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Removing the Fear and Anxiety From Your Dog's Vet Visits

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: January 23, 2015

Updated: August 2, 2023

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dog scared to go to the veterinarian

Fear-Free Vet Visits – How Grrrreat!

Were you aware that there’s a big push within the veterinary profession to minimize the fear and anxiety that dogs (and their people) feel with veterinary visits? It’s called the Fear Free movement - and it’s a movement that’s super important… and long overdue.

The Fear Free principles are, in large part, based on the wonderful work of the late, great Dr. Sophia Yin, as well as Dr. Karen Overall, and a lot of other wonderful animal behaviorists, trainers, and veterinarians. Dr. Marty Becker has, along with others, taken up the mantle to educate about, promote, and further the principles of the Fear Free movement. And, as you would expect, he’s proving to be a great spokesperson and champion for the cause.

I think this is a great and important movement within the profession. After all, we vets see the results of fear in pets every day in clinics and the negative consequences it has on the lives of the pets, their people, and even on the veterinary hospital team members. Working towards reducing that fear is fantastic and important work!

Fortunately, while there are many things that we within the profession can be doing (and, in an increasing number of cases, are doing), there are also some simple things that you can be doing with your pets at home, both on a regular basis and immediately prior to and during a veterinary visit, to help ensure as peaceful an experience as possible… for everyone involved.

How to Minimize Your Dog’s Stress When Going to the Vet

  • Throughout the year, whenever traveling around town with your dog, work in a quick “how y’all doing” stop to your vet’s office. Bring your dog in for some snuggles and treats. Doing so can help prevent or break the association of the vet’s office with stress, needle pokes, and temperature checks. And vet staff LOVE to see their healthy patients and clients stopping in for a social call!

  • Book one of the earlier morning appointment slots with your vet, this way they’re less likely to be running behind and your wait is less likely to be prolonged.

  • Leave yourself plenty of time to get to the vet’s. Aim to leave the house 10 minutes earlier than you think you’d need to get there and prepare everything for your trip several hours in advance (the night before is great, if possible and practical). Not only will this help you minimize your own stress, but it’ll also help you drive safely and with minimal erratic stops and starts, which could otherwise contribute to your pet’s anxiety and car sickness.

  • Safely restrain your dog within the car for the trip to (and from) the vet’s office. This isn’t only a safety issue (for everybody), but it can also help your dog feel more secure and decrease the anxiety they may feel during car travel. Read other tips for decreasing travel anxiety (and car sickness) in pets here.

  • Spray Adaptil, a calming pheromone for dogs, in your dog’s crate or on their harness and seat within the car.

  • Play calming music in the car on the way to the vet’s office. Either a Classical music station or CD, or a pet-specific calming CD, such as those in the Through A Dog’s Ear series or the calming piano music of Lesley Spencer on the A Sound Beginning CD.

  • For dogs that get particularly stressed during trips to the vet, continue doing the above but also talk to your veterinarian about possible pre-visit medication options you can administer at home and also check to see if your vet offers housecalls. Either or both of those may help diffuse the situation enough to allow even the most stressed pup to get the care they need and deserve.

  • If you have a cat, check out these cat-specific tips.

One last note and suggestion. This one is based not just on my experiences and observations within the clinic, but also on some early childhood experiences with my own routine medical care. When I was younger and my Mom would take me to the doctor for shots, blood draws, or anything else involving needles, I would have this automatic, almost instinctual fear of the trip and the procedures. The root cause of this struck me at some point as my Mom was literally squeezing the blood and feeling out of my hand during a shot.

You see, my Mom would always hold my hand whenever such procedures were being done to me, saying “just squeeze my hand if you get nervous or if it’s hurting.” One day I realized that it was her, not me initiating any hand squeezing (and BOY could she squeeze!). I, of course, read that cue as “my Mom is nervous about what’s happening, so it’s got to be bad and I too should be nervous.” Fortunately, I’ve since reset and overcome that connection — of course, my Mother no longer holds my hand at the doctor either… which would just be weird if she did (I’m 41 years old, after all). The point is though, in the process of trying to calm and reassure me, my Mother inadvertently heightened my anxiety and made matters worse.

I’ve seen similar situations to this time and time again in veterinary exam rooms. Well-intentioned and concerned pet owners triggering and reinforcing their dog’s anxiety with the procedures taking place. Oftentimes — in fact, in the vast majority of the times — the pet’s anxiety and struggle disappears when the owner leaves the room or the pet is “taken to the back.” So that brings up one other thing you can consider doing to help minimize your pet’s distress at the vet… work to keep your own fears and anxieties down, and if that’s not possible, consider leaving the room or asking the veterinary team to bring your pet to the back for their procedures and treatments. Trust me… both the veterinary team AND your pet will understand, and they’ll likely both thank you for it, too.

Does your vet do anything specifically to help reduce your pet’s fear and anxiety during visits or hospital stays? Do you do any of the things above, or anything else, yourself to help reduce your pet’s vet visit fear and anxiety? We’d love to hear your thoughts and what’s working and not working for you and your pets. Please share in the comments section below. And, of course, please share these suggestions with any friends or family members who themselves, or their pets, dread going to the vet.

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nicholas spent many years as an emergency and general practice veterinarian obsessed with keeping pets safe and healthy. He is the author of Preventive Vet’s 101 Essential Tips book series.

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