All dogs must go to the vet at some point in their lives. And most people acknowledge that going to the vet is a distressing and scary experience for their dogs. Despite this, it seems that pet owners are largely unaware of the signals dogs use to communicate that discomfort. (Mariti et al, 2015)
Dr Marie Hopfensperger, DVM, DACVB, states that about 10% of puppies show signs of fear at their first visit, but when talking about adult dogs, that figure jumps to 60-80% of dogs showing signs of fear at the vet’s.
That dogs experience fear and distress in veterinary, grooming and husbandry contexts has been largely normalised, unfortunately.
In recent years, a great movement in cooperative care has really taken off in dog training, largely inspired by captive animal training. Husbandry training is a long and ongoing journey, and most pet owners will not be able or willing to participate to the fullest. Indeed, many vets or groomers don’t always have the resources to invest in these programs.
Regardless, there are lots and lots of things that pet owners can do, that require little effort, that can greatly improve their dog’s comfort, reduce stress, increase safety and make it all easier on everyone.
That’s what we will be talking about today; largely, effective management strategies.
Some dogs will require more specialised, in-depth and specific care and we can help you with that, but on a more one-2-one basis.
Prepare a Vet-Kit
Get ready for vet visits by building a Vet-Kit and having it ready in a specific bag:
- a bag you can easily have on your shoulder or back so your hands are free (it should be washable and it’s a good idea to use a water proof bag for ease)
- your dog’s mat or bed that is a nice place for them to be, associated with lots of rewards
- your dog’s gear and muzzle, where relevant
- stuffable toys and lappable toys or other dispensers, especially if delivering treats while the dog is muzzled
- HIGH value and more-liquid treats that your dog loves
- favourite toys
- a notepad (or use your phone) with your notes of questions that you want to ask and discuss, prior to your visit, and notes that you can record during and after your visit – it’s tricky to remember everything, especially when you are doing your best to manage your dog’s comfort too
Wash everything when you come home after each visit!
Bring your dog’s mat or a flat, non-slip bedding. This is helpful if you are waiting, so your dog can rest comfortably, and to have up on the table to increase your dog’s grip and comfort.
Medium or large dogs may be more comfortable being treated on the floor, so you can have them stand on their mat for traction.
Ahead of vet visits, you can make the mat a nice place to be by giving your dog chews and stuffables there and by rewarding the dog when he goes there.
Sit back, bring the mat close to you, and feed your dog’s entire dinner, one piece at a time, on their mat. Even your dog getting ten rewards, on their mat, most days will help them build a happy response to its presence and being there.
Anything you bring to the vet’s, including your dog’s bed or mat, should be washable and cleanable and you should wash it after each visit.
Obviously bring your dog’s collar, lead and so on. Even if your dog is walked on a harness, have them wear a collar too so that you can gently hook it should that be needed. Make sure to use your dog’s regular gear that’s used for other outings, and not just the vet’s.
Muzzle training and muzzle use is something that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Muzzling helps to keep veterinary staff safe, and feel more comfortable, allowing procedures to be completed efficiently and quickly.
But just like with matwork, we need to build a VERY positive response to the sight of the muzzle, and wearing the muzzle in lots of other places.
You can practice helping your dog become more comfortable sticking their nose into something by simply lining a paper cup or yoghurt pot (depending on your dog’s size) with something irresistible (like cream cheese, yoghurt, butter, pate or whatever floats their boat):
If muzzling is required, muzzle the dog before they become distressed so that might mean before you even enter the vet’s.
We want to bring things that your dog likes and associates with feeling happy and comfortable. That means the best of the best food rewards and your dog’s favourite toys or games.
Stuffable toys that allow for lapping or lappables like Lickimat or Lickibowl type toys are wonderful additions. (Those links bring you to clips of Decker demonstrating their use; you can buy these products in most petshops and online.)
Use lappable treats so that should sedation be required, these can pass through the stomach faster. Although vets, RVNs and staff may argue that feeding the dog prior to sedation may increase the risk of aspiration, and while that is true, Westlund 2015 argues that the (small) risks are outweighed by the benefits.
These liquid cat treats are yummy, cheap and convenient:
Similar can be purchased online too, e.g. here.
Baby foods with dispensers are great also and tend to be very high value – they come in larger amounts so may be more suitable for bigger dogs.
A small snuffle mat may be a great addition if the dog can have more solid soft treats.
The treats above appear to be super high value are very soft and can be broken up easily!
When choosing treats:
- smelly and soft
- cut or broken up easily
- small enough to be eaten quickly
- high meat, fat and/or protein content
- easy to deliver and toss
- visible on the floor
- don’t travel too much on the floor
If your dog loves a particular toy, bring that too. It’s not a good idea to have squeaky toys where other dogs are in close contact, such as in the waiting room, but talk to your vet about using them before, during and after in the consultation room.
Use the same treats and toys in lots of other non-vet contexts too.
Before you start
Exercise your dog well and make sure they have had plenty of opportunities to toilet, before your visit.
Don’t feed your dog a meal before going to the vet’s and do your best to stay calm too. The goal is to make sure that vet visits for your dog is as stress-reduced as possible, so be a good advocate for your dog.
Be prepared to stand up for your dog and discuss their needs with your vet team – you should be in this together!
Discuss your dog’s requirements with their vet team before each stage of your appointment and feel safe and confident with your planning and approach.
If your dog is experiencing distress, it’s ok to ask for a break and even discuss urgency of treatments: does this need to be done right now?
Sometimes, a vet or RVN will ask to take your dog to the back for some treatment. Certainly, many vets, nurses, groomers etc. report that the dog seems easier to handle when not with their owners. This is often erroneously blamed on owners ‘spoiling’ their dogs or some such, but this is unlikely. It’s much more likely that your dog is far less confidence and comfortable without you, so effectively shuts down a little and is easier to handle.
Whether this needs to happen or not, may be individual. I prefer not to allow this happen. But, for some dogs, getting the procedure done quickly is far less stressful than a drawn out process.
As much as I understand that the vet team is under time pressure, especially for routine consultations, giving your dog some time, particularly when you go into the consultation room, will help everyone settle and calm. Greetings can wait!
While you discuss your dog and their needs, allow your dog to sniff the room on a loose lead, giving them space from other people there. Be cool and neutral.
Seek medical help to support your dog and reduce their anxiety. Discuss the use of Sileo or Gabapentin, for example, with your vet prior to visits so that your dog has a little neurochemical help with coping.
Waiting areas are one of the main areas in which not much improvement has been made in many veterinary practices and hospitals.
They are usually too small, with little room to make space between pets, doors often open right into them so dogs appear at a door on top of waiting pets, they have slick floors and are filled with sights, sounds and smells that dogs have come to associate with fear.
You don’t have to go in
As such, for the most part, I DON’T recommend that you wait, with your pet, in the waiting room.
- leave your dog in the car or with someone outside, well away from the entrance or exit
- go into reception and let them know that you have arrived and are waiting outside
- when you go in, walk your dog briskly and directly into the consultation room
- bring your dog straight out afterwards and have them wait outside
- return to pay and discuss your dog’s care
Passing other dogs can be stressful for many dogs, but even dogs who might be comfortable in proximity with other dogs, might find passing stressed dogs in a stressful context when stressed themselves all too much.
Discuss this with your vet team before bringing your dog in; perhaps there is another entrance you can use, maybe your vet or RVN can check the waiting room and reception area so you can get the all clear before bringing your pet in or out.
You can ask your vet team and reception team about quieter times for appointments or times when it will be easier to get your dog in and out quickly and quietly.
If you do go in…
Give your dog as much space as you can and set up their mat and keep the treats flowing.
Construct a simple visual barrier by moving a chair or chairs and hanging your jacket or a blanket across the back to provide your dog with some privacy. This also helps other patients, with one less dog to be faced with as they move about.
If possible, leave your dog in the car and come into the waiting room to set up so that your dog can walk in and their familiar mat is immediately available, in their own little private nook.
Park your dog on their mat, for safety and comfort:
It’s best not to let others approach or pet your dog. Mostly, people are well meaning but your dog needs time and space to process what’s going on.
Even if your dog seems excited and generally likes interactions with unfamiliar people, all that can be a little much in this context.
Hugging and constant fussing of the dog might not be appreciated from you either; that’s certainly something we think is comforting but may not be for dogs. Work hands-off instead with treats and toys!
Make sure that going in the car doesn’t equal a trip to the vet; that’s a quick way to poison you dog’s attitude to car rides and comfort in the car.
With puppies, or dogs who have not had much experience in the car, do your best to get them out for short trips daily. When I say short, I mean one or two minute trips at the start; might just pull out of the drive, go around the block and back home.
This helps to establish the car as no big deal and no reason to get excited.
Keep it fun and friendly
Going to the vet’s can mean lots of waiting around for your dog; waiting to get there, waiting to go in, waiting while the humans chat.
Along with the fear associated with going to the vet’s, waiting around can lead to increased anxiety in this context.
Have fun and play games!
While you wait and while the humans chat, play simple fun and training games with your dog to keep them moving, take their minds off the vet-stuff, and so that they can have some positivity.
What simple tricks does your dog do – practice them while waiting. Short and sweet behaviours that add a little movement and lots of rewards.
Like hand targets with movement:
A simple blanket puzzle can be a great way to keep your dog busy and entertained:
We play treat tossing and ball tossing while we wait and chat:
Minimal restraint/Maximum yummies
Only restrain your dog, with your vet team’s guidance, as much as is necessary. Full pinning and wrestling is rarely required and when it is, sedation may be a better option and a topic for discussion.
Hook your dog’s collar and stay within view so you can comfort and settle them. Talk to your dog calmly.
Make rewarding things happen! Offer a delicious stuffable toy, lappable toy, or other dispenser for muzzled dogs, as soon as the examining or treatment context begins.
As best as possible, allow your dog access these treats throughout. This can help redirect their focus and keep them still, meaning less restraint and less risk for all.
Practice at home too:
And discuss consent routines with your vet team, after practicing at home too:
Planning and preparation is on you! We know your dog will need treatments and invasive handling, and we know they find that scary; do them a favour and prepare them.
Discuss opportunities to bring your dog for happy visits, where no treatments happen. Your dog goes to the vet’s, gets some treats and goes home again.
Maybe you practice bread-crumbing onto the scales for a weight check:
Or using hand targeting, and other fun stuff, to go up and down off the scales:
Maybe you just practice some tricks or have a game.
No matter, go in, have only yummy fun things happen and leave again. Not every visit is about terror!
Help your dog do well with taking pills, which can often be a challenge, by playing pill-poppin’ games, in advance, when no pills are required.
If you have a catcher:
Slight of hand:
The key to success is a little practice at home, in calm scenarios, that are not associated with handling and treatments.
While cooperative care is certainly the goal, I recognise that this isn’t possible for all pet owners, or even most. Taking some tips from this post and applying those relevant to your dog’s needs and that of your vet team, will go along way to helping boost their comfort, allow them to feel safe, and reduce everyone’s stress.
And this is just a start, you might already have some great approaches to keeping it cool, so do please share.