at a time. Pair the procedure with favorite treats for maximum efficacy!
Our pets have the right to say “no” - a dog that appears scared or growls when being touched is communicating his discomfort. Ignoring these signals might trigger an escalation of aggression, or simply make it much more difficult next time. If this happens with your dog, think about what the problem might be; is your dog painful, or not yet used to a certain procedure? Ask your vet for advice. Sometimes we will recommend referral to a behaviourist for help with the techniques detailed in the next paragraph.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning
Big words, we know!
These techniques are used to teach a dog that is already scared of a place or procedure that the situation is ok and he can cope.
Practically, the animal is gradually exposed to the frightening stimulus in a specific way that allows to change his perception and emotion.
These techniques are better carried out with the help of a professional, as sometimes getting things wrong can make the situation worse.
Sometimes your vet will advise that interrupting a procedure and trying again at another time might be the best course of action.
This might come as a surprise, if your pet has not shown aggression, but vets are very good at picking up subtle signs of fear and stress. When we ignore this subtle communication, the patient might need to resort to aggression in order to be heard. Stopping at the first signs, reassessing the situation and putting a plan in place gives us the best chance to prevent the situation from getting worse.
Pre-visit medications, supplements, and pheromone products
Your vet may suggest using medications prior to visiting the clinic. They are prescription drugs called anxiolytics that help to make your dog feel more calm and relaxed. They can be particularly helpful when we really need to treat your pet and don’t have time to use any of the above techniques first, or if your dog is so scared we can’t even get them to come into the building for desensitisation. Many formulations and combinations exist, and your vet will select a protocol depending on your pet’s individual circumstances.
It should be noted that the response to these medications can vary from dog to dog; sometimes it is necessary to try different options before finding the most effective one for a patient.
You might also have heard of calming supplements and pheromone products.
There is limited scientific evidence about the effectiveness of supplements, but they do appear to be useful in some dogs. Always check with your vet if they are compatible with the medications prescribed to your pet.
Products containing Dog Appeasing Pheromones (Adaptil) have been shown to reduce stress in certain situations - a spray or collar could be used as an additional strategy for a fear free vet visit.
In very anxious or stressed patients, sedation might be required.
This is usually given as an injection in one of the muscles of the legs or back.
We know that the idea of sedating your pet might sound scary, but often the effects on the body of severe anxiety can be more dangerous than a balanced and controlled sedation.
Many dogs will need to wear a muzzle sooner or later, whether to go on public transport or if nervous at the vets.
Trying to convince a dog to suddenly wear one can be stressful for him and dangerous for us.
This is why we advise teaching all dogs to accept a muzzle before we need to use one, so that to your dog, a muzzle equals plenty of treats!
Some practices have a member of staff with additional behaviour qualifications that can help you devise a muzzle training plan The aim of any training plan is to keep it positive and fun, and maintain trust. It may take some time, but it will be worth it in the end!
More Top Tips for Happy Vet Visits:
Some dogs might benefit from waiting outside the practice or in the car if they appear aroused or scared
Booking the appointment at a quieter time of the day creates a more calm environment fornervous pets
A hungry dog and his favorite treats are a winning combination - so bring your dog in to the vets hungry!
If your pooch is anxious, don’t be surprised if your vet only performs a limited exam. They are trying to make the visit as pleasant as possible for you both, and keep everyone safe.hen your pet has to stay at the vets for a procedure, try to be available to collect him soon after the practice calls you to minimize time spent in the hospital
Using a telemedicine service like My Dog Doc may help avoid unnecessary visits to the practice, or your dog may be happier with a home visit vet or nurse if one is available in your area
If your dog is really struggling with anxiety, you can request a referral to a specialist dog behaviourist
At MyDogDoc we want to make seeing the vet as stress-free as possible for you and your pooch. From reassurance about medication, to coming up with a muzzle training plan, we’d love to chat to you!