Even the healthiest of pets will be inevitably subjected to regular vet visits - from yearly wellness checks and vaccines to senior exams and unexpected illnesses. While veterinarians and their staff are typically some of the biggest animal lovers around, that doesn't make the process any less frightening for anxiety-prone dogs and cats.
And if like me, you are the pet parent of a reactive pet, you know it can be that much harder to ensure things go smoothly.
So what can you do to make the ordeal less scary? We've got the tips and tricks you need below!
What is a fear-free vet?
Before we get into general suggestions for a stress-free vet visit, I want to discuss my experience with what's called a 'fear-free veterinarian'. When I was working on my dog's reactivity with a trainer, he suggested I switch from my standard vet and do some research to find a better fit.
According to the MSPCA, "Fear Free is the concept of practicing veterinary medicine that involves the reduction of feelings of stress in our patients which in return will result in a better experience for all involved — including pets, owners, and the veterinary team."
Created by Dr. Marty Becker, these clinics focus on avoiding stress as much as possible during your pet's visit. This could include a number of techniques: awareness of body language, utilizing calming pheromone spray, and soft music throughout the office, and employing medication to ease pain and fear. The techs and receptionists are told to speak in quiet tones, and approach pets slowly and calmly. If restraint is needed, they use items like soft towels or temporary muzzles.
While this may not seem different than a standard vet practice, I have taken my reactive dog to both and she prefers our fear-free vet. In fact, when the tech at her last visit had trouble finding a vein for a blood draw which started to cause Greta significant distress, she stopped, fed her a bunch of treats, and asked me to return later in the week so they could try again. Any sort of traumatic experience is minimized and/or halted so that pets have the most pleasant visit possible.
A fear-free vet is also more likely to work at your pet's pace. They allow nervous dogs and cats extra time to warm up and are extremely understanding when it comes to any sort of reactivity or aggression. They're also the most knowledgeable when it comes to anxiety medications that can help your pet relax.
Finally, one of the best parts of a fear-free vet practice is that you can schedule a 'happy visit'. These are quick drop-ins where your dog or cat can get pets, and treats, and leave without any scary procedures or treatments. Your pet is less likely to dread a vet visit if they know that sometimes only good things happen there! Most vet offices will probably be happy to do this for you, but it was so cool to see it as an actual option for scheduling at my fear-free vet.
You can use this database to find a fear-free vet practice near you.
If you're hoping for the most pleasant vet experience for your pet, we suggest following these tips:
Medicate: some pets need a little extra help relaxing. Meds like Gabapentin or Trazadone can be prescribed and given orally prior to a visit, to minimize anxiety.
Muzzle: pets like Greta (my dog) may need to be muzzled for the safety of vet staff. If you condition your dog properly to a muzzle, you can ensure that the experience is enjoyable rather than stressful for them. For long-term use, you'll want to go with something like a Baskerville to allow for panting and water consumption. For very short-term use (like during an exam), you can try a soft muzzle instead.
Reward and reinforce: the next time you pop your pup into the car for a vet visit, try also giving them one of their favorite toys or a brand new bone. The idea here is to associate something stressful with a positive. Over time, they may be more likely to have a positive association with their vet than a scary one.
Minimize car fear: if you're only letting your pet in the car to visit the vet, they may begin to fear car trips altogether. To minimize this strong association, try taking them for short drives to parks, the pet store, or even just around the block. That way, they won't automatically assume you're heading somewhere scary once the car doors open.
Desensitize: give your pet mock examinations to get them used to touch. Feed your pet treats for allowing paw touches. Touch their ears and move your hands around their eyes (carefully) and then give more treats. Have them lay on their side and "examine" their abdomen with soft touches, then treat some more. All of these efforts help make your pet more comfortable with human touch.
At the office
Waiting room, schmaiting room: my dog goes absolutely nuts in the waiting area of the vet office. It's filled with the smells of other dogs, people going in and out, and can be fairly chaotic. We side-step that stress by waiting in our car, calling the front desk, and heading in only when a room is ready. I even pay by handing my card to the tech and staying in the room till it's time to go.
Treats galore: our fear-free vet preps cans of baby food for us when we come for an exam. And my dog is pacified as long as she's eating that sweet sweet mush. Treats are a great way to distract your pet from the poking and prodding that happens during a visit.
Separate cats and dogs: if you're the proud owner of a cat, be sure to ask to either wait separately from the dogs or just wait in your car as was recommended above. The scent of dogs can be especially triggering to an anxious cat, even if they're in a carrier.
Towel ready: if your pet feels most comfortable being transported via crate, you may want to bring a towel to block out any distressing sights and sounds. Particularly for our feline friends, a towel can block out bright lights and make them feel more secure.
Know thy pet: one of the most important tips is to be in tune with your pet and their triggers. If your dog or cat becomes protective or aggressive with you in the room, you may want to do a seamless hand-off with your vet and let them take over the exam without you. Or if your presence is calming for them, ask your vet if you can remain in the room until your pet has to be taken elsewhere.
Follow all instructions: to avoid another vet visit, make sure you understand all post-visit instructions and are following them as instructed. You want to avoid any infections or illnesses that could have been prevented otherwise.
Decompress: if the vet is a stressful experience for your pet, ensure they have space and time to decompress. Offer them a comfy bed in a dark room away from any commotion so they can sleep off any anxiety,
Reward again: follow up every vet visit with a nice full Kong or special treat. Your pet did a great job and so did you!
Don't forget - the Pet Cloud app gives you live 24/7 access to vet professionals, so you can get advice and avoid unnecessary vet trips!
Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.