By Carol McCarthy
You know the drill: If you say the word “vet” in front of your dog, he runs and hides. Or maybe your lap-loving cat tries to claw her way up the wall once you get to your vet’s waiting room. Visits to the vet are stressful on pets and their parents, but they don’t have to be. We’ve rounded up some tips from savvy pet professionals to make your next routine check-up truly routine.
Terri Bright, Ph.D., director of Behavior Services at Angell Animal Medical Center in Massachusetts—a nonprofit animal hospital that treats about 50,000 animals a year—says preparing your pet for all that a vet visit entails is key. “Train your cat to love the cat carrier so they are in these situations not only on a scary visit. Make it a place where good things happen,” she says. For example, keep the carrier in the house and feed your cat in it.
Robin Bennett, board chair of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and a certified professional dog trainer and author, says her number-one tip is to familiarize your pup with the vet’s office ahead of time. “Take a few trips there when he doesn’t need to get shots or get treated, and it’s not scary,” she says. “Take him to play in the waiting room or just sniff around and meet the staff or go see the exam rooms if you can.”
Some animals never go in the car except to go to the vet; this is especially true with puppies and cats. That means just getting into the car stresses out your pet. To avoid that, Bennett suggests taking your pet in the car to places other than the vet’s office from time to time.
If you know your pet has a particularly hard time at the vet, speak to the staff ahead of time. Find out if there is a less busy day of the week or time, when the wait is less and fewer animals are around, so you can get in and out more quickly
Get your pet used to people handling him while he is young. Bennett suggests practicing handling exercises with your puppy by picking up his ears and looking in, picking up his paws and handling his toes and nails. It’s also a good idea to touch him around his legs, chest and tummy. Every time you poke him in a new place, give him a treat. Do this daily with a puppy, so he is ready for handling by a veterinary professional. The same techniques work well for cats who are not used to being handled.
If you are nervous or unprepared for your vet visit, your pet will know it. Attend to all the details ahead of time so you can be the calm, steady presence he knows and loves. Compile your pet’s medical history, lists of medications and recent concerns and have that information at your fingertips on your phone or on paper. Check your wallet to be sure you have cash or another form of payment that your vet accepts. Be sure your pet has eaten, exercised and relieved himself before heading out, unless your veterinarian has recommended otherwise.
Be sure to leash your dog to and from the car and secure him in his seat with a pet harness or whatever device you use. For little dogs, cats, rabbits and other small animals, use a carrier. Keeping your pet secure into and out of the vet’s office will help ease everyone’s anxiety.
Like the Peanuts character Linus, your pet might feel more secure if he has his favorite blanket, chew toy or stuffed animal with him. As you prepare for your vet visit, be sure it is easily accessible—in your purse, car or animal carrier. An old t-shirt or towel that smells like home (and you!) can be put on the exam table to make the exam room less scary.
Talk to your pet calmly as you normally would as you enter your vet’s waiting room. Be on time and have all documents you need ready for the staff so you can quickly check in and sit quietly with your pet.
When you enter the waiting room with your cat in her carrier, don’t let other pet parents bring their dogs right up to her, Bright says. And be sure to keep a little space between your cat and all the other curious critters and people.
Ensuring a little personal space is important for dogs, too. Keep yourself between your pup and other animals. Bennett advises that you avoid letting your dog make eye contact with another dog and put some physical distance between you, your dog and any agitated animal. Keep your dog facing you at all times to avoid any escalation or confrontation with other animals.
Use training commands that you have practiced to get your dog to heel, sit or otherwise remain under control in the waiting room. Reward his good behavior with frequent treats. Reward him when he sits, looks at you, or in general, keeps his attention on you and away from the other animals.
If you offer your dog a high-value treat, such as string cheese, and he turns his nose up at it, that means his anxiety is particularly high. “If your dog won’t eat, then you know your dog is really stressed. Make sure to tell the vet or staff,” Bright says.
If your pet remains highly anxious, simply wait outside or in your car, Bennett suggests. Just go in and tell the staff you are there. They can signal to you or call you when the doctor is ready. That goes for scaredy-cats and other small animals as well. Some clinics have exam rooms with doors that open directly to the outside, allowing you to bypass the waiting room completely.
Bright says the biggest mistake she sees is when a pet parent and staff try to muscle the animal through an appointment. “You see a cat being held down by four people with cat gloves, or muzzling a dog, and five people are holding him down,” she says. Before choosing a vet, find out if the staff practices “fear-free handling” techniques. Oftentimes, “less is more” when it comes to restraining nervous pets.
Once you get in the exam room, don’t let staff crowd your animal. “People approaching from the front with two hands coming at the animal and staring in its eyes is scary,” Bright says. “When someone approaches from the side, that’s much less scary.” Advise your vet and staff to approach your pet indirectly if they do not already do so. Most savvy veterinarians and staff will also take a few minutes to chat before approaching a nervous patient, which allows pets to acclimate to the sights, smells, and sounds of new people. And if your pet hates the exam table, ask your veterinarian if he or she is willing to work them on the floor.
If your animal is nervous by nature despite your best efforts to keep him calm, you can try using pheromones that have a calming effect, Bright says. Such substances seem to work well for cats and can be purchased at a pet supply store and sprayed on a blanket that you drape over the carrier. The canine version can be sprayed on your dog’s bandana or dabbed on his collar. If your dog or cat gets aggressive at the vet’s office, you might want to speak to him about prescribing a mild sedative that you can give before his appointment, Bright suggests.
Be sure to reward good behavior throughout the visit, Bennett says. Reward your pet in the waiting room, in the exam room, as the doctor handles him — or when he is done handling him, if he is too nervous for treats — and when you leave the vet’s office. This will help reinforce that the vet’s office is a place where rewards are plentiful.
Once you are home, give your pet some down time, Bennett suggests. He is likely tired out from the adventure of visiting the doctor. Just keep an eye on him for any reaction to a vaccination or other medication that was receive, or any unusual behavior.
Continue handling your pet as the vet would periodically at home and reward him for his good behavior. Gently poke and prod monthly to re-assess his tolerance and general health. “If all of a sudden he gets weird about his ears being touched, that could be an indication that he has an ear infection,” Bennett says, noting the value of staying attuned to your pet’s health through regular handling.
Remember, you can take the pain out of your pet’s visits to the vet by being prepared, staying calm and getting him used to the experience with proper training. Don’t be afraid to speak with your veterinarian if you’re concerned about your animal’s particular needs. And if all else fails, ask your veterinarians if a house call might make future appointments less stressful for everyone involved.