by Dr Rebecca Faris

How to make your next veterinary visit a happy one.

Most dogs that visit the vet clinic are well behaved and seem unconcerned by the physical examination. However, some of our pets are more anxious about their visits and may become aggressive towards clinic staff. This isn’t a pleasant experience for the dog, the owner or the staff member and can make a complete examination impossible, meaning your pet may not get the treatment it needs. Prevention is the best option to ensure our pets are happy and relaxed at the vet clinic however if your dog is already showing signs of anxiety then it may be possible to counter-condition them for future veterinary visits.

How do I know if my dog is anxious?

When we talk to other humans we sub-consciously read their body language to tell us if they are happy, comfortable or scared.  Dogs also use body language cues to tell us their feelings.  These dogs are warning us that they are scared and if we persist they will probably bite us! Some of these signs include:

  • Ears pulled back
  • Dilated pupils
  • Tail between the legs
  • Cowering/Trembling
  • Hair raised along the back
  • Growling/snarling
  • Snapping/biting

How do I know if my dog is aggressive?

Some dogs are not just fearful or anxious at the vet but are overtly aggressive. This may be because they are aggressive in other situations or they have learned that this behavior results in removal of the cause of distress. These dogs are not necessarily more dangerous than anxious dogs as they usually give more warning of an attack, however they may be almost impossible to examine! Signs of aggressive dogs include:

  • Ears up or forward
  • Staring
  • Tail held up
  • Stiff stance
  • Barking
  • Growling/snarling
  • Lunging
  • Snapping/biting

Prevention in new puppies

If you have recently purchased a puppy then you are in a fantastic position to steer the outcome of future veterinary visits.

Puppy School – learning that the vet clinic is fun!

One of the best ways to ensure your puppy thinks the vet clinic is a great place to come is to enroll them in Puppy Preschool. This is a 4-week course run in the evenings and provides a safe environment for your puppy to socialise with other puppies and humans. There are usually lots of treats given to the puppies during the class so they go home with good memories!

Before the first vet visit

At home find a treat that your puppy really, really loves and bring some of these with you to the clinic. Don’t feed your puppy for 4-6 hours before the vet visit, this will make them keen to work hard for those treats!

While in the waiting room you can give your pup a treat if they are being well behaved.

When the vet needs to do something unpleasant like take the pup’s temperature you can offer them a treat to distract them

If your puppy is misbehaving you are best to ignore them (growling or yelling at them may make them fearful) and only give them a treat reward when they settle down and are well behaved.

If your dog has shown signs of anxiety

Changing your dog’s perception of the vet clinic after they have decided it is a place to be feared is a bit harder, but improvements can be made if you are able to commit some time to the cause.

The aim is to desensitise the dog to a trip to the vet and to teach the dog the appropriate responses.

There are many aspects of the visit that may be causing anxiety and identifying what aspect triggers your dog is the first step in the program. For some,  this will be the car trip whilst others may be fearful only when they are physically restrained.

If your dog doesn’t already obey commands then now is the time to train them to obey a behavioural command such as “sit” in return for a treat reward. Once this has been achieved it is then time to work with the vet in count-conditioning the dog to the clinic.

One of the biggest mistakes owners often make is to comfort or soothe the dog when it is showing undesirable behaviour. This just serves to reinforce this behaviour. It is better to remove the dog from the situation temporarily, ask it to ‘sit’ and reward it when it shows good behaviour.

If your dog has already shown signs of aggression

Aggressive dogs are required to wear a muzzle whilst in the clinic for staff and owner safety. It is preferable that dogs known to be fearful or aggressive at the vet clinic are fitted with a muzzle before they enter the building - most dogs tolerate this much better than if it is fitted after they have become stressed. Don’t be scared to tell the staff treating your dog about its behaviour so they can take preventative measures for everyone’s safety.

The vet may request to treat your dog in another room using trained nurses to restrain them. This is because some dogs are protective of their owners and removing them from their owner allows the dog to relax. Using trained staff to hold the dog for examination is also a safety precaution; they are trained to read the dog’s body language and are confident to protect other humans who may be hurt by the dog if it makes a sudden aggressive attack.

Sometimes you may be asked to consent to sedating or anaesthetizing your dog. Whilst there are some health risks with this it is much preferable than causing more distress to the dog and making subsequent visits more fearful.

Summary

Whilst most pets have no problems coming to the vet some can have a really difficult time. If you are prepared to work together with the veterinary staff it may be possible to ensure your beloved pet is one of the majority ensuring it receives the quality veterinary care it deserves.