Lots of pets who would otherwise never so much as curl their lip in a human’s direction suffer the embarrassment of having their veterinary files adorned with stars, dots and “Will Bite!” invectives.

This too-common problem often arises not in the first few well-pet visits but soon after some social maturity sets in—usually between six months and two years of age. Unfortunately, this timing neatly coincides with the inevitable trauma of most spay and neuter experiences, which underlines the need to be fearful for these animals.

Though, surprisingly, most pets will submit to our veterinary whims without so much as a whimper, some will react with the age-old canine and feline weapons: a remarkably efficient use of teeth and claws.

Growling and backing up into a corner is as far as many will go but that often means the muzzle and/or the handy towel are brought in to help subdue the terrified creature, further enhancing their perceived need to fearfully render our scrubs to scraps. Indeed, many patients’ fears are continually reinforced by the veterinary heavy-handedness we sometimes apply in response to their behavior.

So what’s a responsible owner to do?

Knowing that positive veterinary interaction is necessary for long-term health, smart owners ask their vets for solutions, gently pointing out that the use of force is proving counter-productive (if that’s the case), or that you’d like to try different methods to make your pet comfortable in a healthcare setting.

To that end, here are my five tips:

[First make sure it’s fear aggression (it makes a difference). Ask your vet to identify the behavior as fear-based and not dominance based, as these tips below may not apply to many dominant-aggressive pets.]

1-No-visit visits

For dogs, frequent no-visit visits are recommended. I have my clients bring their mild to moderately fearful dogs in on a weekly basis for weighing, brushing, visiting with others in the waiting room, etc. Receptionists, techs or the doc, if she’s free, should offer tidbits of yummies and happy petting sessions if time allows. I don’t charge for this and I don’t see why any vet would—ask and ye shall receive.


I add the question mark because it’s a touchy issue. Young, healthy cats and dogs should, however, do well with sedatives/anti-anxiety medications, which are recommended if the behavior is moderate to severe or growing worse with each healthcare encounter.

These drugs can be especially useful in the short term by allowing positive interaction to take place at all, where previously fear dominated the entire interaction. No animal will improve with behavior modification if it’s impossible to get within range of an animal hospital without experiencing full panic mode.

3-Consider a specialist

Veterinary behaviorists are out there and they’re waiting for you to take this problem seriously. Pets who freak at the vet’s are less likely to have their healthcare needs met—and that’s a big deal.

4-Change your vet

If extreme heavy-handedness is the norm at your vet’s place or if you suspect it is (if things happen behind the scenes) and your concerns do not appear to have been taken seriously…get a new vet.

5-Ask for a house call

A change of scenery can help a lot. Being on your own turf without all the smells and sounds of the vet’s can make a huge difference. While it won’t help you out in a big emergency, getting home healthcare visits can make sure that at least your pet’s basic needs are met.

Tips or experiences to share? Toss 'em in the comment pile below.