“My pet hates this place” is commonly heard at veterinary hospitals. Other owners nod in sympathetic agreement, and voice their own pet’s thoughts of, “Get me out of here!” or “Don’t let them touch me!”

Popular opinion suggests that despising the veterinarian is normal and expected for pets, and nothing can be done—but it doesn’t have to be this way. Check out the following tips to reduce your pet’s stress.

#1: Be prepared for your pet’s appointment

Prepare a list of questions, and a list of refills you may need, so you can stay focused on your pet during the appointment. If your pet has a history of severe fear, anxiety, or aggression at the veterinary hospital, call ahead to ask if an anti-anxiety medication or sedative could be prescribed in advance. 

#2: Help your pet learn that touch equals treats

For some pets, physical handling and restraint are far more frightening than blood draws and vaccines. Show your pet that gentle physical manipulation is only a game by beginning desensitization training at home.

  • Beginning with a non-sensitive area of your pet, lightly touch them with a gentle, flat hand. 
  • Remove your hand, and immediately reward your pet with a high value treat in your opposite hand.
  • Repeat touch, treat, touch, treat several times to establish the pattern. Your pet will learn to associate touch as the predictor of great things.
  • Use precise timing, so you are not touching and feeding at the same time, which likely would make your pet nervous or suspicious.
  • Using the same process, starting at the beginning, try touching other areas.

Do this for a few minutes per day, and you will quickly see the benefits as they become easier to care for at the vet and at home. Your pet should be able to tolerate the following:

  • Gentle holding of their muzzle or head
  • Lifting and looking into each ear
  • Lifting each leg and foot
  • A gentle arm or hand around their neck, chest, or abdomen
  • Lifting their tail

#3: Ensure your dog is muzzle trained

Every dog, including “good dogs,” should accept wearing a muzzle. Muzzle training is easy if you first introduce the muzzle with positive rewards while the pet is pain-free. Muzzles are stressful if they are used only when the pet is fearful and in pain.

#4: Travel safely to reduce pet stress

Ensure pets are safely secured in the car. Cats should be kept in a carrier, placed on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Acclimate your cat to their carrier before the day of the appointment. Dogs should travel in a well-fitted seat belt or crate. Do not feed your pet before you travel, to reduce nausea, and ensure they will accept food rewards during their examination.

#4: Set up your pet’s visit beforehand, to avoid the lobby

Minimize the time your pet spends waiting in a busy lobby, to prevent them becoming wound up with stress and anxiety. Call ahead and request that you be allowed to take your pet directly to an exam room. Also, ask if you can pay, schedule follow-up visits, and pick up medication in the same exam room after the visit is finished, so you can also avoid the lobby when you leave.

#5: Minimize contact with other animals

If you cannot avoid the lobby, realize that other pet owners may not be attentive, and always keep a close eye on your pet. Strange dogs who come charging up to your pet can be threatening and scary. Keep pet carriers covered with a blanket or on an elevated surface, so they are not intimidated by unfamiliar dogs.

#6: Use positive reinforcement to help your pet’s emotional state

If your pet is comfortable enough to focus in the hospital, ask them for some simple, fun behaviors, such as “Sit,” “Spin,” or “Shake.” A history of great rewards following a certain behavior can change your pet’s mindset from unease to joy. 

#7:  Help your pet plant their feet in the hospital

No one likes to stand on a slippery surface, and anxious pets may slip and scramble for purchase on stainless steel tables or tile floors. Stable footing is important for a pet’s confidence and sense of security, so bring along a rug or a piece of yoga mat. Nervous pets and less mobile seniors will instantly feel at ease when they can stand, sit, or lie down without sliding. 

#8: Help the veterinary team understand your pet

Talk to the veterinary team about your pet’s likes and dislikes, and any body areas that seem sensitive or painful, so they can customize your pet’s examination process. For instance, they may examine your head-shy pet from rear to front, or wait until your pet naturally lifts their tail, instead of a team member manually lifting the tail. Reward your pet often during their examination for appropriate behavior, and ask the team members to do the same.

As veterinary professionals, we know pets do not always love us as much as we love them, but we also know that behavior can be modified. With a few alterations to our methods—and theirs—we can change how your pet feels about us. 

For additional questions, or suggestions, about improving your pet’s veterinary visits, speak to your family veterinarian. For all animal emergency needs, please contact our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center.