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Is Your Dog Anxious at the Vet's? Here's How to Calm Him

Many dogs experience some stress when visiting the vet. Here's this person, who they don't know (or don't know well), who wants to restrain them in order to poke and prod at them. And this is often during a time when the dog isn't feeling his best! It's no wonder that a trip to the vet can cause some dogs to worry. Here are a few tips to help make things easier if your dog is anxious about going to the vet.

The Car Trip to the Vet

If car trips typically end up at the vet's office, dogs may start getting anxious as soon as they're asked to get into the car. Keep him safe and as calm as you can for the trip:

  • Dogs shouldn't be allowed to be loose in the car, and anxious dogs even less so. Dogs trying to climb into the front seat, or whining or pacing can be a danger and a distraction for the driver. Use a seat belt or a crate when transporting your dog. Some dogs even find crates calming, especially if the crate has been used as a positive and safe place for them when at home (and not just for vet visits!).

  • Some dogs may need a little extra help. Some dogs find comfort with an anti-anxiety wrap like the Thundershirt. Something like a Dog Appeasing Pheromone Collar (DAP Collar) or spray helps some dogs. Pets who get motion-sick or who have severe anxiety can be helped with medication that can be given prior to the vet visit. Talk to your vet about what would work best for your dog.

Your Attitude Makes a Difference

Pets are adept at picking up on how their owners feel. If you're feeling worried about the taking your dog to the vet, he's going to feel it too. Don't anxiously coddle your dog or nervously pat or talk to him. Overly-coddling your dog may make him think that there actually IS something to worry about.

Work on staying calm. Be cheerful, talk in your regular voice and treat the vet visit as a normal thing instead of something to fear.

Choosing a Veterinarian

One of my dogs, while not timid nor anxious, was wary of people due to a lack of positive experiences in his life prior to entering the rescue system. A number of pet owners recommended one specific vet, so we took him to meet her. It was a massive flop - our dog wasn't a fan; he was clearly uneasy with her fast movements and the way she wanted to handle him before he had a chance to get comfortable around her.

So we took him to a second vet. This vet didn't touch him, talk to him, or even try to get close to him for many minutes. When he finally did, he moved slowly, let my dog check him out before gently reaching out to touch him - just gently touch him, not start an examination. My dog stood quietly and calmly when the vet went to examine him. This vet was obviously a better match for us.

Dogs respond better to some people than to others. They can benefit from a 'meet and greet' with a potential vet. Bring your dog to meet the vet, and explain to the vet that your dog is scared or anxious. Vets see a lot of this, and many are very skilled in dealing with pets who are afraid. See how the vet interacts with your dog. Watch how your dog responds. If it's not a good match, then try again with another vet.

(P.S. Bring some treats! For food-motivated pups, tasty treats can help make a vet visit a positive experience. Choose something extra-yummy, something that's specially reserved for the vet - roasted chicken is a good choice, cheese is popular, or perhaps bring a cheeseburger.)

Waiting for the Appointment

Waiting rooms often have other people and their pets waiting for their appointments. It can be unpredictable; friendly dogs, barky dogs, sweet kitties and hissing, upset kitties ... sounds of howling, whining, or barking dogs in the back of the clinic ... the unfamiliar sights and strange noises can increase anxiety for some dogs. Anxious dogs may be better off avoiding the waiting room.

  • Go for a fun little walk around the clinic. Most dogs love to explore, and a walk can help them relax. Ask the staff to call you when it's your turn, and then go straight into the appointment room.

  • Wait in the car. If your dog is comfortable in the car and is too ill (or injured) to go for a walk, ask the vet clinic staff if they'll let you know when it's turn. Head right into the appointment room.

  • If, however, the waiting room is empty, it could be an opportunity to create a positive experience. Treats, praise, and gentle attention from the staff can help. Be aware that other people and their pets may enter at any time.

  • Book an early morning appointment if you can. The wait time is likely to be shorter since the clinic shouldn't be running as far behind.

During the Vet Visit

It's tempting to schedule a list of stuff to check at the vet's, and try to get it all done in one visit. Who wants to take multiple trips to the vet, after all? For anxious pups, though, it may be too much for them to handle.

  • Be flexible. You might have a list of stuff you want done at the vet's ... but if your dog is showing signs of getting stressed out, it may be best to cut the visit short before it becomes overwhelming. Leave the other stuff for the next visit if it's not urgent.

  • If you're unable to control your own anxiety, it may actually be helpful if you leave the room or ask that your pet be taken to the back. If you're anxious, your dog will likely be anxious, too. What's worse is that pets and their owners can "feed" off each other's anxiety - the dog is anxious because the owner is anxious; the owner gets more stressed out seeing how their dog is stressed out; and so the cycle continues. Ask your vet for advice. Even though it's hard to leave your pet, it may be in his best interest.

  • Leave promptly. Once your visit is over, your dog may be happier to go straight out to the car (or for a little walk, if you have someone else with you). Then he doesn't have to wait in the waiting room with strange people or dogs, while you settle the bill.

  • Occasionally schedule an appointment where your vet doesn't have a need to handle your dog. Discuss any concerns you have, and let your dog simply "hang out" without having anything done to him. Bring some extra-tasty treats and let the vet feed them to your dog. The goal is to have a friendly visit and a positive experience for your dog, so that next time maybe it won't be such a worry to him.

Things You Can Do At Home to Lessen Anxiety

  • Take your dog on fun trips by car. Car rides shouldn't just end at the vet's office. Use the car to go on exciting hikes, trips to the dog park or the lake, trips to see your dog's favourite people or playmates ... taking a trip in the car should be a positive thing!

  • Handle your own dog regularly. Get him used to having every part of his body touched: lift his lips to check his teeth, handle and massage his paws and legs, look inside his ears, handle his tail, scratch and pat his chest, and so on. Use lots of praise, play, and lots of tasty treats! You may need to go slowly and take it a little at a time, if your dog isn't a fan of being handled. Set him up for success!

    Of course, this doesn't mean that your dog will be happy to have the vet doing the same things ... but at least it will be easier on your dog, having had the same type of handling done at home.

  • If you're out and about with your dog, take a short pit-stop at the vet's (call first, if you can). Weigh your dog or ask the staff to say hello and give your dog a little treat. Even small, non-scary and positive experiences can have a big impact over time.

  • Do some training. Training isn't just for obedience; training helps to build confidence in a dog, as well as strengthens the bond between you and your dog. Make training sessions short and fun. For example, a helpful thing to teach is "Watch Me", since it keeps your dog's attention focused on you rather than the other stuff going on around you. You and your dog can then practice when you're at the vet's office (whether waiting inside, or outside). Having something to focus on can help dogs to take their minds off the stress of the vet's office.

  • Ask about housecalls. If your dog continues to feel overwhelming stress when going to the vet clinic, a housecall rather than a trip to the clinic may help. Ask your vet clinic if they can do check-ups or examinations at your home. Mobile veterinary services are also sometimes available.

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