When Your Pet Fears the Vet Clinic

Dec 11, 2016 / Behavior / General Care / Cats / Dogs

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Fear Free practices reduce pet stress

Does your cat skedaddle when the carrier comes out? Does your dog dive under the bed when he hears the “v-word”? A trip to the vet is some pets’ worst nightmare. As a consequence, owners may neglect important health care visits rather than put their pets and themselves through this stressful ordeal.

Tiana Daniels, a behavior technician and trainer at Veterinary Behavior at Illinois, a Chicago-based service of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, recently completed training designed to address this problem. The Fear FreeSM Certification Program was introduced at the 2016 annual conference of the American Animal Hospital Association.

“The program helps you understand the mental stresses pets experience when they visit the veterinary hospital,” Daniels says. “Some dogs fear the veterinary clinic because they’re afraid of being handled by strangers, or they’re afraid of vet-related objects, including syringes and nail clippers.”

Pet Stress Hampers Exams

A pet’s stress has multiple negative consequences during an exam. Stress increases body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. The veterinarian won’t know whether the abnormal readings mean a pet is sick or just stressed out. In extreme situations, pets act out of fear-based aggression and end up biting the doctor or technician.

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Above, Tiana Daniels offers Gus a special treat to direct his attention away from the examination. At left in the photo at the top of the page, Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a boarded veterinary behaviorist, examines Gus while he is focused on the treat.

The goal of the Fear Free program is to encourage technicians and veterinarians to change their approach to fearful patients in ways that will make visits safer and more successful.

“Fear Free practices educate owners to recognize canine and feline body language,” says Daniels. “We can bring signs of stress to the attention of the owner and offer ideas they can implement to reduce the stress.”

For example, a stressed dog may be panting, with muscles tensed, pupils dilated, and ears flat against her head. Pointing out these behaviors to the owner during the visit engages the owner in the conversation and the problem solving.

“Owners don’t like to see their pets panicked,” says Daniels. “They want to find ways to alleviate their pet’s stress just as much as we do.”

Pet Owners Can Take Action

Daniels offers a couple of tips for owners of pets that are afraid of the vet.

“For cat owners, don’t bring out the carrier only when it’s time to take your cat to the vet,” she advises. “Have the carrier out frequently with the door open so your cat can have other, more positive, experiences with it.”

Putting treats or part of a meal in the carrier is another way to generate positive associations with the carrier.

“For dog owners, bring your pet’s absolute favorite treats, whether that’s cooked chicken or hot dog, and give it to the technicians at your veterinary clinic to give to your dog,” she suggests.

Many dogs are too stressed to eat the typical biscuits offered at the clinic, but fewer will turn down a treat of such high value.

“If the dog still turns down the favorite treat, that gives us a good indication of how stressed out the dog feels, helping us modify how we handle him or her.”

Daniels has one patient whose owner brings him in for “happy visits.” A happy visit is when the pet comes into the clinic just to be exposed to the environment. The pet can walk around, greet the technicians, receive treats and attention from the staff, and then go home. That way, when the pet eventually comes in for an actual appointment, he already has many positive associations with the clinic.

Fear Free Approach Takes Patience

Daniels thinks the Fear Free Certification program will help change the way people view veterinary visits and help decrease the stress pets experience at clinics.

“It’s a long process, and it’s not going to change overnight,” Daniels cautions. “However, with patience and a thoughtful approach, we can change pets’ perceptions about the veterinary experience so that examinations and procedures can be performed more safely and effectively.”

A Fear Free practice not only decreases the pet’s stress, but it decreases the stress of the owner, technician, and veterinarian, making visits a more positive experience for everyone involved.

By Danielle Engel

Photos by Andrew Ballantyne