Both myself and Emily (who owns Homeward Bound) have collectively spent significant time working in a veterinary clinic. When you work with behavior and in a veterinary setting, it becomes very clear just how many animals find the experience of going to the vet clinic stressful. Of course, there are varying degrees of this stress. Some animals are only mildly anxious while others are in full-blown panic. Some don’t mind the lobby, some don’t get concerned until the poking and prodding begins, and some begin their spiraling descent into madness on the drive there.
That all being said, there are some that genuinely enjoy the vet clinic. I’ve found that even in that category, there are many who are excited but overstimulated, which can definitely manifest into its own flavor of stress, or even still…stem from stress.
Emily and I worked for a fear free vet clinic, which means that there was a culture instilled that ensured every step is taken so that the animals are as stress-free as possible. It’s an amazing experience having a vet like this, and the number of clinics learning and getting involved in fear free practices is growing each year. Many clients came to that clinic because of how they approached the behavioral well-being of the animal. Many new clients that came to the clinic were told that their animal was not handleable by other clinics.
I could write an entire novel on what goes into fear free vet practices, however my aim here isn’t to focus on that. I want to make myself clear that if a vet is not fear free, it does not mean they are a bad vet, or a bad clinic. Veterinarians are some of the hardest working and most under appreciated professionals I know. Vets are not trained in school on complex animal behavior so whatever knowledge they have is elective on their end (either formally or self-learned). They are trained to be practitioners who focus on an animal's physical health and well-being, and while they don’t love that some of their patients are frightened and combative, their already difficult job is to make sure that the companion is walking out of the office in the best possible physical health within the constraints of what is actually possible. It’s to ensure they are educating their clients on how to maintain or restore health.
They are also trained, as are the rest of the staff (or should be) on how to keep themselves safe when their patient is frightened because a scared animal is absolutely an animal capable of biting.
My job is to focus on the emotional health of my clients. When the two can go hand-in-hand and everyone is working as a team, it is certainly easier. Working as a team means having everyone on board with addressing all aspects, which is important considering how frequently physical and emotional health can influence one another.
If your vet is not offering services that specifically cater to focusing on your pet’s experience while there, it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do to help them feel better about the vet.
Talk to your vet about situational anxiety medication to see if they think onboarding something like this would be appropriate or helpful before your next visit. This isn’t about (or shouldn’t be if done well) drugging your pet. It’s about lowering their stress levels and giving them the ability to better cope with what’s happening. Many animals escalate their fear with each subsequent visit when their emotional state is not addressed and I know a great deal of clients who have to now sedate their pet in order to do a basic exam because at this point it is the safest and most humane way to help them. It’s okay if you have one of those animals, but if it can be avoided or worked on with some medication before the vet visit, it will save you money and stress.
Before COVID, I would have told you to make trips to your vet when you don’t have an appointment so you can go inside, give your dog a few tasty treats and they can walk away with nothing but a good experience. Nothing bad happens. That understandably went by the wayside during the pandemic, but regardless of whether your vet is allowing people in or not, you should always have a conversation with the staff about these visits to ensure that they are okay with unscheduled visitors for brief pop-ins and calling ahead to see if it’s a good time is always a must. Working in a vet clinic can get hectic, so visits during busy times will likely only add stress to the other patients, your dog, and the staff. If your vet clinic does not let people in outside of appointments, you can always have the same visit but in the parking lot. It’s not quite the same but it’s still helpful. Building a positive association is the way to go.
If your pet likes treats and it is safe for them to receive food during the visit, take their favorite snacks to help distract them during their appointment. Some animals will become so stressed during an exam that their digestive system shuts down and they won’t be willing to take food, so this isn’t going to be for everyone.
There are a lot more intensive things that can be done to help your companion feel better about their vet experience, and even though it may only be once or twice a year, it’s still important. Cooperative care training is an incredible way to teach your pet to willingly participate in their own handling, exams, blood draws, and nail trims and of course, we’re happy to answer any questions you might have about that. If you have a pet who is particularly stressed at the vet, you may want to check into fear free clinics in your area. Don’t view it as abandoning your current vet, but going to a more specialized place to handle your pet’s needs. I’ve had many vets from other clinics refer their clients to fear free vets in order to help them get the care they need.
If you have questions about how your pet could be helped by cooperative care training, we offer in-person services within a 40 mile radius of Wyocena, Wisconsin and Des Moines, Iowa. Virtual help is as an effective of an option and can provide you with assistance from anywhere in the United States! Contact us here!