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The fundamentals of a Fear Free? veterinary visit

Feline veterinary visits have declined in recent years. Why? Stress, for cats and their owners. But cats and their owners aren’t the only “scaredy cats”—veterinary visits can cause stress for other types of pets and their people, too.

The good news? You don’t have to sacrifice care by skipping out on regular veterinary visits because of stress. There are plenty of ways for you and your pet to stay relaxed during a veterinary visit.

Don’t baby talk them

Marty Becker, DVM (known as "America's Veterinarian”), who practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, says, “Baby talking or nervous chatter feeds a cycle by where both the pet and the pet owner are increasingly anxious and stressed.”

While baby talking can come naturally to pet owners as a way of nurturing their dogs or cats, it is not recommended before, during, or after the visit. Instead, Becker suggests playing calming music, such as the albums, “Through a Dog's Ear” or “Through a Cat’s Ear.”

Treat them right

Try to leave for the vet when your pet is hungry (unless your veterinarian tells you otherwise). When you arrive at the veterinary office, offer your pet an especially tasty treat (again, unless your veterinarian tells you otherwise—bloodwork often requires fasting).

“Simply start by giving them many more positive experiences than negative ones,” Becker says. This is essential when introducing a new pet to the veterinary experience.

Debbie Martin, RVT, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, VTS (Behavior), animal behavior technician for Veterinary Behavior Consultations, a mobile veterinary service located in Austin, Texas, recommends scheduling fun visits to the veterinary hospital between clinical visits and offering a treat each time you stop in.

“The idea is to make the veterinary hospital more like a pet store,” she says.

The waiting game

If you or your pet get nervous in the waiting room due to the presence of other pets, ask the front desk if there is an empty exam room available where you can wait. You may even leave your pet in the car while you ask.

If you choose to leave your pet in the car, however, please take the outside temperature into consideration. Keep in mind that even a few minutes in a hot car can cause injury, even with the windows rolled down. Extreme cold temperatures can also be dangerous to your pet.

The Fear Free? movement

Becker, Radosta, and Martin are all on the board for the Fear Free? initiative. The goal of the program is to create a hospital culture that promotes the health and well-being of pets while enhancing pet owner and veterinary team member experiences.

“Integrating Fear Free to make the veterinary experience more pleasant goes so much deeper than just changing a few things we do in our daily routine,” Martin says. “I literally get goose bumps when I think about the positive impact that Fear Free is going to have on the veterinary community, our patients, and our clients.”

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, veterinary behaviorist at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Fla., suggests anxious cats wait in the car until an exam room is available. For dogs, she recommends taking a walk outside while waiting.

If you are in the waiting room and want to keep your cat calm there, Becker suggests covering the carrier with a towel or sheet treated with a calming feline pheromone spray.

In addition, “elevate the cat carrier off the ground and use visual barriers such as plants to block the view of other pets or people,” he says.

For dogs, “Use the skills that your dog knows by asking him to lie down, for example, and feeding him treats every minute or so while you wait for the technician,” Radosta says.

The dreaded carrier

Sometimes the worst part of a veterinary visit for cat owners is getting the cat to go into the carrier prior to leaving for the appointment.

“Don’t take the carrier out of the closet or garage the night before or the morning of the visit and expect a great experience,” Becker says.

Instead, three to five days prior to the vet visit is an ideal amount of time for your cat to start getting used to it, he says. Put some treats, food, and toys in the carrier, leave the door open, and spray it liberally with feline pheromones. 

“It's preferable to have an attractive carrier that loads both from the front and top, left out all the time for a cat to use as a place of refuge,” Becker says.

Radosta adds, “I would also suggest that cat owners take time each day to work on conditioning their cat to the carrier, including taking short car rides.” 

Why pets experience anxiety before and during a visit

According to Becker, it is not unusual for pets to get anxious when visiting the vet.

“They have fear of a specific procedure (such as a nail trim) that went poorly before and/or was painful,” Becker says. “Just going to another facility and smelling the normal smells of a practice or seeing people in uniform can trigger fear, anxiety, and stress.”

“Just as some people experience anxiety with a visit to the dentist, dogs and cats can quickly associate the veterinary hospital with unpleasant situations,” Martin says. “The unfamiliar can also be frightening for many pets.”

Condition your pet to enjoy the visit

There are several ways to prevent veterinary-related anxiety in young pets, Becker says.

“Bring the pet in often in the early months just to say hi, get a treat, or get massaged or fussed over,” he says. “It really helps if you bring [the pet] in hungry so [he] responds better to food rewards.” 

Early, positive experiences can build a foundation of trust and help prevent fear from developing. Martin also suggests enrolling puppies and kittens in socialization classes. “Ideally, veterinary hospitals are offering these preventive behavior services in their hospitals or can refer their clients to good classes in the area,” she says.

Remember, your veterinary practice wants your pet to enjoy seeing them.

“Rather than a negative or neutral experience, our goal should be to make a visit to the veterinarian a positive experience,” Martin says. 

Ann Everhart is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo. She has a 7-year-old cat, Ravi, who is quickly learning how to enjoy his visits to the vet. 

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