Most pet parents know that visiting the vet involves an epic struggle with a reluctant dog or cat. Pets have a kind of sixth sense when it comes to visiting the vet. They always seem know when one is coming, no matter how stealthy or cunning you think you’ve been.
Suddenly our pets develop sophisticated camouflage abilities, and they slink into impossibly small or high hidey holes. And after you wrangle them out, you have the challenge of carrying 170 pounds of Great Dane from the car to the waiting room. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
It might not be possible to make every single dog, cat, and rabbit love visiting the vet, but it is possible to help them stop being a quivering wreck. (Although if you don’t have pet insurance, you might be a quivering wreck on the way home.)
Here are 6 top tips to make visiting the vet easier.
Learn to recognize signs of stress in your pet
Pet parents are good at recognizing obvious signs of stress in their dogs, including hiding and wanting to escape. However, they miss subtler signs, such as lip licking, wide eyes, and flat ears. Other signs of stress in dogs include drooling, panting, yawning and displacement behaviors like scratching, sniffing and shaking (as if shaking their coats dry). It’s important to recognize the signs so you can use stress-reduction techniques to make your dog more comfortable in all environments, not just the vet.
Treats make bad things good
These days a lot of veterinary professionals know the value of treats. They reward pets for saying hi, for getting on the scale, for tolerating invasive procedures, and when saying goodbye. Treats take the edge off negative experiences and can change your pet’s feeling about the vet from unhappy to happy.
Familiarity breeds … relaxation
There are 2 main reasons pets are scared at the vet:
- It’s full of strange things (noises, smells, sounds, people, other animals)
- Bad things tend to happen
There are 2 ways to counter this:
- Make the strange familiar
- Make good things happen
You need to apply these 2 steps to the entire process, staring at the very beginning. For example, our cat probably hates the carrier if you only use it to visit the vet. You can change the association by making the carrier a happy place. Leave it out and make it comfy with a blanket, put in some treats so that good stuff happens and your cat might choose the carrier over her bed.
You should take the same approach to the car and the route to the vet. A lot of cats only ever go in the car to visit the vet. This is why they hate travelling so much. Start taking your cat on short jaunts, using the carrier, and make sure they end on a positive note – like in a jackpot of treats.
If your dog is happy in the car, but knows the particular route that leads to the vet, you should use it on your way to favorite walking spots and also on casual drives that don’t go anywhere. That way the route loses its association with a horrible destination. You can also find a different route to the vet and use it to take your pet to the vet for fun.
Yep, visiting the vet for fun. Call your veterinary clinic and arrange to pop in for a fun visit to build positive associations and memories. Your veterinarian can play with your pet and give her treats. The staff can give her treats and plenty of affection. She can sniff the corners and just hang out and then you can leave and go for a walk in her favorite spot. Do this often enough and your pet will look forward to visiting the vet. Moreover, provided she gets treated during all ensuing examinations, her associations will remain positive.
It’s important to set up positive associations with vets and check-ups as early as possible. So your first visit to the vet with your puppy or kitten should be a fun visit. If you adopt an older dog or cat, you should try to get a few fun visits before their first check-up is due or before the first signs of illness appear in a very senior pet.
Prep work at home
One of the most important things you can do for your pet is to get them used to being touched, handled, and prodded and poked. Use treats to build positive associations with all the touching and take it slowly. Don’t grab the nail clippers, snatch your pet’s paw and launch into a full-blown clipping/wrestling session. Instead, get some treats, gently touch your pet’s paw for a second and then treat. Do this several times and then build duration until you can touch their paws for about a minute. Then you can work on holding their paws gently and progressing until you can apply gentle pressure. When you can do this, you can start touching their nails (still using treats). And then you can introduce the clipper.
Paws are a common hot spot. Other hot spots include ears, eyes, mouth and under the tail. You should work on all of these areas using the same basic principle as above. This means small steps, slow progression and lots of treats. You’re aiming to make your dog comfortable enough with all sorts of touching so that you can give them ear drops, eye ointment, clip their nails and brush their teeth.
Running your hands over their entire body is a good way to desensitize your pet to being touched and it will also allow you to find lumps, scratches, and spots sensitive to pain. You can use massage or TTouch techniques to relax your dog during handling, and you can incorporate handling into different games. For example, you can lean over them when playing tug or fetch to makes the action less threatening. This way it’s not obvious that you’re doing a ‘touch and handling exercise’.
This makes it easier for your vet to manipulate your dog without risking a bite to the hand or face. It also means you won’t have to claim the third party liability portion of your pet insurance.
Many people think that dogs in muzzles are bad. They get offended if it’s suggested that their dog should be muzzled because it implies that their dog is bad or aggressive. However, muzzles are valuable safety devices that protect you, your dog and your vet. Even dogs with gentle natures can snap and bite when they’re afraid and in pain. In most cases it’s instinctive and the dogs don’t even realize what they’re doing. A basket muzzle will prevent your dog from biting and doesn’t cause dogs (or cats) undue discomfort or distress. You do need to prepare them for wearing a muzzle, however. So crack open the treats and make muzzles fun.
Be aware of the vet’s manner
Vets, like doctors, can have different bedside manners. Bad bedside manners don’t (necessarily) mean that they don’t love animals, but it can mean that they aren’t particularly good with them. So, if your vet doesn’t read your pet’s body language and adapt her examination to suit, or if your vet seems brusque and harried and in a rush and makes your pet feel unduly uncomfortable or anxious, you should find someone else.
Good vets pay attention to your pet’s emotional state and will adapt their approach to ensure dogs and cats don’t feel threatened or anxious (as far as possible). For example, if your pet is quivering in fear, your vet might ask you to hold her and comfort her while they continue the examination more slowly and gently. Good vets gently talk to the pets they’re examining to soothe them and keep them calm. Good vets will also put you at ease, so you trust that your furkid is in safe hands.
Remember that this works both ways and that you should also do your best to build your vet’s trust in you. This means you have to be honest at all times. If your dog has a history of growling or biting when being handled or is reactive towards people in any way, you need to inform the veterinary clinic when you make the appointment. This allows staff to take the necessary precautions.
You also need to be honest about how your pet came to be in the condition concerned. So if you’ve been experimenting with a controversial new pet diet (perhaps even against your vet’s recommendation), you need to admit it. Successful treatment depends on having the correct information. You could put your pet’s life in danger if you conceal embarrassing information.
You are your pet’s guardian and advocate
When you take a pet into your home, you take responsibility for every aspect of their welfare and that includes minimizing stress and anxiety at all times. If you put in the effort to build positive associations with potential stressors early on then you can make everything, including visiting the vet, a breeze.
And if you have pet insurance, paying vet costs for expensive veterinary procedures is a breeze too.