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How can my pet have stress-free veterinary visits?

Many of our beloved pets don’t go to the veterinarian for their recommended annual visit, forgoing the benefits of preventive medicine. The reason? Stress—from wrangling your cat into a carrier, from trying to keep your dog from vomiting in your new car, from sitting next to barking dogs and yowling cats in a packed waiting room, and from watching your precious pup quake or feline friend lash out in fear. It’s no wonder so many pets skip their veterinary visits.

Fortunately for our pet’s physical and mental health—and ours—there is a shift toward low-stress veterinary care. Not only does stress negatively affect pets and create psychological trauma, it also can be so severe that test results are skewed and the immune system is weakened. If your pet has experienced a lifetime of anxiety, reversing her chain of reactions during her trip to the vet can be challenging. Follow our seven steps to calm fears and turn your furry friend into a pet who loves the vet.

Practice handling your pet

Two of the biggest challenges veterinary professionals face are a pet’s feet and ears. Many pets do not approve of these body parts being manipulated, and often they strongly object to being handled by a stranger. However, even a pet adopted later in life can be conditioned to accept handling, grooming, and restraint. Begin by pairing potentially unpleasant handling with delicious, high-value treats. Train your dog to give you her paw for nail trims, or have your cat or dog focus on a whipped-cream cone while you clean her ears. Creating a positive association with the handling of these two tricky areas vastly will increase your pet’s quality of life by reducing the struggle and fear commonly associated with nail trims and ear cleanings. Checking these areas is a critical component of preventive care because routine cleanings allow a peek inside your pet’s ears to catch an infection before it becomes painfully severe, while frequent nail trims keep the blood vessel inside each nail trimmed back, avoiding painful cutting. Distraction with high-value treats or toys, praise, and petting all work well at keeping your pet occupied during potentially unpleasant tasks, but conditioning her to realize good things come from handling goes a long way to reducing fear and anxiety.

Schedule appointments according to your pet’s fears

When scheduling your anxious pet’s appointment, ask for the earliest time slot. Routine appointments can run long, emergencies are squeezed in, and sometimes you and your stressed pet end up waiting in a packed waiting room before being shown to a quiet exam room. The earliest time slot allows you to avoid the chaos of a jam-packed waiting room on a Friday evening. If this is not feasible, call the hospital when you arrive and ask the client care representative if you can wait with your pet in the car until an exam room is open. 

The carrier is a cat’s friend, not foe

Most cats only see the carrier come out when it’s time to visit the vet. This negative association ensures the carrier is seen as a harbinger of doom, leading to a major struggle to get your cat inside scratch-free. To avoid this association, leave the carrier out at all times, treating it as the deliverer of delicious snacks instead. Routinely throw a few high-value kitty treats into the carrier, leaving the door propped open. Your cat will sniff out the goodies and learn to associate good things with the box of doom. Line the carrier with a cozy blanket spritzed with Feliway spray and add a soft toy or two to make your cat feel comfortable and secure while traveling.

Drop by with your pet for “happy visits”

Does your pet only visit the vet for vaccinations or when she’s sick? If so, it’s no wonder she associates a trip to the clinic with being poked and prodded by strangers. Stop by for a few happy, treat-filled visits with no needles. Load up on your pet’s favorite snacks and let the veterinary team offer them to your pet. Stop by for massages, belly rubs, and special treats. Soon your furry friend will be excited to visit the veterinarian.

Calm your fear first, then your pet’s

Our pets are remarkably in-tune with our feelings and emotions. If you are nervous about a veterinary visit, your pet will pick up on that and also become anxious. Project a calm demeanor, speak in a soft, soothing voice—no high-pitched, squeaky baby talk—and try to avoid excessive petting. Your pet will pick up on your calming cues and relax if you do.

Come as a hungry pet, leave happy

A hungry pet will be more treat-motivated, allowing your veterinary team to provide your pet’s favorite treat as a tasty distraction. Skip breakfast the morning of your appointment and bring treats you know your pet loves to reward her for good behavior.

Ask the veterinarian for help

Some pets become so fearful when visiting the veterinarian that they need anti-anxiety medication. Many pets benefit from a mild sedative, especially for such scary situations as nail trims and ear cleanings, but others may need additional medication. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations other than medication that will reduce your pet’s anxiety, such as compression wraps, pheromone sprays, essential oils, or calming supplements.

As well as searching for Fear Free veterinary professionals, choose your pet’s veterinary team based on the highest standards of care. Use our AAHA-accredited hospital locator to find the perfect team for your beloved companion. Your pet will change from fearful to fear-free and learn to love her veterinary team.