Co-written by Dr. Gloria Ku and vet assistant, Danielle
For many cats and dogs, coming to the vet can be a horrifying experience. I can often relate to pets that are terrified when they step into the hospital or drive into the parking lot. For some of us humans, our blood pressure skyrockets when we go to our hospitals. I know that when I step into a waiting area at my hospital, my heart starts to race and by the time I’m in the exam room, my nerves are on edge. If the location makes a person feel fear, pain or sadness, it can affect their view of the situation. Unfortunately, for pets, it can be the same. Pets can feel our stress or anxiety and it’s common for most pet owners to feel anxious when they take their pet to the veterinary office. Owners may be extra worried because don’t know why their pet is sick, or they are worried about the financial struggles and vet bills that they know are coming. For some sensitive pets, when Mom or Dad is upset, the pet may start to go into “fight or flight” mode to try to escape from the staff examining them. Our staff works diligently to be patient with scared pets, and to read the signals that animals give us. We sometimes have to use distraction (like treats) or medication (such as anti-anxiety drugs) to help ease their anxiety, but there are a few simple things you can do to help your furry friend make their veterinary experience less stressful.
Cats like quiet spaces and to hide. When choosing a cat travel carrier, consider using a carrier that makes the cat feel secure. The wire kennels that people use for puppy crate training can make them feel exposed compared to a hard-sided carrier. Also, consider getting a carrier that has a top-loading option. It is sometimes easier to put a cat in a carrier that also opens from the top versus only having the option to go in and out through the front door. Sometimes, when a cat is scared, it’s easier for the veterinary staff to take apart the carrier to get to the patient. A carrier that can be easily dismantled instead of needing tools to take apart helps both the cat and the vet staff in that situation.
A few days before your cat’s appointment, we recommend that you have the carrier placed in your home with the carrier door opened for your cat to investigate. Place a nice blanket or towel in the carrier (something that can be easily washed if needed). You can even use Feliway, a feline stress-reducing pheromone, spray or wipes in the carrier or on the bedding too.
Feliway is an over-the-counter product, click here to visit their website: https://www.feliway.com/us
Once your furry feline friend is on their way to the vet, you may also consider using a blanket or towel to lightly cover the carrier in the car, while waiting in the lobby or while in the exam room. When you arrive to the office, if you know your cat is sensitive to loud noises or dogs, consider calling the office from the car or briefly coming in to check-in for your appointment then go back to the car and wait with your cat. Most vet offices understand that their waiting area can be loud and hectic. We have had some patients stay in their owner’s car until a room is ready for them. And just a reminder, if it is warm outside, please turn on the car’s AC for your pet while they are waiting.
Just like cats, dogs sometimes need help when adjusting to visiting the vet too. Most dogs love car rides as it means they are going to the park to play or going on an adventure…however, some dogs also know the direction of the vet office and may start getting anxious right away when they realize you are driving that route. We’ve seen dogs that were so excited to see our staff—happily pulling on their leash and running up to greet people and the Doctors. We’ve also seen dogs that were terrified as soon as they come in—hiding under chairs, maybe showing signs of submission by peeing when touched, or growling/snapping at staff when we get too close. We aren’t surprised by these reactions. Honestly, if you couldn’t understand what was being said around you, the smells are very different when compared to home, new people are touching you in odd places and poking you with needles, and especially if you feel sick already, it would make a lot of sense for you to become fearful of this different environment. Most pets see their veterinarian once a year for vaccines or more often when they are ill. Why not come in to visit the staff when your pet is not sick? Most vet hospitals will understand if you call ahead of time to see when it is a good time for your pet to come in for some socialization. Come in, have your dog step on the scale for a weight, and get a treat from a friendly staff member! The goal is to teach your dog that the hospital is not a scary place every time they come to visit. Bring special treats with you that you know your dog will love—special treats they only get when coming to the vet. Also, if possible, taking a nice, long walk with your dog is a great stress-reducer for both you and your dog before the visit. This is especially true if your dog tends to have a lot of energy that needs to be released before they encounter a new situation.
When walking into the hospital, consider using a shortened, non-retractable leash. The long retractable leashes can get tangled up around chairs, around your legs, or even wrapped up around another person’s leash. A shortened leash allows your pet to not wander away from you—even if your dog is very friendly, the next dog that comes into the hospital may not be. Do you have a little dog that needs to feel safe? Use a covered carrier to help make them feel more secure. If your dog is fearful of people, other pets, and noises, consider having him/her stay in the car until a room is ready. Just like cats, their stress levels can elevate while sitting in the waiting area before their appointment. Just notify the front staff that you and your pet will be outside and to have someone come get you once a room is prepared for your appointment. Does your pet need to be muzzled for their exam for the safety of others? Consider practicing putting on a muzzle at home and giving treats/praise for when your dog allows you to put on their muzzle. Often, once a pet has some practice at home with a muzzle, they aren’t as fearful about it on their face during their exam.
We asked Dr. Gloria Ku, “Do you have any advice for helping cats and dogs feel more comfortable when going to see their vet?”
"I really like the idea of preparing your pet for their visit in advance. Even if it is just having an actual talk to explain what is going to happen, your pet will understand your intention, feel calmer because they are not taken by surprise, and even if they don’t know the exact meaning of your words, they can sense that you are preparing for this event as well. Try to focus on the positive aspects of why you are visiting us. It is to help with a problem and/or keep your pet healthy. That’s a good thing!
For cats, avoiding a larger meal prior to coming can make the car ride less nauseating (for some dogs too), as they tend not to be as accustomed to car rides. Also picking a time of day that is less hectic for you, is also less hectic for your pet. As was mentioned earlier, our pets pick up on our stress and incorporate it with their own!
Exercising your dog before coming in can make a huge difference for both happy and nervous dogs. The walk usually helps them calm down and release pent up energy, and helps them and owners to be focused and present. Often the anticipation is the driver of anxiety, not the actual event.
Lastly, please let us know if you or your pet is especially anxious, and what your concerns are when making your appointment. We will do our best to help relieve that anxiety, and offer specific tips for the visit to help it go as smoothly as possible. Sometimes it can be as simple as scheduling during a specific time of day that will be the least stressful for your pet. Our goal is to make each visit as stress free as possible. Happy and Healthy is good for everyone!"
-Dr. Gloria Ku