For this inquisitive canine doggy blog installment, we’re joined by Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, a humane, like-minded professional whose goal is to make vet visits more enjoyable for inquisitive canines everywhere!
Like humans, dogs need routine veterinary care to stay healthy and happy. In fact, due to their inability to speak and tell us about things that could be amiss, regular check-ups with a veterinarian are essential.
Unfortunately, these visits can be stressful for dogs. Traveling in a car, going into an unfamiliar place with many smells of other animals, and then being examined and possibly poked with needles, all make vet visits scary for a dog. Luckily, there are some things we can do to reduce a dog’s stress and anxiety at the vet’s office.
Preparation is Key
As with any endeavor, proper preparation is crucial. In the event of an emergency visit, this may not be possible, but for routine wellness exams, having a few essentials ready can help ease your dog’s anxiety. (Kriss, 2021)
Treats: Most dogs are food motivated and will be comforted by treats. (Bremhorst et al., 2018) It is also calming to receive a familiar snack from home when you are away. Make sure to pack some of your dog’s favorite treats for the trip. If your dog is prone to car sickness, wait until you have arrived to offer them any food.
Toys and Blankets: Surrounding your pet with familiar things will definitely help ease their fears. If your dog is small, put a blanket from their bed or the couch into their carrier. Bring along a favorite toy for a dog of any size. These items will smell like home and calm your pet. (Martin et al., n.d.)
Medications: If your dog struggles with extreme anxiety or shows any signs of aggression at the vet’s office, ask your veterinarian about possible medication options. There are many protocols that can ease the fear and anxiety your dog is having and make the visit a more pleasant experience for them. (Erickson et al., 2021) Often, these medications will need to be administered the night before and the morning of the appointment, so contact your veterinarian in advance so the medications may be prescribed and ready.
Time Management: This isn’t something you can take with you, but being prepared and starting to get ready for your pet’s vet appointment with plenty of time to spare can go a long way to ease anxiety in your dog. Make sure to schedule your dog’s appointment when you have plenty of time to prepare and leave early to account for any traffic or other issues that may come up. If you are running late, rushed, and anxious, your dog will pick up on your emotions. (Siniscalchi et al., 2018)
Things You Can Do Between Visits
Setting your puppy up for a lifetime of positive, stress-free vet visits starts early and starts at home. Getting your puppy comfortable with being held, touched, and examined will make it so much easier for them when they are actually at the veterinary clinic. (Farricelli, 2020)
These tips can be used for older dogs as well, but it is easier to get a puppy used to these things than an adult.
Puppies should be gently held and petted all over as often as possible. This can be difficult for an excited, wiggly puppy. This exercise should be done at appropriate times, for example, when the puppy is calm. Avoid trying to hold the puppy still when they are hungry or overly excited.
Massage the puppy gently from snout to tail. Pay special attention to the mouth, ears, and feet. Gently lift both lips and run your finger over the outside of the puppy’s teeth. Pick up the ear flaps, look inside, and gently run your finger around the outer ear canal. Hold each paw briefly and stroke the toenails.
Once your dog is comfortable with these exercises, you may move on to brushing the teeth, cleaning the ears, and trimming the nails.
I recommend that pet parents also acclimate their dog to a blow dryer on their fur and some type of vibrating electrical device. This can be an electric razor or something similar. Hold the device against the dog’s body to get them used to the sound and the feeling of the vibration.
All of the above exercises should be used along with positive reinforcement. Dogs should never be scolded or punished for not accepting things. (Vieira de Castro et al., 2020) Go slowly, and when the dog reacts calmly, reward them with praise, pets, and treats. This creates a positive conditioned response, meaning that your dog is more likely to behave in the same calm manner in similar situations in the future—such as being examined by the vet—because they are rewarded for their calm reaction.
Dogs quickly learn, even as puppies, that only unpleasant things happen at the vet’s office. Despite staff being sweet and encouraging and providing lots of treats and distractions, a dog who gets a shot every time they go to the vet will likely start to dread the experience.
Over my years as a practicing veterinarian, I have always encouraged pet owners, especially those with fearful or anxious dogs, to do “treat trips.” This is a quick car ride to the vet’s office, where the staff greets the dog, gives them plenty of pets and rubs, and feeds them some treats. Then they get to go home. No exam, no needles. This puts the clinic or hospital in a much more positive light for the dog.
It can also be a good idea to take your dog out and about, in the car, to many different places. Riding in the car is entirely foreign to most dogs. If they are unaccustomed to it or associate the car ride with always going to the vet, they are likely to become overly anxious before they even arrive at the clinic.
Routine veterinary care is absolutely essential to catch problems early and keep our furry friends healthy. Dogs, like humans, are uncomfortable with the unknown and learn negative associations quickly. Using these tips, along with some time and patience, you can make your dog’s important veterinary visits less stressful for both you and your dog!
Author bio: Dr. Jamie Whittenburg is a graduate of Texas Tech University and Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine. A practicing veterinarian for 17 years, she works with cats, dogs, and small exotics. She has a special interest in feline medicine and surgery. In 2013, she opened her own practice, Kingsgate Animal Hospital. When not working, Dr. Whittenburg enjoys hiking and reading.
Kriss, R. (2021, November 10). Dog anxiety: What dog owners need to know. American Kennel Club. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/treating-dog-anxiety/
Bremhorst, A., Bütler, S., Würbel, H., & Riemer, S. (2018). Incentive motivation in pet dogs – preference for constant vs varied food rewards. Scientific Reports, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-28079-5
Martin, K., Horwitz, D. & Landsberg, G. Fear of Places in Dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals. Retrieved March 21, 2022, from https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/fear-of-places-in-dogs/
Erickson, A., Harbin, K., MacPherson, J., Rundle, K., & Overall, K. L. (2021). A review of pre-appointment medications to reduce fear and anxiety in dogs and cats at veterinary visits. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 62(9), 952–960.
Siniscalchi, M., d’Ingeo, S., & Quaranta, A. (2018). Orienting asymmetries and physiological reactivity in dogs’ response to human emotional faces. Learning & behavior, 46(4), 574–585. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-018-0325-2
Farricelli, A., 2020. Teaching Puppies to Tolerate Touch: 9 Body-Handling Exercises. [online] PetHelpful. Available at: <https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Body-Handling-Exercises-For-Puppies> [Accessed 14 March 2022].Vieira de Castro, A. C., Fuchs, D., Morello, G. M., Pastur, S., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PloS one, 15(12), e0225023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225023