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Make Vet Trips a Fear Free Experience

26/12/2016 - Behaviour Matters

Have you ever feared anything? I wonder how many of you are afraid of going to the dentist? Some of you will be terrified and others may just be slightly anxious. Now, try to imagine that horrible feeling you get as the time of your appointment approaches and how it intensifies as you enter the waiting room and oh my goodness, that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you sit in the chair!

Fear of the dentist is quite common and if I was to ask you why you were frightened, you would probably say something along the lines of it hurts, it feels odd and it’s unpleasant. Even though we can rationalise this and know it’s for our own good, it does not make going to the dentist any easier.
However, when you enter the dental practice and are worried about the experience, they comfort, communicate and sometimes medicate to help you through the experience. I have known people who need to take medication just to get through the door. Now, let’s change dental practice to veterinary practice and dentist to vet and finally you are now the dog. Try to imagine from your dog’s perspective, your first visit as a puppy, you walk into a strange smelling environment where there is an array of unusual and sometimes worrying scents, sights and sounds. Somebody starts talking to you in a language you do not understand, while at the same time picking you up, prodding and poking you with sharp, cold and potentially painful things. The vet cannot talk to you and let you know it’s for your own good or that it’s going to be okay, instead you are just associating the sights, sounds and smells of the environment as something that predicted something unpleasant.

The next time you attend, you are probably already a little anxious remembering your previous visit, but this time you’re probably feeling a little unwell, which is why you are there in the first place and again you suffer a multitude of potentially invasive and painful procedures, you don’t know why this is happening, but you do remember this place is not good. You could even go in fit and well and end up having body parts removed and coming out feeling worse than when you went in. But now you realise it did not start there, it was when you were put in the moving tin box that people call ‘car’, and you only get put in ‘car’ when you end up at the scary place. On the next visit, they have to drag you into ‘car’, then into the waiting area and then the treatment room. You try to tell them you’re scared, but they are not listening, so you bite them – it’s the only way to get them off. Whereupon they suddenly place a cage over your mouth and hold you so you cannot move and then the process starts again.

Imagine if your dentist did this, how would you feel? But this is what it may feel like to your dog when it enters the veterinary surgery, so it’s no wonder they can become terrified of the vet. Could we make this potentially traumatic experience much less stressful and traumatic for our dogs?

Absolutely! We can do our bit as owners and all the vets I have ever had dealings with are more than happy to help reduce their patients’ fear and anxiety. Veterinary practices want to do the best for our dogs and are increasingly becoming aware of the advantages of reducing and minimising the stress and anxiety experienced by their patients during visits as it benefits everyone – it makes it easier to carry out routine examinations, it reduces the risk of aggression from the dog and so makes it safer for the staff and less stressful and embarrassing for the owners who are now more likely to seek treatment for the dog sooner than they would have done before and if your dog does require medication to be administered to help it through the procedure, being less anxious may well enable smaller dosages of medication to be used.

What you must understand is that your dog is not being dominant, stubborn, disobedient or bad – it is frightened! So, let’s start by taking a few moments to recognise the signs of anxiety and stress in your dog, which may well include excessive panting, pacing, scanning, dilated pupils and increased heart rate. You may also see lowered body positions, standing very upright or tense, they may attempt to escape, growl, snarl, snap, bite or a variety of other behaviours associated with the fight/flight response. If your dog is biting, it is not biting because it’s aggressive, it’s biting because it wants the scary thing to go away. Do not be fooled if your dog is doing nothing either, extreme fear can result in the animal freezing, giving the appearance of being okay, but in reality, is too scared to move.

Here are some simple tips that may help reduce the stress and anxiety for your dog when they visit the vet:

If you know you have a dog that is already terrified, speak to your vet, they will usually be more than happy to provide help, advice and maybe medication to support your dog through the visit. If they are not happy to help make your dog’s experience less stressful, see what other practices can offer you.

While at the vets, if your dog starts showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety, it would be well worth asking the vet if you could reschedule the appointment. This may seem a waste of the vet’s time or an inconvenience, but it is not – by going away and prepping for the next appointment, you will make the whole process far less stressful and more successful for all involved.

It may be as simple as scheduling an appointment at the end of the day to avoid other dogs if your dog is not good with dogs.

If you must complete a car journey to the vets, take them out other times and let them think that more often than not cars can lead to fun, make the car journey to the vet the exception rather than the rule.

Consider using pheromones and other calming scents to help reduce the dog’s stress and anxiety, before arrival spray it onto towels, bedding or purpose made garments.

Think about where you position yourself in the waiting room, have somebody assist you, so the dog is not left around the reception desk where it can get crowded with people and other dogs.

Ask the vet if you can be in the room with your dog, just being around somebody familiar is going to help your dog, even better feed some tasty food during the examination or procedure if you are allowed to, this will help keep the dog busy but they may also learn that good stuff happens here too.

You could pre-train some behaviours at home and turn routine husbandry such as nail clipping, administering ear drops, teeth cleaning and wearing a muzzle etc into a fun game. A competent positive reinforcement trainer can help you with this.

As a certified fear-free professional, I know there are many benefits to making the visit to the vets practice as fear free as possible and I hope this article has helped and given you something to think about.