Should Vets Give Treats to Pets?

Using treats at the vet means fewer bites and a less fearful pet, according to research.

A Persian cat being examined at the vet
Photo:135pixels/Shutterstock


By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Many companion animals are scared of visits to the vet. There is an established procedure for treating fear called desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) which involves feeding nice food in order to make something less scary. Yet many vets do not give treats to animals. A new paper by Karolina Westlund (Karolinska Institute) considers this reluctance, and looks at the evidence for and against.

Westlund says, “Veterinarians and veterinary assistants have a choice whether or not to use treats when interacting with their patients; indeed a DS/CC procedure could be started the moment the animal enters the waiting room, and continue during weighing, consultation and examination. Could it be that staff assess the potential costs involved in feeding treats, but not the costs involved in not doing so?”

If your pet has ever had to have a general anaesthetic, you’ll have heard the advice not to feed anything after 8pm the night before. The worry is that something called the gastro-oesophageal reflex might make the contents of the stomach leak up into the trachea, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia. However, this is a rare occurrence (she cites a figure of between 0.04% and 0.26% of postoperative cases). 

Westlund says many vets never give treats to pets during routine vet exams, just in case it turns out the animal needs anaesthesia or sedation. However, she says vets should consider the benefits as well as the risks. Giving treats would help make the animal less stressed, which in itself reduces the need for sedation. It also makes it safer for vets, who are less likely to get bitten. 

Another important benefit she mentions is it can give vets an opportunity to educate owners about how to deal with fear. This will be especially helpful for people whose animals are afraid of other things too (such as fireworks). Also, some people stop taking their animals to the vet altogether simply because the cat or dog is so afraid that it becomes difficult for them to do so. 

Another reason vets can be reluctant to feed treats is in case of causing a tummy upset, but Westlund suggests having a range of treats and checking with owners about food allergies first. Vets may also be concerned about promoting treats given the problems of overweight and obesity in pets. She suggests calling them ‘wholesome treats’ or ‘tasty food’ instead. This also provides another opportunity for client education. 

Westlund concludes that “the benefits to the animal, staff and owner outweigh the risks.” She also makes specific suggestions to help vets with concerns.

For many pets, treats at the vet will help them feel more comfortable. For animals with a bigger fear of the vet and/or being handled, a suitably qualified dog trainer or animal behaviourist would be able to develop a plan to resolve the problem. There is a lot of advice to make vet visits less stressful for dogs and cats

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

How do your pets find visits to the vet?

You might also like: Less stress at the vet for dogs and cats and eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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Reference
Westlund, K. (2015). To feed or not to feed: Counterconditioning in the veterinary clinic. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(5), 433-437.

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