Aggressive Dogs at the Vet’s Office: When Little Bit Turns Into Big Bite

Not all dogs love going to the vet. Here’s how we survive the aggressive dogs without being mauled.

Aggressive dogs can be a challenge. By: Mike Baird




Better without caretaker.

Watch with nails!


Ah, the things we write on records to help the next veterinarian avoid slaughter. Aggressive dogs. It’s a fact of a veterinarian’s life. No matter how you code your records to protect yourself and your staff, being a small animal vet means learning how to deal with fearful and aggressive  patients.

This article is exclusively about “the caution dog.” So, how to control crazed balls of feline ferocity or rambunctious rabbits will have to wait for another day.

Fear of the Vet

Some canines are behavior problems no matter where they are: at home, in public or at the vet’s. But some dogs that are normally calm and trusting in general get very nervous at the vet.

This is understandable. They will get restrained, have blood taken, be given vaccines, maybe have some unpleasant prodding. Even if done with a gentle hand, these visits can be anxiety laden. Our aim is to lower their anxiety.

If your dog is aggressive only at the veterinarian’s office, there’s a lot that can be done to make future visits more pleasant. However, if you have an aggressive dog in general, you need to work with a trainer you can trust. As early as possible!

Start Young

Puppies should be happy at the vet. If your new pup growls, cowers or tries to bite the veterinary staff, this is not typical. It’s up to your vet to address this behavior.

Puppies need socialization and training. By: James Brooks

Many new puppy parents don’t understand that an 8-week-old puppy growling or nipping at the vet is not normal.  Even when I’m poking a little needle into an adorable little butt, most puppies don’t care.

The tiny cookies I’m giving and the positive strokes and reinforcement should be enough to get most puppy-heads more interested in the treat or the playful talking than the tiny sting of the vaccine needle.

But some pups begin to act aggressively or fearful the minute they walk into the building. Does the vet office remind them of another fearful experience? Are they fearful in all new situations or aggressive in general?

Here are some tips for the problem puppy:

  • Slow down. If the pup is snarling or growling before the exam has even started, take a step back. Maybe today is not the day for the first puppy exam. Perhaps I offer the pup a few treats, let her walk around at her comfort level, sniff and snuffle about.
  • Come back later. Caretakers are encouraged to go home and work with the pup. Do little “exams” at home, playing with feet, looking in ears, examining teeth. I encourage the pet families to bring the pup back to my hospital once or twice a week “just for a visit.” Many pups lose their fear by this de-sensitization.

If the pup is getting worse, or acting out with family members or other strangers, it’s time to talk seriously about behavior counseling, including home visits with a good trainer. General aggression is more than “white coat syndrome.” This is a puppy with a behavior problem.

The Power of Food

I strongly believe in giving all patients as much positive reinforcement as possible while at the vet. Treats, better treats, irresistible treats. Perhaps you don’t want to do as much food training at home, but a vet visit is different. At home, you will be asking  your pup to sit and stay, not sticking needles into their hineys. They deserve treats for tolerating the doctor!

For pups not that food-driven (the exception), stop with the dog treats and bring out the big guns: Hail to chicken niblets and liver wurst. This should be like going to grandma’s house. Please stick your paws in the cookie jar. This IS a popularity contest. We want pups to love their vet!

The Older, Vet-Hating Dog

Mature dogs who have fear or aggressive tendencies toward the vet can be a handful, hopefully not my hand in their mouth.

Depending on the degree of fear or desire to kill or maim us, puppy treats and sweet words of support may not be enough to ensure that we will all have all our extremities intact by the end of the visit.

Sometimes dogs need to be muzzled. By: Dan Harrelson

Proper restraint. Match the patient with the right technique. I have all female technicians right now, so we give ourselves permission to call ourselves “the girls.”

We have Rottweiler round-up cowgirls and lovely ladies who can soothe the wild Lhasa; pit bull pussycats and German Shepherdesses. A large, soft bear hug might soften the Akita Almighty, but Weirdo Weimaraner might do better with a “less is best” restraint approach.

Nose warmers. Muzzles are soft, easy to breathe through and often give the aggressive dog a sense of resignation. Many dogs who are unable to bite you because of a muzzle actually become more relaxed. Who knows? Maybe if Marc Jacobs designed a muzzle line, your muzzle-sporting pooch could start a trend. Booties to match the muzz?

I know in a very short time if a muzzle will help or not. If I can place a muzzle on Mr. Mouth easily and he calms down, then the exam gets done 1-2-3, nobody is bleeding, muzzle comes off and Mr. Mouth gets lots of cookies and is out the door. Job well done.

If Mr. M attacks the muzzle with a full set of canines lighting up the exam table, it’s time for Plan B.

Sometimes a pet parent can place a muzzle, particularly if one is used at home. A good plan for a truly dangerous dog is to have the muzzle on before entering the clinic. If Mouth-man refuses to be muzzled, or the caretakers can’t safely put the muzzle on at home, it may be time to open the drug cabinet.

Drugs. When all else fails, head for the drugs. Some veterinarians head for drugs at the first sign of aggression. I have had so many dogs get counter-conditioned and become manageable without drug therapy that I tend to stay organic until necessary. But some patients benefit from anxiolytics earlier than later.

This should be a discussion between you and your vet. If your dog suffers from many other anxieties or fears, drug therapy may give Ms. Manic much needed stress-relief.

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The drugs most commonly used are dose dependent as well as patient dependent. This means you don’t know how much of which drug is going to have what kind of effect on which patient.

With all these unknowns, the best thing to do is try the drug at home first. I have pet parents begin with a low dose and work up to the desired effect. When the caretaker thinks a drug dose has worked, we give that dose 1 to 2 hours before the next appointment and see how it goes.

Common Sense

Caretakers and veterinarians have to work together to help anxious or aggressive dogs improve. Behavior modification has to be done at home, and caretakers have to put in the work. But veterinarians need to have an open mind. What works with one stressed-out pooch may be completely wrong for another.

Worried puppies have to be dealt with early so the behavior doesn’t get ingrained, and there may be more than one way to help an older fearful dog become more relaxed at the vet.

Veterinarians tend to get frustrated at this delicate situation when pet parents don’t take their anxious or biting dog seriously. Little Bit, although docile at home, may turn into Big Bite at the vet. Caretakers need to admit that their dog presents a threat, and vets have to be gentle and compassionate about solving the dog’s fear or aggression.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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