Reducing Pet Fear in the Veterinary Setting: One Veterinarian’s Experience

6 min read

This article is courtesy of The Hannah Society.

By Rolan Tripp, DVM, CABC

"Shame on me!" I thought as I stood in the lobby of my own veterinary hospital 15 years ago. I was watching as one of my valued clients was dragging her dog into the hospital. The dog was a delightful Border Collie who obviously did not want to be there. There were two questions that came to mind: (1) Does this animal act like this at other locations? (Answer, no); and (2) Has she been to another veterinary hospital that I can blame for her fear? (No again.)

Dogs simply don’t lie or make up stories. This dog had been treated in such a way that she didn’t want to ever come here again. Not only was I embarrassed, but I wondered if this veterinary phobia might also influence loving owners who would not want to come to a place that frightens pets.

Being a veterinarian, and owning my own practice had long been a dream for me. Now I felt terrible that either I or someone I was responsible for had treated this otherwise wonderful animal (and others) in a way that made my supposed haven for animals seem like the dungeon of terror.

That moment was a turning point in my life. Since then I have been looking for ways to make the veterinary visit more fun and less scary for the pets under my care and have been attempting to influence other veterinarians to do the same.

Can you imagine a veterinary practice where virtually all pets LIKE to come in the door? I can now. After years of staff training, and implementing numerous protocols, my wife Susan and I gradually transformed our practice into something I was really proud of. Our basic strategy was to imagine what it was like to visit the hospital from the pet’s point of view. We had one Husky mix who repeatedly ran away from home to come to the hospital. I later attributed our high practice growth rate largely to managing the pet’s perception of the visit. If I were to own another practice, I would review every staff veterinarian’s performance partially on how much pets liked them.

We stocked tasty pet treats, and I became our very own practice, “Cookie Police.” I would come to any staff member and in a light hearted way say, “Got cookies?” If not, we would share a little laugh and go stock up his or her smock pocket. Soon staff members proudly showed me their Ziploc baggies with tasty treats. Staff was trained to give a small piece to every healthy pet who would accept one.

I have come to believe that one "stress test" of the pet’s mental state, is simply "acceptance of a treat." Refusing a treat is a flag to inquire if the pet would have accepted the same treat at home. If the response at home is different, this treat refusal may be the first sign of a pet developing veterinary phobia.

Through my study of animal behavior, I learned that the canine brain goes through distinct developmental periods. I learned that the canine critical socialization period was from 4-12 weeks of age, with some tapering effect up to about 16 weeks. We were already offering puppy classes, but many puppies weren’t enrolled, so we initiated steps to increase enrollment.

I finally understood that those pets deprived of early positive social experience could never be as great a companion animal as their genetic potential. It bothered me that we veterinarians were actually part of "the problem" when giving the outdated advice many of us learned in veterinary school (i.e., telling people to isolate their puppy). Instead I now encourage the owner to take the 8-week+ old puppy with them everywhere they legally can, avoiding contact with “sick or mean” dogs or people!

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