Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Low-stress Veterinary Visits a Treat for Pets and People

Pet Column for the week of January 10, 2011

Related information:

Related site - Furnetic primary care clinic at the Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Julia Disney
Information Specialist

Imagine: you are in a foreign country. You do not speak the language, nor do the inhabitants speak yours. Suddenly, you fall ill and are rushed to the hospital. You have no idea what is wrong with you, and suddenly you are being poked and prodded with no one able to explain what they are doing to you. Would that make you a little--or a lot--nervous?

This is the experience that our animals may face when they visit the veterinarian. We cannot explain to them in words why we need to stick them with a needle or give them a pill. Because of that language barrier, veterinarians must find other ways to communicate a sense of safety and build trust with their patients.

Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian with a special interest in animal behavior, makes low-stress handling a priority for all the patients at Furnetic, a small animal practice that is part of the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Ballantyne says that making the trip to the vet's office less scary and more fun for pets will increase safety for both people and pets.

The concept of low-stress handling in a veterinary clinic is centered around establishing a sense of trust and confidence for pets and pet owners. "Fear is the biggest reason for misbehavior," Dr. Ballantyne says, so making pets feel safe and comfortable at the clinic can make a world of difference in how they respond to veterinary care.

Many pet owners likely have an idea of how fear manifests in their animal. Maybe your dog, like mine, begins panting, shaking, and darting her eyes around the room ("hypervigilance") when she visits the vet. Or perhaps instead, your dog yawns, licks its lips, puts its ears back, or puts its tail between its legs. And your cat may crouch and become tense, and you might notice that its pupils are quite dilated or its tail is twitching more than usual. All of these are signals to you and your veterinarian that your animal is fearful.

At Furnetic, doctors and technicians are trained to recognize and address pets' fearful behavior and to make the veterinary experience a pleasant one for patients.

Creating a comfortable environment for pets begins in the reception area. For cats, especially, finding an area to wait that is quiet and dog-free is vital to starting the visit off on the right foot. Once in an exam room, you might notice that your pet may feel more comfortable on the floor throughout the appointment, while others prefer to be on the exam table, perhaps with a towel or blanket to sit on. Paying attention to patients' behavioral cues allows both you and your veterinarian to determine what makes your pet most comfortable.

Dr. Ballantyne also points out that allowing an already nervous animal to pace around an exam room will only cause the animal to become more worked up. Instead, she recommends that owners guide the pet, which promotes more relaxed behavior, ultimately making the pet calmer.

At Furnetic, staff members avoid causing resistance and avoid prolonged struggling. Dragging your dog by the leash or collar as she digs her heels in creates a more stressful environment. Instead, owners and staff try coaxing the patient to the desired location with a calm voice and maybe a treat or two. If the pet is not calm enough to cooperate for a blood draw or other procedure, the owner is usually asked to return another day when the pet is calmer rather than forcing the pet to give in.

Giving treats is another important strategy. In more technical terms, this is called "counterconditioning." Essentially, this means changing the way your pet feels about a certain experience. For example, perhaps your dog or cat hates it when you trim his nails. You might begin counterconditioning by giving him treats while you lightly touch his paws, slowly working up to trimming over a period of days to weeks.

Teaching your pet that a visit to the veterinarian can be a fun experience should begin as early as possible, Dr. Ballantyne says. After only a few months of life, your pet has developed impressions of what is "good" and "bad." If you have a puppy or kitten, you can begin early by giving it treats while handling it. This will aid in teaching your pet that it should be comfortable being handled by both you and others. However, if you have an older pet that becomes stressed with handling, Dr. Ballantyne recommends seeking the advice of a veterinarian.

By teaching an animal that the veterinarian is friendly rather than scary, you can increase the ease of veterinary visits for all involved, ultimately allowing your pet to get a lifetime of the best healthcare possible. For further information on low-stress handling, contact your local veterinarian or the Furnetic clinic at the Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine.