10 tips to help reduce stressful vet visits

Veterinary nurse Michelle Cox advises on how to reduce anxiety during vet visits...

The team at the Watkins and Tasker Veterinary Group are determined to make vet visits as positive as possible and weekly social visits are offered to any dog who could benefit. For continuity, social visits are run by the same staff members, which ensures predictability for the dogs and allows the staff to get to know them.

This unusual initiative provides an opportunity for multiple visits without any pressure, and allows dogs to explore the environment off-lead and build confidence. Progress is always dictated by the dog; they are never forced to do anything they are uncomfortable with and are closely monitored during their visits. Where appropriate, the owners are also given homework, such as muzzle training.

1. An individual approach

There are many ways in which owners can help their dogs to cope better and it is important to address every aspect of the veterinary visit individually. Doing this can help to reduce ‘trigger stacking’; if the dog experiences too many uncomfortable events in a short period of time, the stress levels stack up and, once a threshold is met, unwanted behaviours can occur.

Common events that stack together during vet visits are car travel (for some dogs), waiting room pressure, being put on the table, and having to wear a muzzle. Many dogs can already be in a very fearful state before an examination has started and are easily tipped over their threshold.

2. Create positive experiences

Building up positive experiences at the veterinary practice, prior to any potential fearful experiences, helps to reduce the severity of a negative visit. This is a must for all puppy owners. The aim is to build up a bank of positive experiences that can be dipped into should a ‘not so nice’ visit happen.

It is important to remember that this bank may need to be topped up throughout the dog’s life. You can start by taking puppies to weekly puppy parties until they are around 11 weeks of age. It is important these classes are run by knowledgeable staff who can ensure the correct experiences take place and can support the owners in the initial weeks of puppy ownership.

Monthly visits are then recommended to continue building a positive relationship. This works well with a monthly weight check for flea and worming products. Socialisation is an ongoing process and it is critical that this continues throughout a puppy’s development.

3. Travel trauma

If your dog is aroused or frightened of travelling in the car, he is already set up badly to cope with a vet visit. In these cases, consult a behaviourist to help implement a behaviour modification plan.

4. Plan your appointment times

Request an appointment time when the practice is quieter, such as at the beginning or end of a consultation block. This reduces arousal as the environment is calmer and space is maximised in the waiting room. It can also help to request a double appointment to allow more time for your dog to relax before the examination, and for it to be done slowly and within the dog’s limits, taking breaks where needed.

If you have a worried dog it can help to ask the receptionist which vet it is best to see. There are often staff with an interest in behaviour who are more suited to dogs who find veterinary visits a worry.

5. Wait quietly

Make sure your dog has plenty of space when waiting for your appointment — ideally not facing another dog and not immediately next to one. If the waiting room is busy, ask to wait in a spare consulting room or wait outside. Veterinary staff should not be tempted to approach your dog in an attempt to ‘make friends’. Instead the dog should be allowed to settle and if he chooses to, then he can initiate contact by approaching the staff.

Giving your dog something to focus on, such as a stuffed Kong, can help as a distraction while waiting, but bear in mind it can increase stress for some dogs if they feel protective over it.

6. Calm consultations

The start of a consultation is very important to help your dog to settle. Therefore, if the vet starts by taking a history, it will give your dog time to initiate contact on their terms. Do not be offended if your vet appears not to show an interest in your dog, as this is often a deliberate decision.

Treats can be used to reward your dog but must not be used to tempt, lure, or bribe him to approach. Tossing treats further away from the fearful stimulus (often the vet) can be more helpful. If possible, dogs should be examined on the floor where they feel safer. However, if you own a small dog you can accustom them to being on a table at home.

7. Muzzle training

The sight and application of a muzzle can trigger a fearful response in many dogs, as they often remember it being paired with a negative experience involving fear and/ or pain. Therefore, it can be beneficial to muzzle train dogs.

If done correctly, dogs will happily wear a muzzle and fi nd it a positive experience. Your vet should be able to provide you with more information or refer you to a behaviourist. Blue Cross’s website (www.bluecross.org.uk) also has useful information on muzzle training.

8. Pheremone support

Adaptil contains a pheromone that has been clinically proven to provide reassurance to puppies and dogs of all ages, helping them to feel safe and secure when encountering stressful situations. Using Adaptil spray in the car and an Adaptil collar on your dog will help in these situations. Many vets will also use a diffuser in the waiting room.

9. Steady progress

Each aspect should be dealt with separately and not paired with another until suitable progress has been made. Ensure all learning is positive and work within your dog’s limits. There is no time limit and each dog will progress at a different rate.

10. Professional help

In some cases, the help of a behaviourist is beneficial and your vet can provide you with recommendations.