Ask the Vet: Get Rid of Vet-Visit Fear

Q: My seven-year-old Australian Shepherd mix loves everything and everyone, except going to the vet. He whimpers, drags his butt on the ground, and obsessively licks his paws in the waiting room because he gets so stressed. How can I help him?

MJ, Seattle

A: Hi MJ,

Thanks for the question. The truth is, it’s a pretty common problem. People don’t like going to the doctor, so imagine how tough it is for an animal that doesn’t understand all the probing and needle pricks keep him healthy! There are a few things you can do to keep stress levels minimal. The most important thing I can tell you is that relieving stress starts long before you arrive at the vet’s office! Here are a few tips to make vet visits less stressful for you and your pet:

Manners, manners, manners

You want your dog to not only be comfortable around you, but around other people and animals as well. Socializing your pet with new and different people from an early age will help them grow into well-adjusted companions. Not only will this help them learn proper manners, but you'll be thankful your pup knows how to behave when you are sitting in a busy waiting room full of other animals. Make an effort to have your dog interact with your friends, family, and other pets. For dogs, this is simple. It's easy to socialize them during supervised play at a local dog park or doggy daycare, and even at local training classes. If you were writing about a cat, this step is a bit trickier. For any cat owners reading: lots of positive human interaction is the best step.

Make the kennel equal comfort

If you plan on transporting your furry friend to the vet in a carrier of sorts, make sure you don't ONLY use it for vet trips. If you only pull it out on “the dreaded day”, it won’t take long for him to negatively associate the carrier with trips to the vet, and it will make it difficult (or impossible!) to get him in at all. Instead, keep the carrier out at all times, or as often as possible. Encourage your pet to use it as a bed or hiding place with toys, treats, playtime/petting and even an occasional meal. The goal is to have the carrier become a common object, or—even better—associated with positive emotions that hopefully outweigh any negative feelings from a trip to your vet.

Make the car ride a reward in itself

Similarly to the above point, if your pet only goes on car rides to and from the vet, suddenly the car is associated with all those negative feelings. Every once in a while, take your pet somewhere fun in the car. Whether it’s to get a special treat, travel somewhere new to take a walk, or to a new dog park, make it a trip just for your buddy to enjoy. Even a quick loop around the neighborhood followed by some encouraging and loving pats on the head and a great treat can go a long way toward minimizing your pet’s fear of the car and your vet’s office.

Bring a prize

When I was a kid, there was only one good part about going to the doctor’s office: the lollipop when I left. Most of our pets will do anything for the right treat. Motivating your pet with food is a useful tool. Use it to your advantage… just don’t abuse treats, or a routine vet visit could become a lecture about healthy pet weights. Preparing a special treat or bringing one your pet really enjoys and giving it to them AFTER a vet visit can help lessen the sting of those vaccinations.

Talk to the vet!

If this is your first pet, or you are just unsure about pet ownership, bring up your concerns to your local veterinarian during your first visit! Ask them about restraint, vaccines, local dog parks and training sessions, etc. They are an invaluable resource to help you while you're starting out. And it never hurts to ask him or her to be careful when handling your anxious loved one. While every veterinarian and staff member is always aware of this fact, bringing it to the forefront of their minds is never a bad thing. Be polite and honest with your concerns, and you will be poised for a great outcome!

Pop in just to say, “Hi.”

The unfortunate reality is that sometimes, pets get sick for one reason or another. Where do they go when they’re sick? That's right. Straight to your local vet’s office! This is unavoidable, but frequent visits to the vet can associate the office with their illness or pain from an injury. To counteract this, or prevent it from happening in the first place, take your pet to your vet’s office on a normal day, maybe on the way to the dog park, or as part of a drive around your neighborhood. Your vet may even offer training or socialization programs at their offices, which can go a long way toward associating the building with positive experiences. Talk to your vet first, and make sure it's ok to visit briefly on occasion if this is your goal.

If all else fails…

In extreme cases, or if your pet was adopted later in life and you’re unsure of his vet visit history, these behavior modification techniques may not be enough. In that case, there are some mood altering pharmaceuticals and herbal supplements you can try. I strongly advise having a talk with your veterinarian and exploring all the options listed above before taking this route.

An appointment with a certified veterinarian behaviorist may be another useful step in identifying what is really triggering your pet’s stress, and could lead to some adjustments you haven’t thought of that may help.

Should all this fail, then medication could offer some relief. Your local veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist or neurologist are the best sources of information for what products are on the market, and which could offer the most benefit. There are also over the counter products available, but before choosing one, I recommend seeking the opinion of a veterinarian you trust, as the safety of these products is not always guaranteed, and your pet’s current health may bring unwanted side effects.

Follow the tips, put a plan in place, and start working it as soon as possible. You may just find that Aussie wagging his tail instead of dragging his butt the next time you open the vet’s front door.

Anybody else have a useful vet visit trick? Share it with us!