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If your pet is extremely frightened and/or aggressive, please seek professional advice as a more specific program or even anti-anxiety medications may be required.  The information below will be useful for mild-moderately fearful pets.

Many pets are fearful at the veterinary clinic.  The key to improving the situation is to teach the pet to accept handling and teaching them that the veterinary clinic is fun.  This process is only for the committed owner as it may take weeks to months.  It is well worth the time spent though if your pet is more relaxed and enjoys going to the veterinary clinic. It may even help your pet be healthier and recover quicker from illness as stress is known to affect healing.  It can also help your pet get to know the clinic staff and then it will be less stressful if your pet has to stay at the clinic.  I highly recommend this for all puppies and kittens before they visit for their spay/neuter surgery.

The first thing you have to think about is when is the fear starting.  If it is starting at home just getting the pet out of the house and to the clinic then that is where you have to start.  If you are kenneling your pet and that is causing anxiety then you need to kennel train first.

So you must know the signs of anxiety and/or aggression first:

Signs of Anxiety in Dogs:

  • Shivering, shaking, panting, whining, drooling, freezing, barking excessively, yawning, growling or snapping, nose licking, dilated pupils (eyes look very big), cowering (any or all of these may be present).
  • Extremely fearful dogs will bite and may loose bladder and bowel control. These pets will need professional help.  Training the pet to accept a muzzle would also be useful.  See ‘Introduction to Head Collars and Muzzles’.

Now, think about when the anxiety is starting.  I’ll assume it is starting at home with kenneling.  For the pet that is anxious with kenneling start with the “Kenneling Your Pet” handout and come back here once that is good.
For the pet that has anxiety about car rides, start with “Travel and Your Pet”.

For the pet (dog) that has anxiety or worrisome behaviours like barking or whining when waiting in the reception area I would suggest signing up for some Obedience Training (with a positive approach, not dominance based approach).  To find good classes ask your veterinary clinic for some references.  Then go and watch a class.  Avoid classes where they use choke collars, pinch collars and harsh leash corrections.  This kind of training often makes timid or fearful dogs more fearful and aggressive dogs more aggressive.  The best classes will use food treats and make all the exercises into games.  In the meantime, if you need to take your pet to the veterinary clinic, check in and ask the receptionist whether you could wait in the car and he/she could call you on a cell phone or come get you when the veterinarian is ready.   Once your pet has had obedience training then you can start a desensitization program where you do the following:

  • Arrange a time with the clinic where you could bring your dog in, have him/her sit on the scale for a treat and then leave.  Do this twice a week for 2 weeks or until your pet is loving coming to the clinic.  At first, you give the treat but then progress to having various staff give the treat and attention.  Fast your dog for 5 – 6 hours before your visit to improve his/her food motivation.  Also, take them for a good walk before so that they don’t have a lot of excess energy and will tend to be calmer.
  • Arrange a time with the clinic where you could do the above and then sit in the waiting room and practice sits and downs for treats for 3 – 5 minutes twice a week for two weeks or until your pet is loving coming to the clinic.
  • Progress to down stays in reception area for 1 – 2 minutes.
  • Progress to down stays for 5 – 10 minutes.

If at any point during this desensitization your dog gets worried and won’t accept treats or shows frightened body positions, then spend more time at the previous step.  On the other hand, if your dog is quite relaxed and happy, you can progress quicker but don’t be in too much of a rush.  Also, if it is difficult for you to go to the clinic twice/week, just do your best and continue with each step at your own pace until your pet is calm. Try to give yourself a goal though so that it doesn’t just go by the wayside.

The next thing your pet will need to do is accept the physical exam.  Using treats, get your pet used to eye contact by looking the pet in the eye and giving a treat (if your pet is aggressive, seek professional help with this). This may have been taught in dog obedience classes already in some form so use what the dog is familiar with. Repeat rapidly for 5 – 10 repetitions a few times per day.  Eye contact, treat, eye contact treat etc.  Treats initially needs to be delivered within a second of eye contact!  Later, we will make them wait longer.  Repeat this process for holding the ear flap, running your hands over the pet, lifting their tail, examining their paws, and feeling their belly. Consider buying a children’s play stethoscope, wearing a white coat, and listening to the heart behind the elbow on both sides.  The last step is looking at their teeth. Only do this if your pet is not aggressive.  At first, just handle the muzzle and give a treat if you can do so safely. Progress to just lifting the lips a little and then giving a treat.   Continue until you can lift the lips and look at teeth and gums on both sides. If your dog has gone to obedience classes he will likely have been taught a stand for exam and you may have worked with these exercises already.  Once this is good at home then ask your veterinary clinic whether you could come do these things in an exam or waiting room.  Once the pet is comfortable with this then ask if a technician could do it.  Watch for stress and progress slowly. 
Other things to consider:

  • Ask the vet clinic whether you could buy a small bottle of their normal cleaning solution.  Then spray this solution on the floor near their food bowl to create a positive association.
  • Consider purchasing a calming spray such as DAP for dogs and spray this in kennels, carriers, the vehicle, the exam room etc. 
  • Consider using an old bath mat and teaching the pet that this is nice place to be.   Have it near their food, spray it with the calming sprays, feed treats when pet is on or near it, place it in an area they like to sleep in, etc.  You can then take this matt to the clinic with you and put the pet on it.   Non-slip bath mats are ideal to put on stainless steel exam tables as some pets are scared on slippery surfaces. 

Unless there is an emergency, avoid routine veterinary visits until the program is done as any fearful situation will set the pet back.  When you do come for a real visit remind your veterinarian that you are doing this program and ask him/her to go slowly and calmly and avoid nail trims or anything that might frighten the pet for now.  If at any point the anxiety returns, you may need to start over.  Don’t get discouraged as this program can really improve the quality of life of your pet. 

Good luck and may this make your next veterinary visit much more relaxing.  Thank you for caring enough about your pet to read this. 

Your pet and your vet thanks you for your efforts.

Dr. Liana Mawer