Dr. Cynthia Maro
Most veterinarians strongly believe in a stress-free, fear-free approach to patient care. Stress affects pets – and people – negatively, and prevents us from achieving true wellness care for your pet.
Be aware that if your pet has experienced car sickness, prior negative vet experiences, anxiety or aggression at another clinic, or history of aggression with other animals, YOU MUST tell the staff about these issues prior to your vet visits. This will give the staff team the knowledge to arrange the ideal schedule and pre-visit recommendations for calming supplements to reduce stress.
Try these 10 easy steps to help your pet:
1: Drop by the hospital for happy visits, but remember to call ahead to assure the office is calm and give the staff a heads up.
When pets step their paws inside a vet hospital only for vaccinations, blood work, nail trims anal gland expressions, or other unpleasant activities, they likely will have a less-than-stellar opinion of the facility. Instead of visiting only for wellness and sick visits, drop by for happy visits packed with treats, love and attention from the vet staff. With time and a positive association, your pet will be tugging at the leash to come into the hospital, rather than trying to run back to the car. Allow the staff to share treats and hugs to create a welcoming interaction.
2: Acclimate your cat to the carrier
Your cat likely equates the carrier with that dreaded annual car ride, so rather than dragging the carrier out of the closet for a yearly veterinary visit, leave it out all the time. Make the carrier a welcoming space with a cozy bed and catnip mouse, occasionally tossing in a few treats. Your cat will wander in to sniff out the snacks, curl up for a nap, and eventually learn the carrier is a safe, comfortable place, and not a harbinger of doom.
3: Accustom your pet to handling at home
This step is essential for low-stress veterinary visits. Many pets detest having their nails trimmed or their ears cleaned or examined, all of which are necessary components of health care. Accustom your four-legged friend to these tasks by pairing potentially unpleasant activities with high-value treats. Rather than forcing your pet to accept handling, use counterconditioning and positive reinforcement to convince them that a nail trim is a good experience.
If you cannot control, muzzle, or handle your pet when stressed, contact a behaviorist for one-on-one training prior to your appointment.
For very highly aggressive pets, purchase a basket muzzle and get your pet used to wearing it at home. Bringing the pet into the office wearing the basket muzzle will help everyone feel safer.
4: Bring your pet hungry with treats
High-value treats go a long way toward putting a nervous pet at ease. Bring your dog or cat to their appointment hungry, and come armed with their favorite treats. Tasty snacks can not only distract them during the appointment, but also reward them for a job well done. Always remember, if your pet needs to be sedated for his visit, follow the guidance provided by your veterinarian for fasting requirements.
5: Use calming pheromones and supplements on your pet
Take the edge off your pet’s anxiety with supplements or species-specific calming pheromones. Wipe down your cat’s carrier with Feliway, spritz some on their bedding, and coax your pet inside 15 minutes after pheromone application. For your dog, you can use an Adaptil collar, or spray the pheromone on a bandana you tie around their neck. Ask our team for recommendations before purchasing one of the many products available, since some ingredients can interfere with your pet’s medications.
6: Ask about pre-visit pharmaceuticals for your anxious pet
For nervous, fearful pets who become a quivering mass of nerves in veterinary hospitals, pre-visit pharmaceuticals (PVP) that you give at home before their appointment provide excellent relief. These medications will help calm and relax the most nervous of pets, without over-sedation.
We recommend a variety of treatments, depending on age, species and prior medical conditions. Use of “Chill” formula for dogs and gabapentin for anxious cats is becoming more frequent and can turn your angry pet into a pet who loves the vet (or at least isn’t peeing on himself or hissing or lunging at staff and other animals in the waiting area).
7: Monitor your own stress
Your best friend is incredibly in tune with your emotions, and will easily pick up on your stress. Stay calm, cool, and collected during your pet’s appointment, and you will likely see them mirror your behavior.
If you are a high-stress person at home (think work-from-home mode), be certain to do yoga, play calming music and destress with your pet present. Then do these rituals before your next vet appointment.
8: Schedule your pet’s appointment for a slower part of the day
Some pets do not like being with strange cats and dogs, and do best in an empty veterinary hospital. When scheduling your nervous pet’s appointments, ask for the slowest time of day to ensure a quiet, calm lobby.
9: Minimize interaction with other pets while in the waiting room
Putting pets who are strangers in a room together can be a recipe for disaster, especially when they’re already stressed and nervous. Help your four-legged friend remain calm by avoiding interactions with other pets, keeping your dog focused on you, and covering your cat’s carrier with a blanket.
10: Choose a veterinary team who practices low-stress handling techniques
Our office uses calming essential oils, slow movements, restraint techniques that mimic calming behaviors of the parents for their young and other methods to create the most comfortable experience for your pets. Do tell the staff about where your pet likes to be rubbed and bring their toys and treats from home to have staff use as positive rewards for their “Good Dog” and “Sweet Kitty” behaviors.
Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like to have addressed, email firstname.lastname@example.org.