It is quite common for animals to experience fear and anxiety at the prospect of visiting the vet clinic.
Veterinarians refer to it affectionately as “White Coat Syndrome” and the symptoms can include increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, panting, vomiting/diarrhea, even aggression. Those of us with pets that experience White Coat Syndrome may be tempted to skip routine veterinary visits in order to spare them the stress (and ourselves the headache).
In response to this concern, some veterinary practices have dedicated themselves to going “fear-free.” Idaho based veterinarian Marty Becker, who is leading the initiative, says that vets can reduce stress for their patients by taking simple steps such as removing harsh lighting and bold colored clothing in favor of pastel colored walls, scrubs and lab coats. He also suggests keeping a wide array of treat options available to please every canine palate. More than 50 practices across the Nation have already gone “fear-free” and a certification program for veterinarians will begin later this year.
Now that we know our vets are working towards easing our dogs’ stress, what can WE do to help them feel more comfortable and make their visits go smoothly?
1. Call ahead.
The faster you can get your dog in and out of the clinic, the less his anxiety will build. Not to say that you should rush through your time with the vet. There is quite a bit more than just the exam involved in your appointment that could potentially be taken care of ahead of time.
Consider calling or stopping in a few days beforehand to discuss the topics the receptionist and technician would normally ask you about at your visit. Be ready to discuss your dog’s diet, heartworm, flea and tick meds, basic health condition and any concerns you may want addressed. Once the staff is armed with this info and aware of your pup’s anxiety they can expedite your appointment.
2. Give your dog a practice exam at home.
During the exam your vet is going to touch and handle your dog in ways that you normally don’t. For example, vets commonly examine each patient’s eyes, ears, teeth, skin and body condition. This involves bright lights, strange equipment, and up close and personal contact.
When you and your pup are relaxing or playing together, try running your hands over his body from head to toe, lifting each limb as the vet will do when palpating his joints. Peel back his lips to expose his teeth and open his mouth wide to reveal his throat. Lift up his ear flaps and peak inside or swab gently with a Q-tip. The more you attempt to do these things casually or playfully, the less terrifying it will be for your pooch come exam day.
3. Practice basic commands
“He never acts this way at home!” -If vets had a dollar for every time they heard this phrase from a client, they could all retire! Just because his manners seem to go out the window as soon as he crosses the clinic threshold doesn’t mean you have a bad dog. He’s just reacting to his fear.
Some dogs urinate or defecate, others bark frantically, some even snap at the staff. Reinforcing basic commands like “Sit”, “Stay” and “Down” gives your frightened fuzzbutt a leg up (pun intended) in the behavior department. Focusing on their commands at the office may even avert their attention from their fear and help to reduce stress.
4. Visit the office frequently, just to say “Hi!”
One of the major reasons dogs fear the veterinary clinic is simply that it is strange and unknown to them. Dogs rely on their senses of smell, hearing and sight to judge a situation. When they enter a vet hospital they smell fear, other dogs and cats, antiseptics and strange humans. They hear barking, whining, ringing phones, strange voices, etc. And they see a busy environment of people and pets unknown to them.
Inform the staff of your pet’s timid nature and ask what times are best to stop by for an informal visit. Ask that they weigh him, pet him (if aggression is not an issue) and give him his favorite treats each time you stop in. Your pooch will become accustomed to the sensory environment and learn that the vet’s office can be fun! Plus, frequent car rides can desensitize him to anxiety associated with driving.
5. Try a pheromone spray in the car and exam room.
If the drive to the office reduces your pup to a drooling, shaking, bundle of nerves, consider one of the natural pheromone sprays on the market. Adaptil makes products with Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP) that mimic the hormone released by whelping mothers to sooth their puppies.
Research has shown that these sprays, collars and diffusers can have the same calming affect on dogs throughout their lives. Pheromone products are sold and recommended by many vets.
6. Wait outside, or in the car.
One simple way to minimize your dog’s stress is to walk him around outside or keep him in the car until the technician is ready to bring you into the exam room. This allows you to spare your pooch the sights, smells and sounds of the waiting room.
Ask the receptionist to call your cell phone or wave you in when it’s time to go back. Dogs that behave aggressively at the vet should definitely avoid the waiting room.
7. Book the first appointment in the morning, or the first appointment right after lunch.
Much like doctors, vets can fall behind schedule due to unforeseen emergencies or difficult cases. Your best chances of being seen quickly and on time are the first appointment of the day or the first slot after the lunch break.
An added benefit of these time slots is that the vet may also be fresher and less stressed!
8. Bring backup.
Dogs can be a handful even when they aren’t stressed! It never hurts to bring along reinforcements. One person can walk the dog outside or sit with him in the car while the other fills out paperwork, answers questions, pays the bill, etc.
Having help will also reduce your stress level so that you can focus on your anxious pup.
9. Skip breakfast or feed them bland food.
A common response to stress in dogs is gastrointestinal upset, meaning you could end up with a mess on your hands! Call in advance and inform the staff of your dog’s sensitive stomach concerns.
They can recommend withholding food before the appointment, give you a few days worth of a prescription canned diet, or a home cooked recipe to minimize the chances of vomiting and diarrhea. For dogs with severe stress induced GI upset, the vet may even prescribe a few days of medication to reduce the symptoms.
10. Bring along a favorite treat or toy.
When I worked as a vet tech, one of my favorite patients was a high strung Golden Retriever who was very toy-motivated. All I had to do was give her a plush toy to hold in her mouth and I could draw blood, trim her nails, whatever! Even more common are treat motivated pups.
If your vet doesn’t offer your dog’s favorite snack, bring a baggie along to your visit. Give them to the staff to help them score some points and earn some trust from the patient.
11. Consider having a trainer accompany you.
If your dog’s behavior at the vet’s office is dangerous or destructive to himself or others, it may be time to bring in a professional. Lots of trainers offer to accompany you to the visit in order to assess and work with your dog at the scene of the issue.
This may seem extreme, but the safety of your pet and everyone else involved is the number one priority.
12. Be sure to stay calm yourself.
As you struggle to comfort your pet, your own anxiety levels may skyrocket. Our dogs are extremely intuitive. If they sense that we are stressed or nervous, they will likely feel that way, too.
13. Just say yes to drugs
There is nothing wrong with admitting that your dog needs help. Anxiety is a medical condition just like any other, and your pup deserves relief. If all else fails, set up a consultation with your vet to discuss the issue. He or she may recommend any number of drugs to help relieve the symptoms. There are low dose meds that can be taken daily for dogs who suffer from fear and anxiety in multiple situations. Pups whose fear only surfaces at the vet may just need a pill or two prior to their appointment in order to ease their symptoms.
With new medications, natural supplements and methods such as the Fear Free Clinic Initiative evolving daily, it may be realistic to enjoy smoother vet visits with our pups in the near future. In the mean time, give these steps a try or consult a veterinarian, trainer or behaviorist for advice tailored to your dog’s specific needs.