The Life-Changing New Vet Care Pets Are Raving About - Does Your Vet Do This?

low stress vet visits

Story at-a-glance -

  • The majority of pets feel a little scared and stressed during veterinary visits
  • For some animals, the fear is so overwhelming and their behavior in response so threatening that it makes vet visits traumatic events to be avoided at all costs
  • Fear Free certified veterinary staffs can work miracles in helping pets overcome their anxiety around vet visits, and everyone benefits — the animal, the owner and the vet staff
  • There are many ways to accomplish this, including “just because” visits to the vet, offering treats and other rewards, the use of calming pheromones and minimizing noise in treatment rooms and kennels

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Most pets feel at least some degree of stress and fear during visits to the veterinarian. In fact, it's so common that many owners and veterinary staff tend to view anxious patients as "normal." And since the majority of dogs and cats remain relatively compliant at the vet's office even when frightened, it validates the perception that their stress level isn't anything to be concerned about.

However, if you've ever had a pet (or a patient, if you work in an animal hospital) who is far outside the "norm" in terms of their fear response, you're aware of how damaging these worst-case scenarios can be. These poor animals are all the proof we need of just how important it is to pull out all the stops in helping to alleviate their stress and anxiety during veterinary visits.

How Low Stress Handling Can Change Lives

In a recent article for Veterinary Practice News, Dr. Phil Zeltzman, a veterinary surgeon who is Fear Free Certified, writes about a 5-year-old pit bull named Myla. Myla was absolutely terrified of vet visits, and behaved so badly at the animal hospital the staff thought she was evil. Her owner had to sedate her at home before each visit, and then had to muzzle her before she entered the clinic.

Myla's fear grew increasingly worse with each visit. "Visits were a mixture of growling, high anxiety, anal gland smell, pounding heart rates, and sheer terror on both ends of the leash," writes Zeltzman.1 Then the poor dog developed a painful back leg, and when her owner brought her in to be examined, it was traumatic for everyone involved.

It turns out Myla had a torn cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) and needed surgery, but her owner was so concerned about her dog's stress being left at the veterinary hospital that she put off the surgery for many months. Myla limped, was in constant pain, and lost muscle mass in the injured leg.

Myla's owner got in touch with Zeltzman, and he referred her to a veterinary clinic that practices low stress handling. The first order of business was to set up what Zeltzman calls "just because" visits for Myla at the clinic. She was to enter through the back door, without sedation or a muzzle, and be hungry. From there she was taken immediately to an exam room that had been very thoroughly cleaned to remove smells that might trigger her fear. A blanket sprayed with canine-appeasing pheromones had also been placed in the room.

Myla spent 15 minutes acclimating to the room before any veterinary staff entered. A veterinary nurse who is a skilled low stress handler entered the room slowly, without making eye contact with Myla, and allowed the dog to investigate her. She dropped treats on the floor here and there, and left the room, signaling the end of the visit.

This allowed Myla to visit a veterinary clinic with no restraint, and without being handled or even touched. These "just because" visits continued weekly until Myla was jumping from her owner's car and running to the back door for her visit. After a few visits, the nurse began petting Myla and hugging her, and the dog was beautifully behaved.

Myla's CCL surgery was at last scheduled, and even though she had to stay overnight at the hospital, the whole process was uneventful. When her other CCL ruptured a year later, she had a second surgery that hospital stay was also uneventful.

10 Ways Veterinary Clinics and Staff Can Help Fearful Patients

Dr. Zeltzman suggests there are 10 things veterinarians, and their staffs, and pet parents can learn from Myla's experience:

"Just because" visits are important. Clinic vet staffs should have several people who are trained and comfortable with low stress handling and helping animals learn to view vet visits as pleasant experiences. I also encourage multi-dog visits. Many of my clients have several dogs, and I encourage them to bring another dog "along for the ride" to my patients' appointment, which can also help calm an anxious patient.

Know the signs of fear, anxiety and stress. Vets and their staffs should be able to recognize these signs and back off immediately to keep the patient under her anxiety threshold. Done correctly, this will actually increase the threshold.

Offer treats and other rewards. Most pets respond to treats, but some are more responsive to petting and praise. Vet staffs should learn what type of reward each patient prefers, and use it liberally during visits, and especially while performing procedures that may be uncomfortable for the pet, like blood draws.

Manage pain. "Do not manipulate any body part (such as a drawer test) or even perform a physical exam if pain is present," Zeltzman suggests. "Even the nicest patient can be difficult to handle when in pain."

Make smart use of the catheter. For surgery patients, the earlier a catheter is placed, the less handling and manipulation the pet will require when given medications and anesthesia induction agents.

Also make smart use of E-collars. Zeltzman suggests placing the device before removing the breathing tube after surgery to help reduce the E-collar panic that occurs in some dogs when the thing is placed while they're waking up from anesthesia and are feeling anxious and uncomfortable.

Use pheromones — they help reduce anxiety. During Myla's stay, her kennel was sprayed with canine-appeasing pheromones, as was her blanket and the scrubs her nurses wore.

Offer extra TLC. Myla's team covered only half her kennel door with a blanket so she could hide when she felt like it, or watch the activity in the treatment room (she preferred the latter). She also enjoyed being handfed by the vet tech who spent the most time with her.

Go slow (it actually saves time). It's best to make slow movements when dealing with fearful patients. Sudden moves or gestures or even a raised voice can be enough to trigger anxiety in an anxious pet.

Minimize noise. The quieter the treatment rooms and kennels, the better. A stressed out pet hears things the vet staff has learned to block out, such as the noise of IV pumps and monitors, the cries of other patients, loud laughter and loud music. Playing soothing music in the background can be beneficial.

I also diffuse calming essential oils in several exam rooms, and use scent-free disinfectants in the exam and treatment rooms, which can help reduce stress triggers when patients return for follow up visits. Low stress handling and a fear-free approach is a win-win-win for pet and owner, as well as the veterinary staff. As Zeltzman points out, "… [the] ability to handle challenging patients can be the difference between providing mediocre and excellent medical care."

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