Does Your Vet Live Up to These Standards?

vet visits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fear-free vet visits and low-stress handling are thankfully up-and-coming trends in the veterinary community
  • The fear free movement was founded by Dr. Marty Becker (no relation!), and the late Dr. Sophia Yin was the architect of the principles of low stress handling
  • The goal of both approaches is to focus first on a pet’s emotional well being, especially during veterinary visits
  • There are many things pet parents and veterinary staffs can do to help dogs and cats de-stress before and during vet visits
  • Dr. Marty Becker came up with 10 steps to fear-free vet visits; number one discusses ways to arrive at veterinary appointments with a calm pet

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Over the last few years, the terms “fear-free” and “low-stress” have become com­mon­place in the veterinary community. A growing number of vets are coming to the realization that terrified, stressed-out dogs and cats at veterinary visits shouldn’t be considered “normal.”

As a profession, veterinarians are awakening to the idea that their patients’ emotional state is just as important as their physical health — including during vet visits.

The movement to help pets deal with vet visit anxiety is due in large part to the work of the late, great Dr. Sophia Yin (Low Stress Handling™), as well as Dr. Marty Becker (Fear Free: Taking the pet out of petrified) who champions the cause by bringing awareness of fear free principles to the veterinary community.

10 Steps for Fear-Free Vet Visits

There are countless strategies veterinary clinics and pet parents can use to help dogs and cats feel less stressed during vet appointments. The following 10 tips by Dr. Marty Becker were published in the veterinary journal dvm360.1 They were written for veterinarians and their staffs, so I’ve edited them a bit so they’re helpful to pet parents as well.

I’ve also tweaked them where appropriate to reflect my own approach to reducing fear and anxiety in pets (which almost never involves pharmaceuti­cals or chemicals).

1. Arrive at veterinary visits with a calm pet. This involves making sure your dog or cat is crate-trained (or is conditioned to wear a car seat harness), and is comfortable during car rides. To keep your pet calm on vet appointment days, use pheromones — Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats, calming nutraceuticals and carrier covers.

Products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification, include homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms Forte, Bach Rescue Remedy, or a Spirit Essences stress or fear blend. Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that I've found helpful include holy basil (tulsi), valerian, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP and chamomile.

As your pet’s advocate, it’s also important that you remain calm. If you find it helpful, play calming music on the drive to your vet appointment.

2. Limit food before veterinary appointments. Especially if your appointment is around your pet’s mealtime, offer a smaller amount of food or hold off feeding her until you’re back home (if you can do so safely). If your dog or cat is a bit hungry during her appointment, she’s more apt to respond to treats offered by the vet staff. You an also bring a small supply of your pet’s favorite treats with you to the appointment.

3. Minimize time spent in the lobby of the vet clinic. The main lobby or waiting area of many veterinary practices can be a trigger for fearful pets, due to the smells, sounds and sights of other animals and unfamiliar people.

If you can’t take your pet directly to an exam room after check-in, let the receptionist know you’ll be waiting with your pet in your vehicle until an exam room is available. If your vet consistently runs late, call ahead and ask if he or she is on schedule. If they are running late, time your arrival so that you spend the least amount of time waiting.

4. Choose a vet practice with species-specific exam rooms. If your current veterinary clinic doesn’t offer separate exam rooms for dogs and cats, you might consider finding one that does. Ideally, species-specific pheromones should be used in exam rooms, along with cat- or dog-specific calming music, wall coverings and temperature settings.

5. Create a sense of calm in the exam room. There are a whole host of things your vet and the clinic staff can do to reduce your pet’s stress, including:

Arriving in the exam room before you and your pet do

Talking in a low voice and making unhurried movements

Removing the top from your cat’s carrier (or unzipping a soft carrier) and providing a towel for kitty to hide under while he gets used to the room

Allowing dogs to sniff instruments before they are used

Avoiding direct contact with your pet, and waiting for him to initiate interaction

Offering topical pain management before touching a painful area on your pet’s body

Tossing treats close to your pet instead of offering them in their hands

Providing nonslip surfaces on the exam table and floor, if the vet is examining the patient on the ground

6. Whenever possible, examine the patient where she’s most comfortable. Exam tables tend to be a source of anxiety for many pets (thus the need for nonslip surfaces to help reduce stress). When feasible, a fearful dog or cat should be examined on the floor (cover slick floors with a nonskid rug), on the pet parent’s lap or in the case of kitties, in the carrier.

7. Work with the pet to determine the best method of “positional compliance.” Positional compliance simply means a way of holding or controlling your pet that is most comfortable for him, while allowing your vet to perform necessary procedures. Once your vet learns what works best for your pet, it should be noted in his patient record, along with where he prefers to be examined, and any other information that helps reduce his stress.

8. Make injections less painful. This was originally written as “make vaccinations less painful” because unfortunately, in many vet clinics, vaccines are still given at most if not all visits. That’s not the way I practice veterinary medicine, as my regular visitors here at Healthy Pets know. I’m a vaccine minimalist and give only the vaccinations necessary to protect each individual pet and/or comply with the law (in the case of the rabies vaccine).

With that said, in my opinion, we need to make all injections (especially microchips, if your pet must receive one), blood draws (including for antibody titer tests in lieu of automatic revaccinations) and other potentially painful procedures as comfortable for our patients as possible. This can be accomplished using smaller needles, topical anesthetics, distracting pets with treats and praise, and other techniques.

9. Sedate pets as necessary.

Sedation isn’t necessarily a bad word, or an option of last resort. In certain cases, it’s the kindest thing we can do to manage a pet’s fear and stress. Some poor dogs and especially cats are so traumatized by vet visits they benefit from sedation. For example, very aggressive cats may be best managed by breathing in sevoflurane gas (similar to the “laughing gas” used for highly stressed dental patients) to reduce anxiety.

I actually had a client with an aggres­sive cat who brought him in his own travel box (a clear Rubbermaid tub), which she had equipped with two small holes that allowed for oxygen and inhalant gas to be easily administered. This dramatically reduced stress on the cat, my client and the entire veterinary staff!

I am a huge believer in injectable sedatives that can be easily reversed for all procedures that would otherwise elicit a panic response in a pet, the most common one being nail trims and deep ear cleanings.

10. Cradle every pet’s emotional and physical well-being. It’s important that you, as your pet’s advocate, and the veterinary staff focus first on your dog’s or cat’s emotional well-being. Only after your pet is calm (or a sedative has taken effect) should the exam or procedure be attempted.

Just because our animal companions can’t tell us they’re feeling anxious or scared doesn’t mean they aren’t, and so it’s critically important that both pet parents and veterinary staffs take steps to make pets as calm and comfortable as possible before and during vet visits.