Fear is not fun for man or beast. As a veterinarian, I know it’s my job to make my furry patients less fearful.
Relieving pet anxiety is a joint task shared by caretakers and their veterinarians. Here’s a guideline for what you can do to diminish fear in your pet and what you should expect from your vet.
Today we’re talking dog fear. Next week, kitties.
I recently attended a conference where Dr. Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, Diplomate ACVB, a well-known veterinary behaviorist and one of my heroes, discussed ways we can make vet visits more fear-free.
When Dr. Overall began seeing aggressive and fearful dogs in the 1980s, she said the majority of pet parents were seeking her advice as the last step before euthanasia. Today, thankfully, she sees pet caretakers looking for help and solutions much earlier in their pets’ lives. Euthanasia is almost never on their minds.
Dr. Overall tells the story of her adopted dog, Flash, who suffered abuse and had put 3 different people in intensive care units. After behavioral work, Flash became a model canine citizen and changed Dr. Overall’s life, just as my ZeeZee, a dog with a difficult biting history who had failed in 3 homes, changed mine.
As a veterinarian, I am responsible for identifying fearful pets as early as possible, making sure you are aware of their fear, and minimizing the role of veterinary visits in bringing about or worsening their fear.
Fear Gets Worse When Bad Experiences Keep Repeating
If you bring your puppy to the vet for her first visit and she’s terrified, we should not ignore this and think it will be better next time. Your veterinarian should be sensitive to this issue. Your vet should acknowledge the puppy’s fear by comforting her and discussing tactics to make the next visit better.
I grew up in an era when kids were terrified of doctors and dentists. This terror was justified. Medical people did not cater to children:
- Their environments were scary and not kid-friendly.
- We were poked and prodded.
- We had needles and drills jammed into our mouths.
These experiences left us scarred and followed us into adulthood.
Our pets are no different. If their fears are not addressed early in the game, and if we do not go out of our way to make their vet experiences more fear-free, these fears will grow deeper with repeated experiences. Their anxiety will intensify with time.
Think about what your dog goes through at a “typical” vet visit. He experiences unknown smells and commotion. Often something unpleasant like a vaccine, a thermometer or a nail clipping occurs. Although many dogs take all this in stride, the timid or anxious dog can be terrified at the vet’s.
The first step is to identify fearful behavior.
What Is Fearful Behavior?
All of us can recognize a dog’s cowering, shaking or backing into a corner as fearful behavior. But what if Bozo just gives us a slight downward glance, or makes no eye contact? What if he begins to obsessively lick his foot, pant or yawn? That’s anxious behavior.
Don’t Miss: 7 Keys to Reading Your Dog’s Body Language
Signs of anxiety may be very subtle or even misinterpreted. Bozo may walk into the exam room, lie on the floor and roll on his back. You might think this body language says, “Rub my tummy,” but Bozo’s exposed abdomen may be signaling, “I’m making myself harder to pick up. Stay away. I’m nervous.”
A sensitive veterinary atmosphere can help these anxious pups.
Veterinarians are learning some important lessons:
- Go slow. Maybe everything won’t get done at this visit. A little time now may make future visits much more relaxed.
- Limit commotion in the waiting room. Respect Bozo’s boundaries.
- Do not make Bozo wait for his appointment.
- Have plenty of delicious treats. Bring Bozo the roasted chicken!
The Car Trip
Where does your pet’s vet visit begin? Usually with a car ride.
If your dog is thrilled to get in the car and rides with you often, then this should put Easyrider in his happy place. If Easy gets car sick, however, or only gets in the car for vet visits or rare trips, his anxiety can begin in your driveway. By the time you get to the vet, he could be nauseous, anxious or both.
Your vet can help the truly anxious or nauseous dog with medications. We have anti-nausea, anti-anxiety and motion sickness drugs.
Consider calming aids such as seat belts, certain carriers, Thundershirts (affiliate link), dog travel tapes, and more.
Above all, if you are anxious about the car ride and the vet visit, you will transfer this anxiety to your pet. Try not to do the anxious baby talk in a high voice. (This is true in the office as well.) Treat the visit like it is just another delightful walk in the park.
The Waiting Room
If you believe your pet begins to show signs of anxiety when you walk into the waiting room, avoid the waiting room at your next visit. Go for a walk outside the hospital so Spiderman can sniff all that fun dog urine. If he’s happy in the car, stay in the car and ask the receptionist to call you when it’s your turn.
I can see it now. The vet office of the future is like a busy Chili’s on a Saturday night. “Take a beeper and we’ll call you, Mr. Spiderman, when your exam table is ready.”
In the waiting room it may be impossible to predict or avoid the animals inside. Even cats can scare dogs, but they can overcome it with your help.
This video shows various dogs trying to get past the family cat without losing a limb:
Allaying Fear Begins at Home
Helping a fearful dog starts at home, even before the car trip.
Your dog should be happy with body exploration! Face, mouth, ears, toes, tail and, yes, even inspection of the private parts. Nothing should be out of bounds for you when it comes to handling your own pup.
Although nervous Nancy may not take too kindly to me looking up her butt, it will be easier for me if this territory has been explored in her safe environment, her home, by her most trusted friend — you.
In a wellness exam, if a dog is fearful or anxious, it’s a good idea to keep invasive procedures to a minimum. You may be ready for Flag’s 5,000-mile tune-up, but he may not be ready to have his oil checked. Today may not be the day to accomplish everything on your list: clip all toenails, “check” anal glands and shave massive mats behind Flag’s ears and on his scrotum.
Instead, bring in fearful Flag or spooked-out Spiderman for a friendly visit to the vet office where nothing medical is done. Plan ahead with your vet’s office.
Have a staff member meet you in the outside garden or greet you at the door with favorite treats. Petting, delicious food, soft voices and outta there! Maybe the next time Flag visits, the vaccination or the toe touching won’t be so dramatic.
The few things I’ve mentioned here are just the tip of the fear iceberg. For some of our pets, the fear is like an avalanche hanging over their fragile heads. With the help of your veterinarian, animal behaviorists, time and understanding, you’ll find that things are looking brighter every day.