By Dr. Becker
In a survey of cat owners, 58 percent said their cats hate going to see the veterinarian. Likely as a result, more than half of U.S. cats have not gone to the vet in the past year.1 Dogs, too, can be equally stressed out by vet visits, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
First and foremost, you’ll want to choose a holistic veterinarian who handles your pet gently and actively tries to help reduce fear, perhaps by offering treats, getting down on your dog’s level (including conducting the exam on the floor if your pet hates the exam table) and talking in a soothing voice.
Ideally, your veterinarian should chat with you first before trying to approach your pet, which helps your pet get used to his or her presence in the room. Approaching from the side is also helpful, as opposed to coming at your pet straight from the front, which is intimidating for pets.
This is important for a number of reasons, including the fact that the stress response can alter test results and make diagnosis more difficult.
In addition, a particularly stressful veterinary visit is likely to make an imprint in your pet’s memory, making it likely that your next vet visit may induce even more fear and stress in your pet. In addition, the tips that follow may also help to create a stress-free vet visit for you and your pet.2
11 Steps to Reduce Stress at the Vet
1. Teach Your Pet to Like Her Carrier
One of the most stressful aspects of vet visits for many cat owners is getting their cat in her carrier. Avoid only taking out the carrier when you’re going to the vet.
Instead, leave it out at home as a safe place for your cat to nap and eat dinner. This way, she’ll be happy to go inside when you need her to (and the same goes for dogs and their crates).
2. Familiarize Your Pet With the Vet
Bring your cat or dog to your veterinarian’s office on a day when she’s feeling well. Let her sniff around the waiting room and scope out an exam room if it’s OK with the staff. Give her a treat or two and then turn around and go home. Next time, she’ll think the vet is a great place to visit.
3. Familiarize Your Pet With the Car
If your pet is fearful of car rides, work on taking short trips to make her more comfortable. Take car trips to someplace fun, like a park or a friend’s home that your pet enjoys — not only to the vet.
4. Choose a Quiet Time
If the visit isn’t particularly urgent, choose a time of day when your vet tends to be less crowded. Visiting when there are fewer other animals around and your wait time is faster will be less stressful for your pet. If this isn’t an option, wait in your car until it’s time for your appointment.
You can go in and let the staff know you’re there, then bring in your pet straight to the exam room when the staff signals you to come in.
5. Get Your Pet Used to Handling
Pets that are used to having their paws, ears, tails and other areas handled will tolerate a vet exam much easier than those who are fearful of handling. It’s best to do this when your pet is a puppy or kitten, but even older pets can learn to enjoy (or at least tolerate) handling.
6. Be Prepared and Calm
Your pet picks up on your emotional cues. If you’re nervous and frazzled while heading to the vet, it will only add to your pet’s tension.
Before your visit, be prepared with your pet’s medical history and leave with plenty of time so you’re not feeling rushed. Also make a point to talk to your pet in a calm, soothing voice.
7. Keep Your Pet Secure
Even if your pet normally stays by your side, he may act differently at the vet’s office. Dogs should be harnessed and cats (and other small animals) should be safely kept in a pet carrier.
Try to give your pet some space from other pets, too. Don’t bring your leashed dog right up to other (probably stressed out) dogs, and keep your kitty’s carrier in a quiet part of the waiting room away from other curious pets.
Another trick is to keep yourself in between your dog and any other agitated animals. You can also make sure your dog is facing you (not other animals) to avoid escalating tensions.
The veterinarian’s office is also a good place to practice training commands and reward your dog’s good behavior with treats.
A busy, distracted dog will have less time to fret over what’s coming next. You can continue to reward your pet’s good behavior throughout the exam and afterward.
8. Bring Along a Comfort Item
If your dog has a favorite toy, let him bring it along for the visit. You can also bring along a familiar blanket or one of your worn t-shirts. Put the blanket on the exam table with your pet for added comfort.
9. Alert Staff If Your Pet Is Extremely Anxious
If your dog is extremely stressed by going to the vet, let the veterinarian and staff know so they can take extra care to avoid worsening the stress. You’ll probably know if this is the case, but if not try offering your pet a high-level treat. If she won’t eat, it means she’s very anxious.
10. Choose a Vet Who Uses ‘Fear-Free’ Handling Techniques
Restraining pets only adds to the trauma of vet visits. Instead, choose a vet who uses “fear-free” handling techniques, which are designed to help calm your pet through necessary exams and treatments. Some zoos, for instance, have moved toward training animals to receive medical care, which lessens the need for restraint and sedation, sometimes-necessary techniques that may only add to the animal’s trauma.
Lara Joseph of The Animal Behavior Center is doing amazing work serving as an “interpreter” between animals and people. The center provides educational workshops for companion animal owners and caretakers, zoos, wildlife educators and others who are interested in building a close relationship with animals. Joseph explained:
“I focus a lot of my training on getting an animal ready to go to the vet because I want this to be a pleasant experience for them. The training begins with the crate and I make sure all animals look forward to going into the crate. To prepare for the veterinarian’s office, I train them to station, get all feet on a rug and to stay still. This helps tell the animal where to go and stay.
Once on their station, I then train a head target, meaning touch their forehead to my hand and stay still while the veterinarian does the body exam.”
11. Once Home, Let Your Pet Relax
When you arrive home, your pet will be tired and happy to be home. Let her relax in her favorite spot and regroup, quietly, at her own pace. Give her space if she wants it but keep an eye out for any changes in behavior or reactions to medications she received during the visit.
Natural Relaxation Aids May Help Some Pets
The steps above will go a long way toward making veterinarian visits less stressful, but some pets may still benefit from natural relaxation aids, particularly if they tend to have an anxious nature. Species-specific pheromones are one option. These are chemical substances that can positively affect an animal's emotional state and behavior. There's the D.A.P. diffuser for dogs and Feliway for kitties.
You can also consult a holistic veterinarian about homeopathic, TCM (traditional Chinese Medicine) and Bach Flower Remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your pet's stress.
Some products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification, include Calm Shen, homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms Forte, Bach Rescue Remedy, Spirit Essences Stress Stopper or Scaredy Cat or other similar remedies depending on the animal and situation.
Using an anxiety wrap during visits can also be helpful. Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that I've also found to be helpful include holy basil (Tulsi), valerian, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP and chamomile. Consult your holistic vet about which option is right for your pet.