I became a veterinarian because I love animals. Turns out, not all of them love me back because I am a veterinarian. While vet care is vital to keeping your pet healthy and increasing their longevity, trips to the vet can be a stressful time for both owners and pets alike. I’ve compiled some tips/tricks to try and help make the process as smooth as possible.
Disclaimer: This post is filled with general information that will not apply to 100% of cats and dogs. Please discuss with your veterinarian about your pet if you have any specific questions or concerns.
1. Practice handling your pet at home. If your pet doesn’t like it when you touch their ears and paws, it’s very unlikely they’re going to enjoy a stranger doing it to them. The best and easiest time to implement this training is in puppy or kittenhood but it can absolutely be started later in life. It’s important to have patience with your pet and respect their boundaries to keep both you and them safe during the training process. Make sure you are familiar with your pet's body language and what it's telling you as repeating these triggers can make matters worse. You can find a brief overview of body language here:
If you pet allows for it and doesn’t act troubled with touch, here’s a list of areas to examine and positions to put them in:
Paw touching can be an especially difficult one for pets since most pets directly connect paw touching with nail trims. For these pets, it can be helpful to train them to use a scratch board to file their nails in lieu of traditional nail trims. Also teaching the “shake” or “high 5” command can be helpful to put a more positive spin on paw touching.
2. Play with or exercise your pet prior to their visit. I want to be clear that this only applies to their healthy annual check ups and not for sick visits. If your dog is limping, the last thing I want you to do is take him for a 2 mile run before coming to see me. However, if your pet is a ball of energy, tiring them out some prior to a vet visit can be helpful.
3. Set your appointment first thing in the morning or call before entering the building. If your pet gets anxious when they see or hear other animals, the best time to set your pet’s appointment is the very first time slot in the morning. The clinic won’t be as busy and there is less of a chance that your veterinarian is running behind with emergencies and phone calls which means less time in the hospital for you and your pet. If you are unable to make an early appointment time, call the front desk before entering the clinic and see if there is an exam room available yet and if appointments are running on time- some pets would prefer to wait in the car than they would in the clinic.
4. Make sure you’re calm. This may mean you have to remove yourself from the equation. Our pets are very in tune with our emotions - this is what makes the human-animal bond so unique! However, there are downsides to that too. When we as owners are nervous or anxious, our pets can become nervous and anxious too. For some pets, they have a protective instinct when their owners are around. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to run as a curbside vet clinic for over a year which meant pets were separated from their owners for exams and treatments. As hard as it may be to hear as a pet owner, the large majority of pets did much better away from their owners. Your pet may benefit from you leaving the exam room during the exam or treatments.
5. Make sure your pet comes hungry. As long as your pet doesn’t have any diet-dependent health issues such as diabetes, skipping breakfast the day of their exam can be helpful. This ensures that there is plenty of room in their stomachs for good ole fashion bribes - a.k.a. treats.
6. Bring your pet’s favorite snacks. We try to have a good assortment of treat options for pets but we can certainly see a few picky eaters who don’t like what we have available. If there is a specific treat your pet loves, bring it along and give it to the veterinary staff to give your pet. This can help strengthen the trust between your pet and us a bit quicker. Same goes for toys! If your pet has a ball or fluffy toy they love to play with, we would love to use that toy to interact with them!
7. Get your pet used to car rides. For a lot of pets, the car ride itself is the worst part of their vet visit and they are already a ball of anxiety before they’ve even made it to their appointment. First, we want to rule out motion sickness which can also look a lot like anxiety - drooling, lip licking, panting. Untreated motion sickness can also lead to car anxiety. If you are seeing any of these signs, ask your veterinarian about using a medication called Cerenia (an FDA approved drug for motion sickness in pets) to see if it helps with their clinical signs.
For car ride anxiety, there are a few things you can try.
8. Anti-anxiety medications. The normalization and use of anti-anxiety medications for vet visits has made a world of difference. Before these medications, it was not unusual to have two people holding a pet down and a third one giving vaccines to a poor, scared, yowling animal who is fighting for their life. This practice is outdated and unnecessary today. Many pets benefit from receiving calming and sedative medications prior to their vet visits. The two most common medications used today are Trazodone and Gabapentin. Both of these medications have a large margin of safety. Ask your veterinarian to learn more.
9. Seek out an at-home vet. Some pets are just not made for trips to the vet clinic. Luckily, there are at-home vets who are able to come to you where your pet can stay in their familiar environment to receive the general care they need. Please note that services may be limited - a home vet isn’t going to be able to bring an entire x-ray machine into your house, but this option is great for annual visits and minor illnesses such as ear infections.
10. Bring your pet in for “happy visits”. A “Happy Visit” is when you bring your pet in for an unofficial appointment to strictly get treats and attention and ZERO handling or treatments. I recommend doing this early in the morning or around the lunch hour when the vet clinic is less busy. It is helpful to call your vet ahead of time to check in with them when a good time might be to stop by. For these visits, the vet staff will give your pet attention and treats and keep the experience as positive as they can. The goal is to reframe your pet’s perception of the vet as being a place where they only get poked with shots or handled by strangers whenever they come.
11. Keep your pet carriers out all year around. I see this mistake made by pet owners - especially cat owners all the time. I know pet carriers aren’t the prettiest things to have in your living room but if your pet only sees the carrier when they end up in the car or at the vet, their anxiety is already building before you’ve left the house. Keep carriers out all year around. Throw high-value treats into the carriers every so often so your pet enjoys going into them. Place a comfy bed in there for them to nap in from time to time. NEVER lock your pet in the carrier thinking they will get used to it and wear themselves down if you keep them in there long enough or use it as a “time-out” space. Instead, make it a safe space for them that they enjoy being in.
12. Muzzle training. Muzzle training is extremely helpful for pets who need to wear a muzzle at the vet. Don’t be embarrassed if we have to place a muzzle on your pet at the vet - muzzles get a bad rap and are often associated with a negative connotation when in fact they are just another tool in our toolbox to keep you, your pet, and veterinary staff safe. I have examined many dogs who wear muzzles regularly at the vet who have never shown a single sign of aggression. The reality is, we are often strangers to your pets who may be doing uncomfortable things to them like examining their ears when they have an ear infection or moving their leg around when it hurts and they’ve been limping on it. We don’t blame them for their actions when they are in pain or uncomfortable. The concept of muzzle training is very similar to that of keeping your pet’s carrier out all year around. They are going to see it as a negative thing if every time they wear one they are getting a shot. Instead, purchase a properly fitting muzzle (such as a basket muzzle) for your pet and get them used to wearing it at home, on walks, on car rides. Keep it positive! They can still lick peanut butter and cheese through the muzzle and with basket muzzles are even able to chew on treats. Make sure the muzzle is placed prior to walking into the vet clinic for an appointment.
Dr. Siri Horsley is a veterinarian and co-founder of City Limits Vet Clinic. She started the blog, From the Dogtor's Desk, to help provide pet owners with helpful information about vet care and their pets in general.