Does your dog pump the brakes when you arrive at Town and Country Animal Hospital? Is your cat covered in stress-induced bodily fluids when you extract them from their carrier? Do you put off your pet’s preventive care when they seem healthy, simply to avoid the stress and anxiety caused by a trip to the veterinarian?
Postponing your pet’s routine care until they are visibly ill may avoid unpleasant emotions in the short-term, but will only intensify your pet’s fear, anxiety, and stress in the long-term—and may shorten their life.
Why does a low-stress veterinary visit matter?
Or, you may never miss a veterinary visit, but your pet is nervous and uncomfortable throughout. Many owners assume this is normal, and nothing can be done. Unfortunately, stress can lead to inaccurate veterinary assessments by causing:
- Elevated heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature
- Changes in blood work results
- Altered responses to their physical examination by:
- Stoically hiding pain
- Over-exaggerating reactions, to escape the assessment
By reducing negative emotional reactions, we not only help the pet feel better, but also form a more accurate clinical picture and diagnosis—potentially catching disease or injury in its earliest, most treatable stages.
What can help my pet who has an extreme reaction to the veterinary hospital?
Speak to your veterinarian about oral anti-anxiety medications (i.e., anxiolytics) if your pet has had previous severely anxious or aggressive reactions to the veterinary hospital. Anxiolytics, or pre-visit pharmaceuticals (PVPs), can be administered at home, several days to hours prior to your pet’s appointment. Appropriate PVPs are not tranquilizers, but they mildly sedate and calm your pet, improving cooperation, and providing relief for their anxiety and hypervigilant state.
PVPs are an appropriate, safe way to provide severely fearful or anxious pets with a less stressful visit. They work synergistically with behavioral preparation, such as the skills below.
What can I do to help my pet have a better experience?
You never know when your pet may need to see the veterinarians at Town and Country Animal Hospital, so training should begin right away. Fortunately, the foundation work for all low-stress behaviors can begin at home, and requires only a few minutes per day.
- Help your pet get a handle on handling and restraint — For dogs and cats, physical restraint is threatening, and can trigger their flight, freeze, or flight instinct. Other pets may be OK with a veterinary technician’s gentle “hug,” but resist having their feet, ears, or other sensitive area examined.
Change your pet’s reaction by pairing touch with treats. First, touch a non-threatening area, such as your pet’s chest or hip, and follow immediately with a high-value reward (e.g., cooked chicken breast, wet food, or freeze-dried beef liver or shrimp). Repeat several times, and then slowly progress to touch more sensitive regions. Keep sessions short, to only one to two minutes. If your pet disengages, take a break. Next time, begin at the last successful location.
- Help your cat see their carrier as a home-away-from-home — Cats attach significant negative associations to their carrier that is brought out only before a trip to the veterinary hospital. Rather than storage in the attic or basement, make the carrier a part of your home. Select a carrier with a removable top, and introduce your cat gradually—first, as a bed (i.e., the lower half), then as a cozy hiding place (i.e., with the lid on). Cats come to love their carriers once they are properly introduced. Place the carrier in your cat’s favorite spot, and include a soft bed, toys, and the occasional surprise treat. Work up to feeding your cat in the carrier each day, and then gradually add the door, and begin lifting and moving the carrier with the cat inside.
- Use rewards to distract your pet and build positive associations — Food is a life necessity, and a powerful motivator for most dogs and cats. As long as your pet does not require fasting, we encourage generous use of food during your visit. Effective food rewards should be:
- Enticing and high value (e.g., chicken, freeze-dried meat treats, string cheese, deli meat, wet food, peanut butter, canned tuna)
- Small, soft, and easy to swallow
- Spread inside a Kong or on a Licki-Mat, for a long-lasting distraction
- Given consistently whenever your pet demonstrates desirable behavior
Introduce foods at home during your preparatory training, to determine your pet’s preferences and each treat’s digestibility. Bring a hungry pet and a selection of treats to your next appointment.
- Muzzle training — Muzzles are a necessary tool for some pets during the veterinary examination, for everyone’s safety, including the pet. However, like the carrier, a muzzle that is used only during periods of stress, pain, or fear, such as at the veterinary hospital, can heighten a pet’s anxiety, and escalate the situation.
Muzzle training is easy and incredibly effective when taught with positive reinforcement. However, muzzle selection is important, as pets should be able to eat, drink, and pant during use. Basket muzzles are best for dogs, while the Air Muzzle is suitable for cats and brachycephalic dogs.
Finally, help your pet learn that the veterinary hospital doesn’t always mean vaccines and procedures. Stop by Town and Country Animal Hospital with your pet, and simply hang out in the lobby receiving treats, or playing with a toy. Call us in advance, so we can recommend a quiet time for your low-stress, happy visit.
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