Is Your Pet Scared of the Vet? How to Avoid Fear During Vet Visits

Is your pet scared of the vet? Despite most vets doing their best to avoid your pet becoming fearful or stressed during their visit, fear at the vet is a common problem I assist clients with. Routine examination and procedures can cause pain and discomfort resulting in some pets becoming fearful. In more severe cases, it can become really problematic, dangerous even, when cats and dogs become aggressive at the vet, making it extremely difficult to treat them properly. This, in turn, makes appointments at the vet stressful for everyone; the owner, the clinic staff AND the pet.

Why are some pets scared of the vet?

Pets typically become fearful of the vet, and sometimes the clinic environment itself, because of past unpleasant experiences (e.g. experiencing pain or discomfort, hearing scary noises, being in an unfamiliar environment, being touched and handled when they didn't want to be etc.) or because of a lack of past positive experiences and socialisation at the vet (this scenario is common in rescue dogs who may not have received much veterinary care before coming into the rescue group/animal shelter). Sometimes, it's a combination of both.

Most aggression towards vets and vet nurses is fear based. When an animal is scared they're in "fight, flight or freeze" mode. This is a survival mechanism which we experience as well. Some shut down and do nothing (freeze), some repeatedly try to get away (flight) and others will display aggression towards the vet (fight).

Even being restrained can be stressful for some dogs

Cats and dogs communicate through their body language when they're scared, uncomfortable or don't want to be touched or approached (e.g. they may pant, whine, sweat from their paws, avoid the vet/vet nurse, have wide eyes, dilated pupils, cower etc) however when these more subtle signs are ignored, some pets resort to aggressive behaviour (such as hissing, biting and scratching in cats and growling, barking, snapping and biting in dogs). They do this because the aggressive behaviour is reinforced (results in a desired consequence) either by delaying or preventing something unpleasant from happening.

Sometimes even well socialised and cared for pets develop fear of the vet, especially after traumatic experiences (e.g. illnesses or accidents requiring emergency surgery) or following a number of vet visits over a relatively short timeframe (e.g. several visits in one month) where the pet doesn't have enough time between visits to recover from the scary experience.

It's important to remember that often what we consider routine treatment (i.e. vaccinations, dental work, having their temperature checked, being desexed and even having a physical exam by an unfamiliar person) can be quite stress and anxiety provoking, even scary, for some pets. In addition, some pets are, by their nature, more sensitive than others.

Do you enjoy going to the dentist?

When I think about pets being scared of vet visits I think about my own experiences as a child visiting the dentist. When I was 8 to 10 years old I had a number of unpleasant experiences at the dentist. I had to have several teeth pulled out and required treatment for a painful abscess. These visits all involved having injections in my gums (OUCH!!!) and other unpleasant things (the crunching sound of teeth being extracted comes to mind!). As a result, I hated going to the dentist. This fear of the dentist resulted in heart palpations, loss of appetite and sweaty palms in the lead up to every appointment I had as a child.

As an adult, I avoided going to the dentist for years! Thankfully I have overcome my fear of the dentist by choosing one who takes time to ensure I am as comfortable as possible and goes to great lengths to avoid me experiencing any pain. I also get a free toothbrush and toothpaste and get to watch my favourite movie or tv show while I'm in the dentist chair. These little touches help to make the experience much more positive.

How to prevent your pet being scared of the vet

Prevention really is they key to having a pet that enjoys vet visits and there are many steps you can take to ensure your dog or cat does not develop fear (and possibly aggression) towards your vet. This training and socialisation should begin as early as possible, when your pet is a kitten or puppy.

Take your pet to puppy school or kitten kinder during their critical period for socialisation (a developmental window during which young animals are most open to new experiences). The critical period last from about five weeks to 12-16 weeks in puppies and from about three to 16 weeks in kittens. The experiences (or lack thereof) pets have during this time helps mould the way they view their world (and vet visits!). Many vet clinics run puppy classes and some offer kitten kinder. If your clinic doesn't then regular visits during this time will help your pet habituate to the clinic environment (sights, smells, sounds etc).

This pups body language (eyes averted, ears back) demonstrates fear

Throughout your pets life try to ensure that all vet visits are as enjoyable as possible. Have high value treats and your pets favourite toy with you at every vet visit. Feed your pet treats, praise, pat and play with them in the waiting room, when they're weighed, when you go into the consult room, during the vet exam and afterwards.

If your pet is scared of other animals, explain this to the staff when making the appointment. Often they can schedule you in when there will be fewer animals in the waiting room. For cats, having them in a carrier (that they're comfortable in) with a towel draped over it can help block out scary things like other animals or unfamiliar people but can still allow you to pass treats through.

A towel or blanket over the carrier cat help scared cats feel more comfortable

Take your pet to the vet when you don't have an appointment and continue building a positive association with the staff and clinic environment. Have the staff feed your pet treats if they'll take them willingly and weigh your pet and give them treats. Let your dog have a sniff and reinforce them with treats for compliant behaviour (e.g. sitting). Be sure to call ahead when you do this to make sure it's ok - most vet clinics will happily oblige. Doing helps your pet learn that coming to the vet doesn't alway mean something unpleasant, such as having an injection or a thermometer up the bum, is going to happen. Your aim is to make your pet think that going to the vet is great because so much good stuff happens! Or, at the very least, help to counteract the unpleasant things your pet may experience during the appointment.

I took our dog Lenny for his annual check up this morning. I came prepared with lots of yummy treats (devon and liver treats) and gave them to him frequently from the moment we entered the vet clinic, while we waited, when I weighed him, in the consult room, during his examination and vaccination and back in the waiting room when I paid and chatted with the receptionist. Our vet also gives treats but I wanted to make the whole experience as positive as possible for Lenny. At first he was a little anxious with all the new smells and people and the novel environment. However, by the end of the appointment he was much calmer. I'm going to take some of my own advice and ensure I take him there and continue to build a positive association with the staff and clinic environment even when he doesn't have an appointment. When the positive experiences your pet has at the vet outweigh the negative they are much less likely to develop fear and anxiety in response to vet visits.

Lenny is happy about all the treats and pats he's getting at the vet

How to reduce fear in pets already scared of the vet

For pets who already display fear-related behaviours, including aggression, during vet visits there are a number of things you can do to help reduce their fear and teach them to associate vet visits with positive experiences. Firstly, a muzzle may be necessary for the safety of the owner and vet and dogs should be conditioned to wear the muzzle before it's used during vet visits.

The most effective way to reduce fear towards the vet is a combination of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. This involves gradual exposure to the clinic environment, vet nurses and vet starting at a level your pet tolerates well. Counter-conditioning should occur simultaneously and involves pairing something your pet really, really loves (i.e. high value food/treats) with being near/in the clinic environment. Often times this training starts in the car park and gradually progresses to inside the waiting room and then in the consult room over a series of training sessions if the pet is coping well. This process can take weeks, even months, depending on the severity of fear your pet experiences and the amount of training you do. In some cases, sedatives may be necessary in conjunction with behaviour modification training to help pets overcome their fear and anxiety associated with vet visits.

In recent years, a number of vet clinics have obtained certification as "fear free" clinics. This movement started in the USA and is now gaining popularity in Australia. Fear free vet clinics are designed to minimise fear and stress for pets during visits and are well suited to pets who are already fearful.

If you're concerned about your pet's fear of the vet it's important to contact an experienced and suitability qualified animal behaviourist or trainer to assist. In my experience the sooner the fear is addressed the better; for you, your pet and the vet!

Dr Kate x