Curbing your Pet’s Stress at the Vet’s Office

cat and dog with anxiety at the veterinarian

At All Creatures, our goal is not only to provide excellent health care for your pets, but also to make your visit a positive, pleasant experience. We love it when our patients have a good time with us! It’s the best part of our job — there’s really nothing like a dog who comes bounding through the door like it’s their favorite place in the world, or a cat who rolls over on the exam table for some belly rubs… and then turns the good ol’ purr machine up to 11!

But despite our best intentions, a visit to the vet can unfortunately be a stressful and overwhelming experience for some dogs and cats. In fact, veterinary anxiety is quite common. The clinic can be a very unfamiliar environment with foreign smells, sounds, and people who, by necessity, need to approach and touch them. (And may even inspect their ears, check their teeth — not to mention the dreaded needles! No wonder some pets don’t even want to step through the door.)

Signs of Stress at the Clinic

We know our pets, so for most of us it’s quite obvious when they are feeling uneasy or fearful. In dogs, signs of anxiety might include subtle behaviors like yawning, licking, and averting their gaze, or more obvious ones like panting, drooling, trembling, tail tucking, and hiding. Some dogs may manifest fear-based aggressive behaviors like growling, snapping, or lunging. In cats, common signs of stress and agitation can include vocalizing (hard to miss!), flattened ears, crouching, raised hair, and a slowly swishing tail. Fear-related pooping or peeing can also occur in both cats and dogs.

Our staff are knowledgeable about pet behavior, and trained to handle patients with skill, compassion, and respect. We do our best to alleviate your pet’s stress — at the ready with treats, scratches, toys, and calming words. And you are instrumental to this process by remaining calm yourself — pets know their owners too, and are very good at picking up on your tension. Bring favorite treats or toys with you, but don’t worry if your pet does not respond as they normally would to these incentives — scolding them might reinforce any negative feelings.

By far, though, the best practical strategy to reduce veterinary fear in our pets is to get them familiar with coming into the clinic — and the routines involved, like getting into their carrier (or a car) — before the appointment even occurs. Working with your pet to desensitize them and make them comfortable with these routines can be the key factor in making vets exams a comfortable, stress-free experience.

Practicing and Preparing Your Pup

For many dogs, reducing veterinary anxiety just takes a little time — and plenty of delicious, high-value treats! Walking your dog by the clinic regularly, just to say hello, can work wonders. We have treats at the front desk, or you can bring some of your pup’s favorites with you. These friendly visits provide a gradual exposure to the clinic environment, and create a positive association, so that coming in for a doctor’s exam is no longer something to fear. (And you can always call ahead, to make sure the office isn’t too hectic that day, so we can provide a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere.)

At home, try to get your dog accustomed to being “examined” by gently touching and looking into their ears and mouth, holding and inspecting their paws — with plenty of praise, treats, or toys as a reward. (You can even invite trusted family and friends over to perform an “exam.”) This helps dogs build up a tolerance to this type of handling. (It’s easier to establish this kind of comfort zone if you start when they are puppies, but even older dogs can benefit from gradual exposure.)

Getting Your Cat Comfortable in the Carrier

With our feline friends, the most challenging factor is often getting them into their carriers — the struggle is real! If the only time the carrier comes out is right before a vet visit (or some other disruption to their comfortable daily routine), it’s no surprise that many cats develop negative associations. And so, the moment they see the carrier, they will hide — or fight tooth and claw — to keep out.

Instead of tucking your cat carrier away in a closet, keep it out in the open, with the door propped open (at least for a period of time, or intermittently). Make it feel safe and appealing by placing a cozy towel or blanket inside, as well as a regular supply of treats and toys. Once your cat seems comfortable in the carrier, try closing the door and carrying them around the apartment or down the hallway, or even for a short car trip. Covering the carrier with a towel or blanket helps them to feel safe and secure, especially in an environment like a vet office, where they will be around unfamiliar cats, dogs, and people. (Starting when they are young can make this process easier and more effective, but even older cats can benefit from these techniques to help them grow less fearful over time.)

Supplements and Medications

In addition, there are a variety of supplements available to help alleviate veterinary (and other types of) anxiety. Calming, pheromone-based supplements like ADAPTIL and FELIWAY — administered in products like sprays, diffusers, or collars — can be helpful in some cases. Another option is CBD: We recently introduced ElleVet CBD products to our in-house pharmacy, based on the strong body of clinical studies supporting their effectiveness for conditions from anxiety to joint pain.

Fortunately, for more severe cases, there are also safe and effective pharmaceutical options available. If your pet becomes extremely anxious when coming to the clinic, we advise you to speak with one of our doctors about the possibility of trying a prescription medication before the visit. (We do offer phone consultations to facilitate this process.) These medications can be administered before, or in some cases during, an appointment.

And remember, you can always let us know beforehand if your pet has any particular triggers (such as a preference for men or women in particular, fear/aggression with other animals, etc.). This information can be very helpful for us to prepare and make your pet’s visit as relaxed and stress-free as possible.