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 the pet’s people and their veterinarians.
This article explains what you can do to diminish fear in your pet — and what you should expect from your vet. We also discuss muzzles, and why muzzles are sometimes requested by your vet.
Getting Fearful Puppies Used to the Vet
Puppies should be happy at the vet’s office.
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.
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 puppies 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?
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.
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.”
Here are 3 tips for the problem puppy:
1. 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 them walk around at their comfort level, sniff and snuffle about.
2. Come Back Later
Go home and work with the pup. Do little “exams” at home, playing with feet, looking in ears, examining teeth.
I encourage clients to bring the pup back to my hospital once or twice a week “just for a visit.” Many puppies lose their fear by this desensitization.
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.
3. 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 puppy to sit and stay — not sticking needles into their butts. They deserve treats for tolerating the doctor.
For pups who aren’t very food-driven (the exception), stop with the dog treats and bring out the big guns: chicken niblets and liver wurst. This should be like going to Grandma’s house.
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!
And now for those of you with older dogs … let’s have the muzzle talk.
Muzzle My Dog at the Vet?
As a veterinarian, I have a personal interest and responsibility in keeping dog bites to a minimum.
I don’t want to get hurt, and I don’t want my staff or clients to get bitten.
I want my canine patients who are biters to get training and help.
Veterinarians and people with dogs can work together to prevent more bites. I don’t have to tell you, dog bites can be serious and we, the humans, are often at fault.
It’s rare that I have to muzzle a dog — but when I do, it’s important.
A small percentage of clients object. I call this the muzzle dance.
“But He Doesn’t Really Bite”
Here are a few of the lines I don’t like to hear from someone in my clinic who has a dog who poses a bite risk:
- “But he doesn’t really bite.” (Then I’m sensing a make-believe bite?)
- “But he only dislikes men. You’ll be OK.” (Thank goodness I don’t have my man-vibe on today.)
- “Oh, that’s OK, I’ll hold her. She’s good with me.” (But you’re not holding her head. Or her mouth.)
- “He’s just nervous.” (So that guttural growl of death means he’s happy to see me?)
This next one is my favorite…
With a 100-pound Rottweiler on the exam table, growling, eyes bugging out of his head:
- “Oh, he’s just talking. You obviously don’t understand Rottweilers.”
Most of the Time, Things Go Smoothly
It’s my job to make the environment as peaceful and as nonthreatening as possible in my hospital:
- We don’t want the dog to feel confronted or nervous in the waiting room.
- We try to not make the dog wait.
- We get the dog placidly in an exam room as soon as possible and keep them comfortable.
- We now how to approach the dog and pick up all the behavioral cues within a minute or so to get a “reading” on the dog.
For a skilled veterinarian, this can all run as smooth as silk. And it does 95% of the time.
But if my assessment is that the dog is still fearful, anxious or aggressive, I might suggest a soft, nylon muzzle in a peaceful blue color as the best way to avoid a dog bite. The muzzle often alleviates the dog’s all-consuming, anxiety-driven desire to bite.
If the dog’s person says no to muzzling the dog, then the muzzle dance is in full swing.
Baby and the Muzzle Dance
Let’s say I try to appease the client by not using a muzzle.
We try no restraint, a little restraint, a soft voice, a cookie — and the dog is still trying to bite.
This is now a dangerous circus as the client is braying at the top of her voice, “It’s OK, Baby, she’s not going to hurt you. No, don’t be upset. It’s OK. Don’t worry, Baby!”
“Baby” might be a 5-pound Chihuahua who looks like a possessed creature out of The Shining, or a 90-pound mutt with a lip curl and fire eyes worthy of a cameo in Game of Thrones.
Whatever the breed or the size, Baby means business — and trying to get a muzzle on now is a game of fools.
“Oh, he’s upset now. You’ve upset Baby. He doesn’t act like this at home.”
Well, I would certainly hope he doesn’t act this way at home. Do you routinely feel his junk, do a full-body cavity search and stick him with small sharp needles in your home?
Exams with these special-care dogs usually end with my favorite request from the client: “Oh, can you cut his nails? He doesn’t let me do that at home.”
Huh. So, you can’t cut his nails — why is that? Because he would bite you? And you don’t want me to muzzle Baby?
No Laughing Matter
Dog bites are no laughing matter:
- Veterinarians and technicians do get bitten, sometimes badly.
- People with normally gentle dogs are bitten more frequently when their pets are stressed or hurt.
We want to keep these events to an absolute minimum.
Besides bodily harm, pain, disfigurement, loss of work and expense, there can be quarantines, lawsuits and loss of homeowners’ insurance.
The risks are high, and you need to understand that a little precaution can save a lot of headaches. It goes without saying that every time a dog bites, modifying the aggressive behavior with training becomes more difficult.
When Do Vets Get Bitten?
If we get bitten by a caution dog because we didn’t take the proper precautions or didn’t muzzle (to try to keep the client happy), it’s the veterinarian’s fault:
- We don’t usually suffer a bite from a dog we know is “iffy.” This is because we take the proper precautions and muzzle. Most of my clients are fine with this.
- We do sometimes get bitten by the dog who gives no warning. Couple that with a client who “forgets” to tell us they have a biter, and it’s a recipe for a dog bite.
Very occasionally, I come across a new client who says, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. He bit the last vet.”
This makes me angry. I feel like saying, “Next time I’m planning a car accident, I’ll give you a call ahead of time so you can be in the passenger seat.”
A person with a natural affinity for animals can read animal behavior. This is both a skill and a gift.
Ninety percent of the time, the dog gives obvious clues that she is either aggressive or fearful and poses a bite risk. This might be that familiar “hard eye,” or body rigidity, or obvious fear.
Before we get as far as a true growl or attempted bite, I have usually had an honest conversation with the dog’s human, and most reasonable people agree to muzzle. Most dogs actually calm down once muzzled.
The exam goes quickly, everything gets done, the muzzle comes off and the dog is wagging their tail on the ground again.
The dogs often even take a biscuit from the hand that vaccinated them because they know they’ve passed their physical. And it’s a no-brainer that I can do a better physical if I’m not in fear of facial mutilation.
I deeply respect my clients with difficult dogs who take the situation seriously.
They seek help, work with the dog and always take the proper precautions. This takes great dedication and effort.
For those who have caution dogs and don’t take this seriously, it is a worrisome situation.
If you are concerned that your dog may pose a threat to you or someone else, the best thing you can do is seek professional advice and training.
We all should approach dog bites with a zero-tolerance policy.
The Older Vet-Hating Dog
Mature dogs who have fear or aggressive tendencies toward the vet can be a handful.
Depending on the degree of fear or desire to 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.
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.
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.
- But 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 client can place a muzzle, particularly if one is used at home. Again, 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 medicine cabinet…
When all else fails, head for the drugs.
Some veterinarians reach for the meds 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.
The medications 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 clients begin with a low dose and work up to the desired effect.
- When the client thinks a drug dose has worked, we give that dose 1–2 hours before the next appointment and see how it goes.
You and the vet have to work together to help an anxious or aggressive dog improve.
Behavior modification has to be done at home, and you need to put in the work. But vets 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.
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 them in their happy place. If they get car sick, however, or only get in the car for vet visits or rare trips, their anxiety can begin in your driveway. By the time you get to the vet, they 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, 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 dog 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 with your pet so they can sniff all that fun dog urine. If they’re happy in the car, stay in the car and ask the receptionist to call you when it’s your turn.
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:
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.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed May 28, 2014.