Taking your pet to the veterinarian is stressful. The more serious the issue, the more likely you are to be worried. Your dog can easily pick up on your stress, but he won’t understand what the cause of that stress is all about. He could; however, begin to associate the veterinarian’s office as the place your stress increases. This may make your dog become more agitated about going to the place that makes your nervous.
Now, think about walking through the vet’s doorway from your dog’s perspective. Your dog’s nose is powerful. Your dog possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in his nose, compared to about six million in your nose. And the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.
My guess is a dog walks into a vet’s office and immediately wonders why it smells scary. He can smell other dogs who are scared. He may smell a deceased animal. He will smell other animals that are not dogs. There will be medical smells. Your dog will know if other dogs before him were having a bad day.
If a dog (or any animal) is continually stressed every time he visits the vet, he could become more and more anxious. That could lead to struggling when examined, growling, snapping or worst-case scenario biting someone. Some clients become so embarrassed by their dog’s behavior, they stop going to the vet. This is never a good solution. Or the vet says the dog can’t come back due to safety concerns or states the dog is aggressive. Some owners are told their dog would be better off if it were euthanized.
Let’s face it; there are a LOT of emotions on both sides of the exam table. Veterinarians and their staff are often in tiny rooms with anxious animals and most of them have been bitten or at least threatened numerous times in their careers. From personal experience, I can say once you have been bitten by a dog, it is very difficult to put that aside.
While veterinarians get a wonderful education in veterinary medicine; not all of them get a good education in animal behavior and what drives animals to do different things. They may not get a lot of course work in animal stress signals or how to make the world less stressful for their patients.
Luckily, the world is changing. Veterinarians and their staff members are now getting more and more education on how to make an animal’s experience less stressful. You are now seeing more and more veterinarians’ offices using words like “low stress,” or “fear free.” There are now organizations which will certify a practice or an individual in that practice as having completed course work to learn best practices in how to reduce the stress of an office visit.
I am not going to go into the differences between the certifications. The two which seem to have the most followers are the Fear Free Certification Program and the Low Stress Handling University. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) announced the Fear Free Certification Program at its annual conference in 2016. The Low Stress Handling is based on the work of the late Dr. Sophia Yin.
“Fear Free is all about creating an environment that helps reduce the feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress in our patients by promoting a considerate approach and gentle control techniques in a calming environment, which results in an experience that is much more rewarding and safe for our patients, our clients, and the entire veterinary health care team,” said Dr. John Talmadge. Talmadge announced the new certification program at the AAHA conference. The protocol was developed by Dr. Marty Becker.
I urge all of my clients who have dogs experiencing serious behavior issues at a veterinarian’s office to ask their vet about ways to reduce the animal’s stress. Ask your vet if he or she knows about the above organizations. If he or she does not, ask if they can refer you to a practice where the guidelines are being implemented. Search for veterinarians, vet techs or entire practices in your area that are advertising Fear Free or Low Stress environments.
Unfortunately, many people live in areas where this movement has not caught on. That doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive about how your pet is treated when he visits the vet’s office. It is tough to do though. We are taught to respect people who are in authority and when you are at a vet’s office, that person is the authority. It can be difficult to speak up. When my youngest dog, Falcon, was 4 months old, the veterinarian stopped me from offering treats to him while he was getting puppy shots. The vet said I had a German shepherd and I couldn’t “coddle” them or they would grow up to be “mean.” He said I had to “show the dog who was boss.” I would like to say I calmly explained how outdated his views were and asked him to please step away from my puppy. But, I didn’t to my very GREAT regret.
Instead I never went back to that vet. Of course this is not helpful to him or any other clients that he sees. Don’t be like me.
Tips for dog owners:
Take treats to your veterinary visit and don’t let anyone talk you out of giving the treats to your pet (unless of course there is a medical reason the animal can’t have food). Think big such as chicken, hot dogs or cheese. Take a can of cheese whiz. You need your dog to think super amazing food falls from the sky when he is at the vet’s office.
Be proactive and let your vet know if your pet has places he does not like being touched. If your dog is stressed when he sees other dogs or cats, ask your vet if there is a different door you can come in, so your dog doesn’t have to see the other animals in a waiting room.
If your vet says your dog must be muzzled, get your own basket muzzle and train your dog to LOVE wearing it prior to ever going to the vet’s office. Then muzzle your dog yourself before going into the exam room.
Do not let anyone drag your dog by his leash or by his collar to force him to do something such as getting up on the scale for a weight check. Show your dog some treats and see if he will willingly step on the scale or ask if the weight is important for that visit and just skip it.
If there are more than three people in the room (including you) see if the extra people can step outside. Ask people not to corner your dog, but instead have them toss some treats to the dog (do not have the treats in the hand and force the dog closer). This may make the dog come over on his own and relax more.
If your issue is not related to your dog’s body temperature, ask if they can skip the rectal thermometer or ask if the vet can get a different type such as one that goes into the dog’s ear instead.
Buy a bandana and spray it with ADAPTIL (also seen as DAP) about 10 minutes before your vet visit and then put the bandana around the dog’s neck. Consider spraying your own clothes as well. ADAPTIL is a calming product that has been shown to be extremely effective in calming some dogs down. Vet offices that have gone Low Stress or Fear Free generally have ADAPTIL diffusers going all of the time.
If your dog becomes agitated, especially if he is growling or seriously struggling, find out if the appointment can be postponed or moved to a new location. Sometimes taking a dog to a larger area will help. Try moving the dog to the floor if he is on an exam table, or if he is on the floor try moving him to an exam table (with some type of non-slip covering). Obviously, if you are experiencing an emergency, you will need to do whatever you need to in order to ensure your pet is ok.
Once your dog’s exam is over, ask the staff to stay for a few extra minutes and just calmly toss the dog some treats. That way the dog may realize great things happen after the scary things.
Tips for Veterinarians and staff
Understand animal communication and stress indicators. Your patients can’t talk to you in an easy to understand verbal way. But you can learn to read their body language better. There are many simple things you can do such as not making direct eye contact or not trying to be a “friend” to the dog by trying to pet it or love on it.
Don’t corner scared animals or try and force them to do something. If you take a few minutes to see if the animal will cooperate then the next time that animal visits your job will be easier and it will make up for the extra time you are spending.
If you do not have animal treats (and I mean good ones and not the icky dry dog biscuits) in your exam and waiting rooms, stop what you are doing right now and get some.
Take a good look at your waiting room. If you have security cameras in the room review the footage and see what is happening before your patient enters the exam room. The more agitated the animal is before he even gets to see you, the more agitated he will be once in the room with you. Put up barriers or offer barriers for owners to set up between them and other pets to block line of sight. You can make inexpensive barriers out of corrugated board and tape. Have a side of your waiting area designated for cats/small pets and one for dogs so the dogs aren’t scaring the cats or becoming over aroused at seeing the cats.
What happens after the client leaves your exam? If she goes right to a counter in the middle of a crowded waiting room to pay, is that ramping up the other animals in the waiting room? Could the client pay in the exam room and walk out a different door to exit the practice?
Do an analysis on how much time you spend trying to do an exam on a scared animal or how often you or your staff are injured. Many people are resistant to a low stress handling approach because it may take more time. However, it may save you time and save you lost work due to injury.
If you can’t do one of the certifications; that doesn’t mean you can’t make things better. Reach out to the nearest board-certified behavioral veterinarian in your area and see if he or she might come and do a training course on animal behavior and stress signals.
If that isn’t possible see if there are any trainers in your area who work with serious behavior issues. Just make sure the trainer you choose is a positive, reward-based trainer only. If you need to know why, just look at the Position Statements put out by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. I have done programs for numerous veterinary practices. I have a list of veterinarians I can use as references as well. So, ask anyone you consider if he or she has references you can check for their qualifications.
I offered to go to the veterinary practice that scared Falcon and talk about canine behavior and easy ways they could change their practice to help dogs have a better experience. I offered to do this for free. No one took me up on the offer.
The better experience a pet has at the vet’s office, the more likely your pet will be to have a continued great relationship with the veterinary community. If your pet is continually stressed at the vet’s office, it is very likely your pet’s behavior will deteriorate over time.
It is in all of our best interests to ensure animals are cared for safely and humanely.
I have written a separate blog post as a companion to this one detailing my recent veterinary experiences with Falcon. I hope it will help illustrate why it is important to make your dogs experience the best one possible when at the veterinarian’s office and how wonderful it is to work with veterinarians who understand how to work with anxious pets.