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Reducing anxiety in pets – Visiting the vet

For humans

Visiting the vet can be stressful because you might be worried about the outcome of the diagnosis, the way your pet behaves in public or just the logistics of packing up your pet and making your way to the clinic. Remember that your tone of voice, body language and stress level will be noticed by your pet, who may then start to become more anxious. So the most important thing for you to do is to stay calm, take a few deep breaths and focus on reassuring your pet. You can also help your pet have a more positive experience by preparing them in the following ways.

For cats

The carrier

Always bring your cat to the vet in a carrier. With some advance planning, you can make sure your cat associates the carrier with positive experiences.

Leave the carrier in a room where your cat spends a lot of time. Put some familiar soft bedding or clothing with your scent on it in the carrier.

Feed your cat in the carrier so that they become used to going into it on a daily basis and form a positive association with it. You don’t need to do this forever. Do it on a daily basis until the cat is comfortable going in the carrier and then just maintain this behaviour by putting at least one meal a week in there.

This process may take days or weeks, so be patient and start this process well before you need to go to the vet.

The other thing that can help cats is the synthetic feline pheromone (Feliway®) spray which can be sprayed on bedding in the carrier at least 30 minutes prior to transport to help calm the cat.

Be aware of how your cat is feeling in the carrier. Some cats are happy in open wired carriers, while others prefer to hide, so you might want to cover the carrier with a towel.

The car

Most cats let you know how much they dislike your driving style, but this aspect can also go more smoothly with practice. The first step might simply be putting your cat (in its carrier) in the car, giving it a treat, and then taking it back inside. You can then move up to a few short trips in the car, with plenty of praise and treats, and you’ll find they’re more relaxed about the whole idea of road travel.

Handling

If your cat has only ever had a bit of a pat on the head and a tickle under the chin, it can be a shock to have a vet exam. Gently get your cat used to being examined by gradually building up the handling – a soft feel on the tummy, checking the paws and claws, having a look at the teeth. Whenever you handle your cat, give him a treat, to reinforce the positive experience. Most cats respond well to treats, but if you’ve got a fussy eater who turns up his nose at packaged treats, try a little tuna, or even some tuna juice on a teaspoon. You can also reward cats with play – for example, you examine his teeth, dangle a feather toy in front of him and have a bit of fun, then go back to handling.

Understand cat body language

Cats will usually let you know when they are stressed by signs such as:

  • Lowered, flattened ears; arched back; paws pulled close to the body; twitching tail
  • One of the most accurate barometers of a cat’s mood is its tail. When held high, it communicates confidence and a willingness to interact, but when it’s tucked below or between the legs, it signals insecurity or anxiousness
  • Narrowing of the eyes or blinking and dilated pupils
  • Urinating or defecating
  • Distressed meowing, hissing, spitting or growling

 

For dogs

Your dog's behaviour is a result of genetics, social experiences and the environment surrounding them. Whether you have a puppy, with little or no experience of the world, or a mature dog who might have had previous negative experiences, it is worth investing the time to make them comfortable with vet visits.

Try to leave enough time before you set off to take you dog for a toilet break. A full bladder makes dogs (or people!) restless during travel. You might also want to spray a little Adaptil® on a bandana and tie it around your dog’s neck. Adaptil can help dogs feel more relaxed, and is available from your veterinarian. 

Always use a leash

For the safety of your dogs and others, make sure that your dog is wearing a secure collar and leash. Restraining an animal can be stressful, so try to get them used to just sitting by your side while you are waiting and reward them for good behaviour. If you have a dog who normally enjoys treats, but he refuses them at the vet, you are seeing the signs of stress, so give some reassurance.

The car

Dogs are usually happier than cats to go on car rides. Start them off with short rides – perhaps to a park. You might want to bring the dog to the vet just for a visit. You could try sitting for a few minutes in the waiting room, weighing them, or just popping in with the dog to pick up your pet food. Most vets will have treats at the front counter, so you can combine meeting the staff with rewarding your dog’s good behaviour.

Handling

Get in the habit of massaging and handling your dog. A daily check of eyes, ears, coat, teeth and paws will not only get your dog used to being handled but allow you to notice any health problems early. Make sure the dog associates handling with getting a treat. And don’t be afraid to do unusual things during handling, so they don’t come as a surprise during a vet visit: handle the ears, look inside them, lift the tail, examine the teeth. Remember to reward with treats while you are doing this.

Understand dog body language

Signs of fear or anxiety in dogs include:

  • Refusing food
  • Lip licking; panting or drooling
  • Yawning
  • Blinking or squinting
  • Sniffing
  • Looking away or holding head down
  • Tail down or up (as a warning)
  • Trembling or fidgeting
  • Excessive fur shedding
  • Urinating/ defecating
  • Hyper-vigilance and pacing

After the visit

Reward or reassure your dog. Find a quiet place to take them for a toilet break before you put them back in the car.

Remember your vet is there to help you. Feel free to contact them for advice about preparing for a visit.

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