Helping your pet overcome fears and anxieties is something I am incredibly passionate about. Our pets are thrust upon a modern world filled with threats and uncertainties each day. I always wonder in a range of unpredictable situations; how would our pets feel if they were faced with that? What would they do? How can we help guide them through daily anxiety-provoking situations, and how can we teach them to trust us?
Vet clinics are the perfect example of how an otherwise neutral building can quickly become the perceivable house of horrors for pets. You think about it, it’s not the vet clinic that is the scary part. It is the experience; the socialisation of other stressed and reactive animals, the waiting time, the lack of control to leave, the anxiety of the owner, the pain of the injection, the well-intended prodding and poking by someone your pet is not familiar with, the separation from you for a period of time if necessary, need I go on?
Almost immediately, all those unpleasant stimuli soon become associated with the building, the smell, the linoleum flooring, the phone ringtone, the vet, the nurse, the uniforms, even the drive up the dreaded road toward the vet clinic. They can all become an indicator to your pet that their undesired check-up is imminent.
But how do you know how they are feeling? How can you be sure they are actually stressed, and that it’s not just us who are the anxious ones? There are clear indicators in your pet’s (especially dogs) body language that tell you a thousand words, and then some. Here are some signs to look for:
- Resistance to walk into the clinic
- Tail between legs
- Trembling and shaking body
- More reactive than usual to other dogs, or shut down i.e. a dog usually reactive is not in that environment
- Will not take food or engage with you
- Particularly need, jumping up on you, hiding behind you, barking at you
- Unusually quiet and reserved
- Urinating or defecating in clinic
- Growling/snapping at vet or nurse
If you consider the vet experience from your pet’s point of view, you will soon appreciate just how scary the clinic can be. However, your vet is essential to the health and wellbeing of your beloved four-legged mate, so no matter what, they will at some point have to pay a visit, or two, or three. How then can you help them overcome the visit to the animal doc, or, once the fear has developed, is there anything you can do to change it? Just like any fear, your pet’s emotional state can be modified, through desensitisation and conditioning for positive experiences, in the face of perceived threat. It does however take what I call CPR – Consistency, Patience and Respect, along with time. And, just like with anything, prevention is always better than cure. Here are a few ideas to help get you on track.
- If you have a puppy, take them regularly to the vet clinic just to say hi. Take lots of treats with you and see if your vet/nurse has time to pick your puppy up and emulate some of the common examination experiences.
- Keep your dog in the car until your vet is ready for you*. Politely explain to the receptionist that your pet is anxious and ask them to let you know when you are next. That way, you don’t need to expose your pet to the waiting room for prolonged periods of time unnecessarily.
- *Do not leave them in the car unattended. Cars get hot very quickly, even on mild days.
- Avoid heavy meals before a visit to the vet, to prevent tummy discomfort and inappropriate elimination
- Try to make the vet clinic as fun as possible by including games and treats whilst you wait, and during the examination. Make sure the treats are much higher value than the food they usually get and always ensure it is ok for them to be eating, in case they require an empty stomach for a procedure.
- Take a mat with you from home. Providing your dog with a safe place often helps them calm down immediately. This is something I do for my dogs. As soon as I lay the mat out on the floor, Chester stations to it and lies down. He would never ordinarily lie on the linoleum (would you?), so this helps his body and mind relax.
- In extreme cases, a prescribed sedative from your vet may be necessary. But, this is only in severe circumstances and to be discussed with your vet
- Ask your vet to visit you at your own home. Many vets offer this service and with veterinary innovation taking leaps and bounds, there are even mobile vet services for simple presentations that don’t require you to visit a clinic!
Communicating with your vet and nurse about your pet’s concerns in very worthwhile. They are there to make the experience as calm and positive as they can, so it is helpful for them to get to know your pet’s personality.
The reality of this issue is that no matter what you try and do, some dogs will love a visit to the doc, and others will hate it. If you think about humans for example; we understand what a doctor represents and why we need to visit them, however even then, we can still dislike it and feel anxious. Often, a little empathy goes a long way for our pets, and simply trying to understand how they are feeling, and why can help them overcome many fears and phobias. Whenever and wherever you can make an experience positive or at the very least, innocuous, do so for your pet. The vet clinic is no different, and with some creative and empathic ways to help them, life can be just that little easier for them. You know what they say; happy pet, happy life? Yeah, I know it doesn’t rhyme, but you get my drift. When our pets feel safe and secure, both our lives and theirs improve markedly.