Fear of Vet Clinics
For many pet owners, the annual visit to the veterinarian is an annual struggle and an overall stressful event for both owner and pet. The animal may tremble on the exam table, or whimper and bark. They may hide in the corner and refuse to get out of the carrier. Some animals fear the car ride and will yowl, howl, defecate and/or vomit throughout the ride. Others even fear the mere sight of the carrier. Do you feel like you dread the visit to the veterinarian as much as your pet?
The visit to the veterinarian should not be such a struggle. In addition to the annual physicals, your pet may need to visit the veterinarian during times of illness, and the last thing your sick pet needs is more stress to exacerbate the situation. Being fearful is not only stressful, but it may be dangerous because a fearful animal may bite even though it is normally not aggressive. Although it may seem hopeless and you feel that your pet will forever be fearful of veterinary visits, there are a few things that can be done to reduce the stress for both you and your pet and prevent this annual struggle.
First of all, do not punish the animal for its fearful behaviour. Hitting, yelling or pinching the animal while it is already stressed and fearful will only worsen the situation. Although you may be nervous during the visit, try not to show it because your pet can sense your emotions. When we are nervous, we tend to pet the animal nervously and repeat “it’s okay, it’s okay” many times. The pet will sense your nervousness and become more agitated. Therefore, act calm and speak softly to your pet to give him/her the impression that you are confident and that the animal has nothing to fear.
If your pet becomes aggressive during the visit, recognize that the aggression is most commonly due to pain and/or fear. Do not punish the animal for being aggressive because that will only increase the fear. A common mistake that owners make is reassuring and petting the animal while it is growling. Do not reward the behaviour because the animal will think that aggression is appropriate. It is best to have a time out or distract the animal for a few minutes to allow the animal to calm down. Remember to bring delicious treats to reward your pet for good behaviour and to distract him/her when needed.
The best way to treat the fear of veterinary clinics is to slowly desensitize the animal to the experience. You may begin by familiarizing the pet with objects from the clinic. Some pets may be fearful of one particular object, such as a stethoscope for example. Bring a fake stethoscope home and allow the animal to investigate the object. Once the pet is comfortable with the object(s), simulate using it as if he/she were in the clinic. Next, desensitize the animal to the clinic itself. The most effective approach is to bring the animal in for short visits. Call the clinic and choose a time when it is least busy so there will not be other animals to frighten your pet. As well, the receptionist will have more time to spend with your pet and be able to offer him/her some delicious treats. Allow the pet to explore the clinic at his/her own pace. You may have to visit several times before your pet begins to feel more comfortable in the clinic environment. Once your pet is comfortable, you may begin to ‘simulate’ a physical exam by placing your pet on the scale to check his/her weight and later entering the exam room briefly. Remember to reward good behaviour with lots of praise and treats. With time, your pet will learn that vet visits are not always painful and frightening. In fact, he/she will learn to associate the clinic with positive things, such as yummy treats. This process may take several weeks and will require lots of patience, praise, and repetition.
Some pets become aggressive due to fearfulness and the same techniques as above should be tried. The goal is to desensitize the animal to decrease the amount of anxiety and fear associated with the clinic and its objects. Some dogs will show aggression due to their protective nature. If a dog shows aggression, the veterinarian will often place a muzzle on the dog for the safety of both the owner and the veterinary staff. However, this sometimes exacerbates the problem because it makes the dog more aggravated and fearful. In this case, the least stressful solution is to accustom the dog to wearing a muzzle. Train the dog at home to associate the muzzle with pleasant experiences. For example, start with placing the muzzle on the floor. Give the dog a treat when he/she comes up to sniff the muzzle. Then give the dog a tasty treat from your hand through the hole of the muzzle. Slowly progress to securing the muzzle to the dog for short periods of time, followed by treats and lots of praise. Eventually you will be able to put the muzzle on the dog before he/she enters the clinic, which makes the process easier for everyone. Fabric muzzles are most commonly used and they keep the mouth closed so the animal cannot bite. However, if you must keep a muzzle on for an extended period of time for whatever reason, basket muzzles may be more comfortable because they allow the dog to eat, drink, and pant through the wires. Both muzzles work well in the clinic situation.
Some pets become fearful and nervous as soon as they see the pet carrier or when they are placed into a car. The animal anticipates the veterinary visit at the end of the car ride and the anxiety begins even before you pull up to the clinic. Once again, desensitizing your pet to the carrier and/or car ride is the best solution. Begin by placing treats inside the carrier. If the animal will not go near it, try putting a trail of treats leading to the carrier so the pet can explore it at his/her own leisure. Once your pet is comfortable around the carrier, try putting the animal into it for a few minutes and then let him/her out again. Praise calm behaviour with lots of praise.
For pets afraid of car rides, begin by associating positive rewards with the car. For example, if you are outside washing the car, tell your pet to come close to the car and then reward with a treat. Once your pet is comfortable with that, place him/her into the car for a couple minutes while it is not running. Give lots of praise and treats. Then progress to starting the car and going on short rides for a few minutes around the block or to the dog park. Begin taking your pet in the car with you when you do errands, such as grocery shopping. The animal will learn that not all car rides end at the vet clinic. If your pet tends to get carsick, avoid feeding him/her at least two hours before the car ride. For more information on car sickness in dogs, refer to the article here: http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-dog-car-sickness.htm
Prevention is the easiest and most effective way to deal with the fear of vet clinics. When your pet is young, try puppy/kitten socialization classes in various locations. This will accustom your pet to new environments and allows him/her to socialize with other animals. Make frequent visits to the vet clinic and make each one a positive and rewarding experience. Drop in and have the receptionist give your pet a treat. Or bring him/her with you when you pick up treats or medications. It is never too late to start making vet visits fun for your pet.
The key to reduce fearfulness in your pet is to progress slowly and work at the pace of the animal. Some animals will come around faster than others, and the training will require lots of patience. However, it will be well worth the effort when both you and your pet is less stressed will not have to worry about the annual visit.