If your only experience at the doctor is being held firmly, poked and prodded, would you like it very much? Unlike humans, dogs can’t rationalize why going to the doctor is a good thing—even if we get a needle here and there.
Unfortunately, stress around vet visits can spell trouble for many dogs and their people. The issue is so bad and common that many veterinary practices are seeking Fear Free certification, to help reduce stress and fear associated with veterinary care. You are not alone.
The human-dog bond can be so tight. In fact, a survey given by the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage showed that a little over one-quarter of pet parents report even thinking about going to the vet created stress. And we know that dogs can sense OUR stress and get stressed, too. Vicious cycle, much?
The stress of going to the vet can result in less healthcare for dogs due to avoidance or “missing” annual checkups and preventive care. It also decreases the likelihood of finding and treating any issues early on. Don’t worry, though, there’s lots of ways to help.
HOW TO SPOT IT: How will I know if my dog is afraid of the vet?
Dogs give obvious tells when they don’t like going to the vet.
- licking lips
- flattened ears
- tucking their tail
At your vet’s clinic or hospital, Dr. Sung points to your dog hiding behind you or under a piece of furniture as a possible indicator of stress. Shaking is another sign of stress, according to Irith Bloom, trainer and owner of The Sophisticated Dog.
You could even see aggressiveness when a tech, veterinarian or other staff members approaches. “All of a sudden,” notes Dr. Sung’s article, “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, is stressed and unhappy.” None of this is fun. Like, at all. For anyone.
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Is my dog simply scared of the vet or do they have fear aggression?
Is going to the vet a minor annoyance for your dog? Or does it put them into full-blown panic mode—biting and attacking those who approach?
Dogs, like humans, release stress hormones such as cortisol. “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,” says Dr. Sung. “These hormones also enhance our pets’ memories of those scary events.” The negative association becomes part of your dog’s biology. You know your dog is not going to die when in the care of the vet, BUT your dog does not know that. They are still on autopilot, trying to protect themselves.
Being afraid can be challenging. Fear aggression though, is a different beast altogether: “The root of most aggressive behavior is fear,” expert dog trainer Victoria Stilwell’s site Positively.com tells us. “Combine fear with a situation where a dog has not been raised and trained humanely and the result is often a disastrous cocktail of fear aggression. This is frequently made even worse by owners and trainers who employ punishment-based techniques on the fear-aggressive dog.”
Fear aggression is serious and will require professional help to learn how to manage. Vets, techs and other staff can help suggest techniques or ways to help, but a trainer who specializes in fear aggression can be your new best friend and help keep everyone safe—including your dog. It’s important to manage the behavior. Get an in-depth look at fear aggression on Positively.com.
FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: How can I make a trip to the vet smooth sailing for the both of us?
- Small changes can go a long way.
Working with your veterinarian and the staff can go a long way in changing your entire visit. Busy waiting rooms that are filled with excited dogs or howling can amplify your dog’s fear, as pioneering animal behaviorist Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, talked about in her article “Dealing with Difficult Dogs at the Vet: 5 Tips That Don’t Involve Food or Training Time.” Discuss your dog’s fear with the practice ahead of time and how you both can help create a more relaxed environment for the visit.
- Practice at home.
Dog trainer Amy Bender suggests in her article “How to Stop Your Dog From Fearing the Veterinarian” that you help your dog get used to the way veterinarians check your dog over before and between visits. “Spend some time each day checking its ears, restraining it, looking at its teeth, and holding its paws. Be gentle and make sure your dog gets lots of praise and some treats during the practice exams.”
- Walk into the vet confidently.
Dr. Yin also stresses the importance of body language to communicate confidence to your dog in fearful situations. “Imagine you’re blind and you’re relying on someone to lead you, but that person walks you into a table or you can’t tell where that person is trying to go. You probably wouldn’t trust that person to lead you for long, let alone help you through a medical procedure.” Brush up on your confident dog-walking skills, then take your dog to the vet just to say hello and get a treat.
- Stop in to say “hello” and nothing more.
Amy Bender suggests stopping in regularly so the receptionist can give your pup treats, making walking in the door a fun—rather than fearful—activity that your dog looks forward to.
- Know when your dog has had enough.
Dr. Sung reminds people that it’s okay to end a vet visit if you know it’s too much stress for your dog. A shorter visit, but a positive one, is a win for everyone.
HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask veterinary and behavior professionals
Opening the line of communication with your veterinarian is so, so, SO important.
Some things you may want to talk with them about are:
- What can I do to alleviate the stress my dog experiences when we come?
- Is there anything I can give her to calm her down before we get here?
- Do you do house calls―or do you know of any vets in the area who may?
- Could acupuncture help my pup relax?
- How can we make sure this visit is positive and fun for my dog?
How to Take the Pet Out of Petrified from Fear Free Happy Homes
Acupuncture: Can It Help Reduce Pet Stress at the Vet from Fear Free Happy Homes
Find a Fear-Free Certified Veterinarian Who Can Work with You through fearfreepets.com