Do You Dread Going to the Veterinarian?

Christine Hibbard, CPDT-KA and Anna Baxter, LVT

Do you dread trips to the veterinarian with your dog or cat? Do you wonder if the veterinarians and vet techs dread your visit as much as you do? The veterinary staff needs to be able to perform thorough examinations, provide treatments and perform procedures. How can they be expected to do their best work if they’re fighting your pet every step of the way? It’s stressful for everyone but it’s also unfortunate because it doesn’t have to be this way. With some preparation and training time, you can dramatically lower the stress experienced by your pet, you and the veterinary staff.

Cats

Most dogs love riding in the car but most cats only ride in the car when they’re going one place, the veterinarian. Since safely transporting a cat in the car involves putting them in a carrier, preparing some cats for a trip to the veterinarian can require a bit more preparation.

Love the Cat Carrier

Here are some ideas for teaching your cat to love being in their carrier:

  1. Start with a hungry cat and a cozy carrier.
  2. Feeding your cat near his carrier can help him get used to it. Keep feeding your cat near his carrier until he seems relaxed or better yet, he gets curious and inspects the carrier on his own.
  3. The next step is to feed or give treats just inside the rim of the open carrier and let the cat approach the food voluntarily. We want the cat comfortable going in and out of the crate. Playing games with a ball or fishing pole toy can make going in and out of the crate fun!
  4. Slowly move the bowl closer and closer to the back of the carrier until he is fully inside. When the cat finishes his meal inside the carrier, give him a few treats at the door of the crate to encourage him to stay inside instead of darting out.
  5. Gradually increase the time the cat stays in his carrier. Work to Eat toys and stuffed Kongs can be useful, first with the door open a few sessions, then with it closed but with you near by. Gradually increase the time your cat is in the carrier with you in another room or out of the house on a 30-minute errand.

Love Car Rides

You’ve been working hard but in short sessions so now you’re reading to prepare your cat for car rides. Use similar steps with car rides as you used with your carrier work: providing irresistible treats and building on short, happy experiences. First near the car, then near the car with car on, then in the car and then in the car with motor running, etc.

  1. Move the car down the driveway for a few sessions, then down the street, then down the block gradually increasing the amount of time spent in the car.
  2. When going places either go home (safe/familiar environment) or to visit the vet (only to get treats or attention) and finally to the vet office for check ups when the pet is relaxed in these situations.

Tolerate Handling

Some cats do not like being handled, not even for petting. If you have a cat who tolerates some petting but will not tolerate having their heads, ears, tail or paws handled, you’ve got work to do:

  1. Begin with a hungry cat, during a time of day when they’re calm and sleepy. Gently stroke the part of your cat’s body that is most sensitive and pair this touching with treats.
  2. For example, touch your cat’s ear gently and for just a second. Pair this with a treat. Keep these sessions short, say 30 seconds.
  3. At each session, increase the duration that you’re touching the body part.
  4. Once the cat is tolerating a gentle touch for 30 seconds, you can begin increasing the intensity of the manipulation of the body part.
  5. When your cat will tolerate you handling their ears, paws and tail, begin asking friends and family to stroke your cat gently while feeding treats.

Dogs

Many dog owners are not off the hook when it comes to body handling. Use the same steps described above for getting your dog comfortable being handled. Don’t push; keep the sessions short (before your dog starts pulling away) and positive.

Leash Reactivity

The problem many dog owners experience during a veterinary visit is their dog barking and lunging at other dogs in the lobby or going in and out of the exam rooms. If your dog barks and lunges at other dogs when on walks, this will only intensify in the confined area of the vet’s office. You can register for one of our Reactive Rover classes to learn how to keep your dog calm on leash around other dogs. In the meantime, if you know your dog is going to go off at other dogs or cats:

  1. Leave your dog in the car when you arrive at the veterinarian’s office.
  2. Go inside and sign in with the receptionist, explain your dog’s situation and wait by yourself in the lobby.
  3. When the vet tech is ready for you, go out to your car and bring your dog inside for his visit.

Veterinarian = Party Time!

Our most important piece of advice for dog and cat owners is to randomly make visits to the vet for positive experiences in between actual appointments. Stop into your vet’s office once a month for a treat party. Stay for a minute or two and give your dog/cat treats and ask the veterinary staff if they’d like to give your pet some treats. This will make arriving and getting through an actual appointment much easier.

The emotional state of your pet during a veterinary exam is extremely important. If your pet is stressed and fearful, anything that happens to them can become forever intolerable. Over time, even the simplest non-confrontational restraint or handling can become difficult, which can resort to more aggressive or even pharmaceutical means of restraint. With some preparation and training, veterinary visits can be a lot less stressful and if we’re doing it right, even fun for your pet!

Are you a Veterinarian or Vet Tech? What advice would you give pet owners about visiting your practice? If you’re a dog or cat owner, what techniques have worked with your pet in making vet visits less stressful?

Comments

  1. We’ve been very lucky in this respect. JD thinks going to a vet is OK and Jasmine LOVES going to a vet! And that in spite of all her medical problems, 8 surgeries and 2 near death experiences! She still loves going. Even though she hates thermometers and needles. Loves good vets though.

    She is a good indicator of a good vet though. She’ll be friendly with all, but you can see how she can adore one and be quite reserved with another.

    I’d definitely consider her opinion if I had to look for a new vet. I hope I won’t have to for a long time.

  2. Isn’t it interesting how some veterinarian’s table-side manner is calming to a dog while others isn’t? I sincerely hope that JD’s health continues to be good. Thanks for reading Behind the Behavior!

  3. Yes, table-side manner is important (for the patients at least; I’m happy to put up with rude behavior of a competent veterinarian).

    Jasmine takes it to a next level though, she reads them all the way to the bone-marrow ;-) So a vet who’s acting all friendly and nice might not fly with her while one who’s a rough around the edges might.

    She’s been always very good in seeing what’s “behind the behavior” (pun intended I guess :-) ); dogs and people.

  4. As a mobile/house call veterinarian for dogs & cats, as well as having worked in a traditional “brick & mortar” vet hospital, I think some animals are just NOT going to “like” going to the veterinary hospital, no matter HOW nice the vet & staff are—the place smells strange, it’s noisey, phones are ringing, people are bustling, there usually is no “calm” at the hospital, no matter how calm any given person is…and the animal gets stressed by any or all of the above. Other animals are just FINE with all the hustle & bustle, it’s all very curious & interesting to them, and they LIKE the attention they get from the nice people who work there. But I make house calls for a VERY good reason—some animals just go ballistic no matter HOW nice everyone treats them, and SOMEone is going to end up bleeding, and or peeing on the table/veterinarian/technician, or being man-handled & muzzled. I DO believe in TRYing to acclimate (desensitize & recondition) any stressed-out pet IF possible, but sometimes that’s just not going to happen….

  5. Dr. Loniak, you are so right. Thank you for reminding us all that veterinarians such as yourself are available for house calls. I think this topic deserves another article.

  6. Teresa Kofski says:

    Lots of good advice and tips to help pets be more comfortable at the vets. One thing I would like to point out.. weather and climate does not always allow for leaving your dog or cat in the car while you wait for your appointment. In our area (central Indiana) there are many times during the year where it is just too hot or too cold to safely do so. Leaving your car running for the 15 -30 minutes you may have to wait is not a real option either. So my advice is to ask staff for a quiet corner to wait in, even if it is a hallway, etc. Most offices will do their best to accommodate you if you ask.

  7. Hi Teresa, thank you for reminding us that weather is sometimes a limiting factor in dealing with a reactive dog at the veterinarian’s office. Those of us that live in the Pacific Northwest tend to forget the temperature extremes in other parts of the world. Thanks for reading Behind the Behavior!

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