Fear Factor: Taking the stress out of vet visits for your pet

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallager

I wanted to take a moment and talk about the “Fear Free” movement in veterinary medicine and why it is so important. For instance, usually, when I go to the doctor I’m relaxed and calm. I like my doctors, I’m used to going, and other than taking time out of my day it doesn’t bother me. A couple of months ago, however, I experienced the flip side. For a few different reasons, this doctor visit made me nervous, upset and panicky. I have been working on Fear Free for a while, but that day truly drove home how important it is that our patients are as relaxed and happy as possible when they come in.

What are some reasons pets get nervous at the vet? Honestly, it usually isn’t what you think. Very few pets care about shots or pokes, though it seems crazy. Usually, the things they hate are having temperatures taken and having strangers hold them. Toenail trims and anal gland expression are two things that we do often which most pets don’t enjoy. Many cats and some dogs simply aren’t used to going to new places outside of their comfort zone or having a lot of strangers touch them. A lot of the things that we do are strange to pets. For instance, in our orthopedic exams, we move their joints around in ways that they don’t experience very often.

There are a few dogs that I see that know me and are happy as anything to see me outside of the clinic, but are still nervous to see me in the clinic. This is because I rarely (I won’t say never, I’m unique) trim their nails, draw blood or move their legs around when I see them socially. This is definitely situational anxiety, as they don’t like something that was once done or the anticipation of it happening again.

There are a few things we can do about this. The old-school method is using brute force to make pets comply. There are about five million reasons why I hate this and we don’t practice it. Taking a pet who is nervous and physically forcing them to do something may work in the short-term but is not a good sustainable plan. These animals will get more and more nervous (rightly) because, not only are they scared of what is going to be done, but also the manner in which it’s done. It isn’t good for the humans involved either, because most people don’t enjoy making pets uncomfortable.

The method I like to use is becoming increasingly popular — medication. Just as MDs prescribe medication before MRIs for people who are claustrophobic, we prescribe medication to relax pets who get nervous at the vet. Some people think this is extreme, when they always “got through it before,” but the difference between getting through something and making it a positive experience is huge. Our goal is to medicate these pets less and less each visit, since each visit becomes less stressful. Especially with cats, we can often take the nervous edge off, which means less sedation and less stress for everyone.

There are things which can be done aside from medication, but they are long-term goals. Often we try to do these simultaneously with medication, but if owners are willing to commit the time, progress can be made without it. The first thing to do is happy visits. There is a reason your dog perks up when you get to a store that always gives them treats. Of course, they don’t have anything else done at these places, but if they come into our office and get treats only 10 times versus a treat at an exam one time, we can make progress. We have patients come in, get a treat and a pet, and head back out the door. The more times you do just that without anything else, the happier your dog will be to visit. These happy visits do not tend to work as well for cats, who don’t like riding in the car or carriers, and aren’t accustomed to trips.

The next thing you can do at home is a modified exam portion. We certainly don’t expect you to be able to pick up on the nuances that we do (or else what would we be for?!) but you can get your dog used to being poked and prodded so the experience is commonplace. Play with their ears and toes, move their legs around, open their mouths. This has the added benefit that you will be looking at things more closely and notice problems to alert us sooner.

At the end of the day, there is no golden ticket. I do exams on my dogs several times a week (vet parents, what can you say?) and bring them to work all the time. They will sleep happily in my office all day long. However, when I decide to actually do something to them they suddenly get scared. I can actually call them from the office to go outside or get a treat and they come running, but if I call them to swab an ear or give an injection they become invisible and deaf. These are my own dogs, at the place they go most days, being worked on by their mother.

We also have dogs that start screeching with joy as soon as they know they’re coming to see me. There are dogs that will pull their owners off their feet because they can’t get in the door fast enough. We even have a patient that has a favorite kennel and will gladly leave his family to run and hang out in the kennel. Since none of them can talk, I’m not sure what the difference is between these animals and the fearful guys. What I do know is that we can help take some of the fear out of these visits. It is our job to make the visits as stress-free as possible, which also lets us do the most complete exam possible.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL: petdocanna@gmail.com

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