Visits to the vet don’t have to be traumatic.

The old logic goes that each year in our pet’s lives is equal to 7 human years, and while I think that it should be estimated a bit closer to 5, there’s still a big leap in “time” between a pet’s birthdays. Think about how much can change within you physically in 5 years. And, because they inherently mask pain and symptoms, our pets may not let on that something is wrong until it is a serious matter. Dogs, and especially cats, are just tougher than us human folk and compensate for illness very well. Which is why annual exams are so important for the health of your pets.

Going to the vet can sometimes seem like an ordeal, but it does not need to be. We want it to be as positive an experience as we can make it. Yes, your pet can actually like coming to the vet. I have many clients that say their dog gets so excited to come see us.

How the vet approaches the idea of a positive pet experience can have a dramatic impact on how the animal handles the trip to the vet. I hope the days of manhandling dogs and scruffing cats are gone. Cats and dogs have an incredible memory and, if they are mishandled, they will remember and will become fearful and horrible at subsequent visits. There is a new push for fear-free visits among vets. Vets have realized it is best for everyone involved to be respectful to the pets. Your vet should take the time to get to know each pet individually. It does not take a lot of effort. When I go into the exam room I always kneel down and let the animal come up to me. I then discuss with the owner the nature of the visit all the while petting and stroking the animal. I know a lot of people use treats to gain the pet’s confidence, but I am old school and want the dog or cat to feel comfortable and like me instead of viewing me as a cookie jar. By getting to know the pet it calms the animal and you can start to see what is normal for that pet as far as personality. This helps greatly in future visits to determine what is normal for that pet.

I always tell my staff to use as little restraint as possible with the idea of safety of the veterinary staff as a priority. Scruffing or wrapping a cat tightly in a towel is effective in restraining a cat… but should you? You can do that once, but try bringing a towel close to that cat later on. Just simply draping a towel over a fractious cat is often effective. The cat feels safe, and you can palpate and auscultate the cat without the fear of bites and scratches.

We also have found two very effective medications that owners can give their pets prior to a visit to decrease their anxiety. For dogs we use Trazadone. Trazadone is an antidepressant that is used in people for sleep issues, but in dogs we use it for its anti-anxiety properties. It works within 1 to 2 hours and doesn’t make your dog groggy; just mellows them out. Acepromazine should not be used. It is a tranquilizer and has no anti-anxiety properties. Your pet will be just as anxious inside but unable to respond to it. For cats, Gabapentin, another antidepressant used mainly for neuritis in people, calms them for the exam if given 1 to 2 hours prior to the visit.

Your vet should try to avoid painful or stressful procedures without sedation. There are so many safe and effective drugs now that can “twilight sedate” your animal to eliminate the stress. Some are even reversible, so the animal will be totally awake in minutes. Nail trims have done more harm striking fear in dogs at vet visit than anything else. Some dogs could care less and will even let you use a Dremel tool to file down the nails. Others think you are trying to kill them! You can manhandle the majority of these dogs, but…..should you? No. Sedation makes it a positive experience for all.

Finally, taking your pet in for a “happy visit,” where the dog comes in to meet the doctor and staff and gets pampered, is a great way to introduce the pet in a stress-free environment. When he then comes into the practice for a visit he is familiar with the people and surrounding. So, instead of dreading the next check-up, talk with your vet about the best way to go fear-free.

Have you had cause to reconsider your vet’s fear-management practice? What tricks have helped you make a trip to the vet less traumatic for your pet?


Dr_RiggsDr. Rex Riggs grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron. Dr Riggs is co-owner of Best Friends Veterinary Hospital in Powell, Ohio. He is also on the board of the North Central Region of Canine Companions of Independence, a board member of The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine Alumni Society and Small Animal Practitioner Advancement Board at The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Riggs lives in Lewis Center, OH with his wife Nancy, their dogs Maggie and Ossa, and cat Franklin. Outside of work, Dr. Riggs is an avid golfer and cyclist, and enjoys travel and photography.

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