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Help Pets have a Low-stress Vet Visit

I hated going to the doctor when I was a kid. Every year, our family doctor wanted blood work, and my sister and I would start screaming before either of us was touched (and while the other was getting the blood taken). Why? The first time it happened, it hurt a little, they had to hold us tight, we struggled, they held us tighter. That small amount of pain and restraint became etched in our minds, to the point that there was an automatic physiologic response, as we walked down the hall to the laboratory. We were in fight or flight mode, and that is a very difficult response to reverse.

What does this have to do with veterinary visits? Our pets are the same. The only time our pets come to the veterinary clinic is for painful procedures, or if they are sick and uncomfortable. Those lead to negative emotions, which are much stronger than any pleasant things they may experience. There is new information in the veterinary community about how this type of stress affects the pet’s overall health. As we learn more, the goal is to try to minimize stress and fear associated veterinary visits.

The stress response starts before the pet even gets to the hospital, particularly for cats. What is the first thing you do when your cat’s annual appointment comes up? You grab your carrier out of where-ever place you store it and try to convince the cat to go in. Cats, especially indoor-only cats, know that the carrier = veterinarian = handling/probable pain. By the time the unsteady box gets them to the veterinary clinic, their adrenaline is full blast, and any comfort we try to offer will not over-ride that.

Here are some suggestions for how to try to make them less tense:

  1. Leave the carrier out at least a week ahead of time. Ideally, the carrier should always be out. I suggest putting it in a sunny area, leaving an old piece of your clothing in it. Place toys and treats around and in it, so the cat feels more comfortable in it.
  2. On the day of the appointment, bring your cat hungrily – give a half portion or pick up their food a few hours ahead of the appointment. If there are treats that your cat likes, bring them with you, or bring some of their regular food.
  3. Carry the carrier with both hands on the bottom. The handle is easy, but the cat feels less secure.
  4. Place a towel over the top of the carrier, so the cat feels safer. I also recommend using Feliway™ pheromone spray (purchased at your veterinary clinic) on the towel and in the carrier.
  5. If you are driving with the cat, place the carrier on the floor behind the passenger seat.
  6. Once you are in the exam room, open the door of the carrier and let your cat come out on their own. Dragging them out or dumping them is quite stressful.
  7. If your cat has a favourite grooming tool, bring it with you.

For our canine patients, here are some suggestions:

  1. Take a walk to your veterinary clinic, stop in the front lobby, brings some treats, let the staff know you are just bringing your dog for a “happy visit” – no handling, no needles, just pats and treats if your pet is comfortable. The more happy visits, the better for your dog. Have your dog do some of his/her known obedience commands to try to keep them thinking about their rewards, not where they are.
  2. Use a bandana with Adaptil™ pheromone spray on it (purchased from your veterinarian) to help calm your dog. Put it on the night before your visit and re-spray before your visit.
  3. Feed a half meal or pick up the food a few hours ahead of time. Bring treats that your dog loves in case the veterinary office doesn’t have something they like.
  4. If your dog has food allergies, bring treats that he/she can have.
  5. Bring your dog’s favourite toy/comfort object. If your dog has a favourite grooming tool, bring it with you.
  6. Practice “handling” at home. Lift your dog’s ears, look in their mouth, touch their feet, pick their legs up one at a time. The goal is to desensitize your dog to handling.
  7. If your veterinarian feels your dog or cat is too anxious to examine without stressing him/her safely, we may recommend coming back another day with short-acting anti-anxiety medication on board. This helps the pet to understand that the experience will not be a horrible, painful visit because it will slightly dampen the fight or flight response. This is much better for your pet’s well-being and will make their visit (and yours!) much less stressful.

Here are some resources that I find very helpful:

Written by Dr. Erin Lowe, DVM