Today I am going to start with a story. One of my dogs had been acting a little off lately, so I brought him to work to look at. (I will come back to this story in an article soon for different reasons.) This dog can’t stay at home alone, so he often comes to work with me. He hung out happily in my office until I got a moment to draw his blood. At this point, I called him out of the office. This is a common occurrence as I have him clean up treat bits, get on the scale, etc. But this time he didn’t come. I called with enthusiasm, he didn’t come. I called sternly in my best “I’ counting to three” voice and he finally came slinking out. Ears back, tail between his legs.
Why was he so reluctant to come? Why did he finally come out acting like I was about to inflict the end of days on him? He knew I was going to draw his blood and he doesn’t like it. He knew because he is a dog, and he doesn’t like it because he actually hates having anything done to him. Thankfully, most animals do not react like this.
I’m actually going to tell another story now. My dogs like to be where I am, especially the aforementioned dog who can’t even be home without me. However, when I pick up the nail clippers both dogs and my cat hit the road and hide in other rooms until I force them out.
My dogs are good dogs. I am their most beloved AND their vet, so they certainly aren’t afraid of the vet. But they still don’t like certain procedures being done. This was all a lead in to a discussion about what we call “Fear Free” in veterinary medicine. The point of fear-free is to help animals in situations where they get nervous. Initially, this is with medication, though often that is just a jumping-off point to training pets to be more comfortable with procedures.
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 mine is an exception.) Usually, the things they hate are having temperatures taken and having strangers hold them. Toenail trims are probably the number one most hated thing. Many cats and some dogs simply aren’t used to going to new places outside their comfort zone or having 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 tend not to 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 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. Some people wonder why we can’t “just do it” like another vet. The truth is that we can. But we don’t want to. Having to get three people to hold a dog down to do something that makes them uncomfortable never has been and never will be something I tolerate in my clinic.
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. I give my cat a pre-medication every single time I trim her nails. Every time. That is because she hates it and rather than forcing her to be sad and mad (and then me being sad and mad) we can have a moderately pleasant, fast, and low-stress nail trim.
There are things that 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 and exam one time we can make progress. We have people 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. Right now this isn’t a realistic possibility, but eventually, things will be closer to normal. 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, especially on puppies. We certainly don’t expect you to be able to pick up on everything we do (believe it or not I went to a lot of school to do that) 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 sooner.
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 once had a patient that would walk in the door, go to the scale, and then take himself to “his” blood draw spot. I don’t know why it is so fun for some and so scary for others.
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.