27 April 2016

Why Science Matters to Our Dogs and Cats

Science – and science blogging – can help animal welfare in important ways.

Science and science blogging can help animal welfare for dogs like these Aussies

We wish our companion animals to lead a charmed life and always be happy. We want our dogs and cats to have a wonderful relationship with us. But we can’t achieve this if we don’t know what they need and how we should interact with them.

Last year, some readers took part in a survey of who reads science blogs. The preliminary results are out, and it’s got me thinking about why science – and science blogging – matters for our companion animals.

One of the findings of Dr. Paige Jarreau's study is that in general (and regardless of level of education, gender, age and consumption of other online science info) people who consistently read science blogs were better able to answer the knowledge questions about science that were included in the survey (a few of you sent me comments on those at the time).

“This finding is a promising indicator that science blogs may be promoting greater scientific knowledge or science literacy – at least for some readers,” writes Dr. Jarreau.

I find this encouraging because there are many ways in which science (and social science) can improve animal welfare and our relationship with our companion animals.

In order to help our animals be happy, we need to understand their needs – and also how well their guardians understand those needs. For example, cats benefit from environmental enrichment. But although guardians are good at providing some of these (e.g. playtime, feline-friendly spaces like windows, and scratching posts), they miss other important aspects such as providing water separately from their food bowl, using scents, and – a surprising omission, since it’s easy to fix – the use of food toys that make the cat work for their food. Discovering gaps in people’s knowledge and communicating easy ways to make things better is one thing science blogs can do well. (If you’re a dog person, there are some tips on canine enrichment too).

Science matters to our pets - like this cat and dog in file drawers

Another example of how science matters comes from dog training. Because dog training is unlicensed, sometimes all the education a dog trainer has (apart from high school) is that they grew up with dogs. We wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids; we would expect them to get a qualification and experience. This lack of education partly explains the fact some people still use out-dated, antiquated training based on the metaphor of wolf packs applied to dogs. There are also many wonderful dog trainers with education and expertise; people need to choose carefully so as to get the right kind.

The problem is that using aversive dog training techniques has risks, and positive reinforcement is a better choice.  For example, dogs trained using negative reinforcement (e.g. teaching sit by pulling the leash and pushing the dog’s bottom down, only stopping when the dog sits) gaze less at their owner and are more likely to show signs of stress. Dogs taught recall using electronic shock collars show signs of stress and don’t perform any better than those taught with positive reinforcement. A higher frequency of punishment correlates with higher aggression and excitability. For dogs with behaviour problems, the use of aversive techniques can sometimes lead to aggression, while rewards-based training has a positive effect. People who use only positive reinforcement report better trained dogs. Plus, dogs like to work for rewards.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that using aversive methods can have unwanted consequences. We’ve known for some time that it’s not a good idea to use physical punishment with children. Just this month, a new study (Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor, 2016) looking at 50 years of research found spanking children is linked to many detrimental outcomes. Prof. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor told UT News,
“The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”
Dogs are not children, and the scientific literature on dogs and training methods is nowhere near as vast or sophisticated as that on children and parenting strategies, but there are some parallels.

One thing we know about people’s knowledge of dog training is that it often comes from themselves. Hopefully science blogging can help to increase awareness, as people read and share articles that promote positive reinforcement in dog training. Here, the bad news from Dr. Jarreau’s study is that many readers of science blogs do not share the articles they read. If we want people to pay attention to science-based dog training, we need to share information about it.

Another way science can help companion animals relates to work that shows how much pets can mean to people. For example, research shows that homeless youth with pets are less depressed than those without but that having a pet on the street brings disadvantages too such as the problem of finding a shelter that will take pets. Knowing about the importance of pets and the difficulties their homeless owners face can lead to policy decisions that will ultimately help both pet and human.

The main reasons people gave for reading science blogs were “because it stimulates my curiosity”, “as an educational tool” and “for information I don’t find in traditional news media.” Dr. Jarreau also writes that, “there appears to be a small but avid cluster of science blog readers who read blogs to feel involved in an online community.”

One of the things I’ve gained from writing this blog is a sense of just how many people are passionate about science and committed to animal welfare. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful to all of my readers. I read all of your comments here and on twitter, facebook and email (subscribers just need to hit the reply button), and try to use them to make this blog even better. I'm very pleased that interest in science and our companion animals continues to grow.

Now go share some science stories. Let’s keep spreading the word!

Gershoff, E., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology DOI: 10.1037/fam0000191
For other references, please click the relevant links.
Photo: Christian Mueller (Shutterstock.com).

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20 April 2016

Enrichment Tips for Cats (That Many People Miss)

Cats have a moderately-enriched life, but people need more knowledge about their felines in order to do better, according to a new study.

Abyssinian cat plays in a cat house - one of many ways to provide enrichment for your cat

There are many ways we can improve our cats’ lives: toys that let the cat simulate stalking prey, social interaction with people, providing spaces high-up for cats to go. This is called environmental enrichment, and is especially important for indoor cats.

A new study by Ana Margarida Alho et al (University of Lisbon) finds that although most cats do quite well, there are some things many people are missing. Here are some of the highlights.

Food toys 

“Taking into account their low cost, the fact that they also can be homemade and free, the ease of assembly, and the inherent advantages promoting locomotion and decreasing inactive behaviour, we find it regrettable that such a small number of guardians use them,” say the scientists.

Only 5% used food toys such as balls, puzzle toys and hiding food. There are many types of food-dispensing toys for cats on the market, some of which have adjustable difficulty levels so you can start off easy and make it harder once your cat has got the hang of it. It’s also very easy to make your own, as with these examples of interactive food toys, many of which involve cardboard tubes or yoghurt pots. Another option is simply to hide food for your cat to find.

Providing water separately from food

Cats prefer it if their source of water is not near their food, yet the study found most people provide them adjacent to each other. It’s a good idea to provide both still water and moving water (such as via a dripping tap or a specially-designed water dispenser).

The researchers also say food and water bowls should be in a quiet location so the cat does not feel stressed while eating or drinking.

How to provide enrichment for your cat, and the tips that many people miss which will make your cat happier, illustrated by a beautiful cat in a cat tunnel

Litter boxes

The researchers say most owners did well here, but some were not aware of the need to put litter boxes in a quiet location, and to have one extra litter box (e.g. if you have two cats, you should have three boxes).

Where some people didn’t do so well was in hygiene. Although most people scooped daily (65% of single-cat and 56% of multi-case houses), in a few households the litter tray was only scooped once a week or even once every two weeks. It’s better to scoop the litter tray twice a day, especially in a multi-cat household.

High places, hiding places, scratching places 

Most cats did quite well here, although there was room for improvement. Cats like to have access to a window with an interesting view, and cats like to have high-up places to sit and rest, as well as places they can hide. Cat trees, cardboard boxes, hammocks and shelves are all a good idea.

As well, cats need horizontal and vertical places they can scratch, as this is a normal behaviour to them. Cats use scratching posts when they are provided and this can save the furniture. The best cat scratching posts are usually rope (sisal) and over 3 feet high so they can get a good stretch; they also like cat trees with multiple levels.

Play, grooming and petting 

Most people in the study played with their cat every day, and also had daily petting and grooming sessions. This is good because earlier research suggests that a daily playtime helps to reduce behaviour problems in cats.

Other enrichment strategies 

Other ways to provide enrichment for cats that the scientists looked at included the use of scents (such as catnip, lavender and pheromones), television or video for cats, and rotating toys so the cat does not get bored of them. None of these were very common.

The study asked 130 cat guardians to complete a questionnaire. It was a convenience sample of people who brought their cat to a particular veterinary hospital, so may not be representative of the general population, but it usefully highlights many areas where people can make improvements.

The researchers conclude that the enrichment practices least likely to be used were those requiring either more effort on the part of the owner, or more knowledge about feline behaviour, suggesting that better education will go some way to improving feline enrichment.

How do you provide enrichment for your cats?

Alho, A., Pontes, J., & Pomba, C. (2016). Guardians' Knowledge and Husbandry Practices of Feline Environmental Enrichment Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 19 (2), 115-125 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1117976
Photo: Oksana Bystritskaya (Shutterstock.com)

More cat stories:
Five things to do for your cat today
Interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat
Most owners say cats are part of the family 
Education about cats may reduce feline behaviour problems

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13 April 2016

How to Choose the Right Puppy in Four Easy Steps

The vital questions to ask before you get your puppy-dog.

Cute Dachshund puppies in a flower meadow

You’ve decided it’s the right time to add a puppy to your life: you’ve got the time and energy and you can afford the bills (approximately $1,580 in the first year of a medium-size dog’s life, according to the ASPCA). And now it’s time to choose your puppy. But most guides to getting a puppy miss some vital questions. Read on to find out how to get it right.

Which breed of dog should I get?

This is the question most people focus on, and it’s true it’s an important one. You need to think about the energy requirements you want, because it’s no good getting a working dog if you really want a couch potato (and vice versa, of course). Even within a breed, like Labrador Retrievers, there can be differences between working lines (bred to have a job) and show lines that make easier pets. 

You also want a friendly dog (I assume). If you have children, or if you have visitors to the home, you’ll especially want to pay attention to this. The trouble is breed descriptions never say “unfriendly”; they are more careful with their choice of words. Terms like courageous, loyal, reserved, vigilant and aloof are not necessarily compatible with ‘loves everyone’. If friendliness is important, you would prefer to see words like friendly, amiable, affectionate, gentle, mellow, charming and happy in the breed description.

Grooming is another factor to consider, because some dogs are pretty easy to look after whereas others shed lots of hair and need regular brushing. With some breeds, like the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute, you won’t believe how much hair comes out when they are shedding. If you don’t want to do the grooming yourself, you’ll need to include regular visits to the doggie salon in your budget.

When thinking about which breed of dog you would like, make sure you research any health problems associated with the breed and the typical lifespan. Some breeds of dog have a tendency to many genetic health problems and consequently have a shorter average lifespan. Find out which genetic tests breeders should do, and ask the breeder about them (you can’t assume they will have been done).

Hopefully the breed you like best normally has a long and healthy lifespan. If there are issues with the breed you are interested in, you might decide to set aside extra funds for vet visits or even to choose a different breed instead. At least if you are aware of the issues you can make the decision that is right for you and your family. Remember that mixed-breed dogs can make great pets too.

Having chosen a breed or mix, many people go straight to the internet to start looking. But there are three more things you need to consider, and the next one is the most important of all.

Essential information on how to choose a puppy

Where’s mum?

Before agreeing to get a puppy, you need to see the mother and puppy together. The reason this is so important is because it is the one question most likely to help you avoid puppy mills. 

Did you know that many dogs are ‘farmed’ like industrial agriculture? Think something more like battery chickens, not free range hens. But you’re not going to eat your puppy, you want to spend many happy years with them – and a puppy mill background doesn’t just affect their welfare as puppies, it can have profound effects on their behaviour in the home.

Dogs from commercial breeding establishments, as puppy mills are officially known, may have health problems due to crowded conditions and poor biosecurity (Schumaker et al 2012), including gastrointestinal problems (Dupont et al 2013). 

Puppies from commercial breeding establishments are three times more likely to show aggression to their owner and two times more likely to show aggression to strangers than dogs obtained from responsible breeders (McMillan, 2013). This is probably due to a combination of prenatal stress (because the momma dog finds the environment stressful), stress during the early weeks (which may be spent in a cage with little contact with people), stress during transit and in a pet store, and lack of socialization. 

A greater risk of owner-directed aggression in dogs bought in pet stores was also found by Pirrone et al (2016).

Incidentally, dogs rescued from puppy mills as adults are also significantly more likely to have health problems and behavioural problems than matched dogs obtained from other sources (McMillan et al 2011). (This doesn’t mean they can’t become good pets, if you’re thinking of adopting one from a rescue; it means it takes patience, hard work, and behavioural rehabilitation – but can be very rewarding).

Another study found that when people don’t see the mother of a puppy, it is 2.5 times more likely to have behavioural problems as an adult dog than if the mother was seen (Westgarth et al 2012).

You should check that both mum and puppies look healthy. Ask if they have been wormed and had their first vaccinations. For further questions on health, this list from Dogs Trust is very helpful.
If you are given reasons why you can’t see the mother, or the mother is in another part of the house, it’s best to be skeptical. A good breeder will want you to see the puppies with mum, and will ask you lots of questions to check you are a good home; you will probably also have to wait for your puppy. 

What are you doing to begin socializing the puppy?

Socialization is vital for puppies. If you give a puppy lots of happy, positive experiences with new things and people, it helps them to be well-adjusted adult dogs. The socialization window closes between 12 – 14 weeks of age, and may be even earlier for some breeds, according to research by Mary Morrow et al (2015). Dr. Joy Pate (one of the study authors) explains that “development of a confident, emotionally competent animal depends not only on the new owner and trainer, but on the environment of the breeder.”

Therefore, although you will need to continue socialization once you bring the puppy home, it is essential that it begins at the home of the breeder. Young puppies should already be getting used to household sights and sounds – which can’t happen if they are in a cage at a puppy mill.

If you want an example of what a breeder can do, take a look at Connemara Terriers and their Polished Puppy program. If you are getting a puppy from a shelter, they should be in a foster home where they are getting some early socialization too. You might have to arrange a time for viewing of the puppies.

What happens if it doesn’t work out?

I know it’s unthinkable that something could go wrong, but sometimes it happens – and the answer to this question is another thing that separates a responsible breeder or rescue from somewhere that puts profit ahead of animal welfare. A good breeder or shelter will want you to sign a contract that says you have to return the puppy to them if for some reason you don’t want him or her any more. 

Assuming all goes well and you bring your puppy home, don’t forget to sign up for a good puppy class. Here's how to choose a dog trainer

And finally… if you’re not sure about a puppy, have you considered an adult rescue dog? Puppies are a lot of work, and some people are much happier adopting a shelter dog, maybe even a senior, because you get the joy of saving a life and you already know what the dog is like. Most people who adopt rescue dogs find they live up to their expectations.   

If you're interested in the factors most people take into account when choosing a puppy or dog, see 'why do people choose certain dogs?'

Good luck in your search for a new family member!

If you like this post, please spread the word by sharing with friends and family.

Dupont, S., Butaye, P., Claerebout, E., Theuns, S., Duchateau, L., Van de Maele, I., & Daminet, S. (2013). Enteropathogens in pups from pet shops and breeding facilities Journal of Small Animal Practice, 54 (9), 475-480 DOI: 10.1111/jsap.12119  
McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135 (1-2), 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006
McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242 (10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359  
Morrow, M., Ottobre, J., Ottobre, A., Neville, P., St-Pierre, N., Dreschel, N., & Pate, J. (2015). Breed-dependent differences in the onset of fear-related avoidance behavior in puppies Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10 (4), 286-294 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002  
Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Pastorino, G., & Albertini, M. (2016). Owner-reported aggressive behavior towards familiar people may be a more prominent occurrence in pet shop-traded dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 13-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.11.007  
Schumaker, B., Miller, M., Grosdidier, P., Cavender, J., Montgomery, D., Cornish, T., Farr, R., Driscoll, M., Maness, L., Gray, T., Petersen, D., Brown, W., Logan, J., & O'Toole, D. (2012). Canine distemper outbreak in pet store puppies linked to a high-volume dog breeder Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, 24 (6), 1094-1098 DOI: 10.1177/1040638712460531  
Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems Veterinary Record, 170 (20), 517-517 DOI: 10.1136/vr.100138
Photos: Liliya Kulianionak (top) and budur.foto (Shutterstock.com)
You might also like:
Picking a new dog is a complex choice
De-stressing with a puppy for parents of children with autism
Is it important to attend puppy class?

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

06 April 2016

Less Stress at the Vet for Dogs and Cats

Does your dog hate going to the vet? Does your cat refuse to go in her carrier? Here are some essential tips for better visits to the vet - less stressful for your pet and easier for you.

A dog and cat looking stressed at the veterinarian's office

You stealthily trapped your cat in the lounge, but at the first sight of the carrier she ran to hide under the sofaand she’s not coming out. You move the sofa and grab her as she flees, then get scratched in the process of forcing her into the carrier.

Or you’re in the waiting room at the vet’s and your dog keeps getting up and trying to leave. When you are called to the consulting room, he parks his rear end on the floor and refuses to move.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

30% of dogs are highly stressed in the vet’s waiting room (Mariti et al 2015) and cats – just like people – experience the white coat effect whereby their blood pressure and heart rate goes up in the presence of the vet (Belew, Barlett & Brown 1999). 24% of cats have bitten or scratched their owner at the vet (Mariti et al 2016). 

It’s no wonder people have trouble going to the veterinary clinic. 

Here are some great resources to help (and some fun links at the end). One theme you’ll notice running through the list: lots of delicious food that your pet loves, to help them have a positive experience. Don’t be stingy: 10 treats a minute is a great rate of reinforcement to aim for.

Getting to the vet

Some people don’t take their cat to the vet – or miss appointments and have to rebook – because they can’t get the cat into their carrier. Here, Dr. Sarah Ellis explains how to teach your cat to like their carrier, even if they already hate it, with useful videos too.

If you keep the carrier out at other times, your cat may even start choosing it as a place to sleep. I sometimes find my tabby cat, Harley, relaxing in his carrier. It’s lined with a towel to make it nice and cosy for him. 

Incidentally you can use these techniques with other animals too; just make sure the carrier is right for the animal and you’re using a treat they really love. I’ve been known to use cilantro and carrot to lure a rabbit into a kennel.

Dr. Andy Roark has these 5 tips to keep cats happy at the vet clinic.

If your cat or small dog is in a carrier, be careful not to swing it around as they might get motion sickness. In the car, put it somewhere safe such as with a seatbelt around it, or on the floor behind the driver’s seat. If it’s just loose on the seat and you have to do an emergency stop, they will go flying. If you have a harness to hold your dog in place, introduce it with lots of treats so that it becomes a happy part of the experience.

Dogs are good at picking up on cues that mean they’re going to the vet; 58% of dogs are said to know they are going to the vet before they get there (Mariti et al 2015). So don’t only go for car rides when you’re going to an appointment; make sure your dog has fun outings too, to go for walks or accompany you on errands. That way the car doesn’t predict bad stuff.

A puppy and kitten happy at the vet

Ask if you can sometimes go and sit in the waiting room, feed treats and have the staff feed treats, then go home again. This way your dog has a great time at the vet without any scary procedures. In future, they’ll be more relaxed about going there. You can do this with cats too!

When you have an appointment, arrive in plenty of time to get your pet weighed. In the waiting room, don’t force your pet to interact with others – and especially keep dogs away from cats and small animals. Hopefully there will be time for your pet to get used to the consultation room before the appointment itself begins. 

If you have a reactive dog, let the staff know ahead of time. They might be able to clear the waiting room for your dog to go through, and take you straight to a consultation room so your dog doesn’t have to pass other dogs on the way in.

Some people like to use Feliway (a synthetic pheromone) to help reduce anxiety in cats. It might help, but you might like to read Mikel Delgado on the evidence first.

If you have more than one cat, the cat(s) that did not go to the vet won’t like the smell of the vet on the returning cat. Here are some tips from Pam Johnson-Bennett on preventing aggression between cats when you get home from the vet. 

General Tips at the Vet's: Treats Away!

Treats can help pets feel more comfortable at the vet

Plan to take amazing treats with you – something really tasty. The vet clinic is a stressful place for your pet, so ordinary kibble won’t do. You could chop chicken or roast beef or cheese into pieces, or get some tripe stick; choose something you know your dog or cat really loves. (If they won’t eat it while they are there, don’t worry – it probably means they are stressed. It’s still a good thing that you offered them a treat, and maybe next time they’ll be able to eat it).

“Time to put the thermometer you-know-where? Make it rain treats! Injection time? Keep the treats coming!” Dr. Jeannine Berger’s advice on learning theory is aimed at vets, but this is a great description of what you want to happen. If you find a vet like this, let them know how much you appreciate it, because it’s important to make things as easy for your pet as possible.

In some cases, it might be appropriate to feed only a small breakfast (or no breakfast) before the appointment at the vet, to give the treats even higher value.

Pedadoggy explain how to recognize signs of stress in dogs at the vet, including panting, lip licking and trying to leave.


Training dogs and cats for veterinary procedures

I have a general guide to desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training

Did you know that you can train animals to tolerate veterinary procedures? Yes, even cats can be trained; cats trained for blood draws have lower cortisol levels (Lockhart et al 2013), indicating less stress, during the procedure than those who are untrained (which let’s face it, is almost all cats).

Dr. Sarah Ellis and Chirag Patel explain how you can teach your cat to be good for the vet, to accept medication, and to accept ear drops, eye drops and spot on treatments. You will also find chapter 9 of The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis very helpful.
This is how to give your cat a tablet from International Cat Care. iCatCare also have a comprehensive set of cat handling videos for owners and for veterinary clinics.

Some veterinary procedures require the use of a muzzle, and your dog will be a lot happier about it if you have trained them to wear a muzzle in advance. The Muzzle Up! Project has lots of resources, including a muzzle training plan, videos showing how to desensitize and counter-condition to reaching hands and face handling and advice on measuring for a proper fit.
Use treats to help your dog and cat at the vet

There are also some excellent videos and websites explaining how to train dogs for procedures. Some of these techniques are more appropriate for those who already have dog training expertise and knowledge, while some are aimed at all pet people. 

Michael Baugh explains how to make trips to the vet fun in this video that also features Laura Monaco Torelli and Chirag Patel.  

Chirag Patel explains how to get your dog ready for a vet visit. He also shares ideas for teaching targeting behaviour for care giving procedures, demonstrates using hand targeting while a dog receives an injection, and ear treatment training for dogs.
Laura Monaco Torelli has made a series of husbandry videos, including how to teach a dog a chin rest, which you can see used here for removing sutures. She also explains how to teach a dog to have voluntary blood draws

You can also see videos of stationing procedures to get dogs to hold still in this post from Lori Nanan of Your Pit Bull and You, that also includes general tips on taking your dog to the vet. 
If your dog doesn't like nail clipppers, there is a fabulous new course from Lori Nanan called Nailed It! A Course in Canine Nail Care. It has everything you need to know about the different ways to keep your dog's toes tidy. Learn more in my interview with Lori Nanan (which has discount codes for this and her other online courses).

For even more tips on nails, Kevin Duggan demonstrates how to teach your dog to file his or her own nails. Patricia McConnell discusses her own dogs' experiences of nail trimming and muses on why so many hate it in trimming a dog's nails (a 2016 update), This video from Dr. Sophia Yin shows how to get your dog to like the experience
There are some practical tips on husbandry training with these how-tos from Kathy Sdao. She also has great ideas for dog trainers thinking of running husbandry training classes. 
You’ll notice that as well as continuing the fabulous foodie theme, there’s another theme here: choice. Give the animal a choice of whether or not to work with you. Forcing them into a situation where they might become fearful will only make things worse. 

If you’ve tried food but couldn’t get it to work, take advice from a qualified trainer or behaviourist (see: how to choose a dog trainer). There are some technical details you need to get right, and they will be able to help you fine-tune your technique. Also note there’s a difference between using food as a management technique to help your pet through a stressful experience, and the way you would use food in a training plan.

The SF SPCA has a great video that explains classical conditioning, and there are also some nice posters from Yaletown Dog Training, and from Lili Chin in this post from Boogie.

For puppies and kittens learning to like the vet

Puppies and kittens have a sensitive period for socialization. This is a great time to get them used to being handled, including the things that vets need to do (like look in the ears and mouth). 

All good puppy classes will include some body handling exercises. Pam Johnson-Bennett explains how to teach a kitten to like being touched and Anne Springer explains how to get your puppy used to being groomed. The key thing is to make it a pleasant experience. This is also a good age to take trips to visit the vet just for treats and petting, so they don’t only go there for injections. 

Choosing a vet

Choosing the right vet will make a difference to your pet’s experiences of veterinary care. Ask friends and family for recommendations. Once you’ve selected a vet, ask if you can visit and take a look around the clinic.  Is it nice and clean, and are the staff friendly? See if they have a treat jar in the consulting rooms – I'm sure you've got this by now, but using food is a good way for vets to make friends with your dog or cat and to reduce stress in consultations. 

Also check out their website and who they link to, as this says something about them too. For example, if they link to local dog trainers, do those trainers have qualifications? Growing up with dogs is not a qualification, but because dog training is not regulated, it’s all some dog trainers have. Dr. Lisa Radosta recommends veterinarians only refer to trainers with either the KPA or CTC whenever possible. Personally, if a vet refers to a shock collar trainer, I would be concerned they won't pay attention to my pets' emotional welfare and don't understand the importance of low-stress handling techniques.

For cats, check there is enough space in the waiting room so you can keep your cat well away from dogs – even better if there is a separate waiting area and consultation room for cats. Some clinics are accredited as Cat Friendly by the ISFM or AAFP (UK and international; North America). You can also ask if the vet is an AAFP/ISFP member, and if the vet techs have a specialist qualification in feline nursing. The criteria for cat friendly clinics include having a ‘cat advocate’ within the clinic.

Ask the vet if they use low stress handling techniques. For example, did you know we aren’t meant to scruff cats? There are better handling techniques these days, but they take practice. “What I found is that handling is like a sport requiring skill and finesse,” Dr. Sophia Yin told Lisa Rodier in this interview on less stressful veterinary visits. She also had some great advice on what to say if you want to persuade your vet to handle your dog or cat better. 

The Fear Free initiative says it “aims to take the ‘pet’ out of ‘petrified’” and has a certification program for vets, vet techs and other professionals, including a new certification for dog trainers. Mikkel Becker has written a nice handout for owners on practicing Fear Free visits. See also, why a Fear-Free veterinary clinic is the only way to go by Jill Breitner. You can see if there is a Fear Free certified vet near you.
In advice on choosing a vet from the Blue Cross they remind us to consider costs as well. Some vets and humane societies have low-cost spay/neuter and vaccination programs.

You want to make the most out of vet visits, so here are 8 tips on how to be a good client from Pam Johnson-Bennett.


For fun

If you have a vet in your life, you might like the husbandry and feeding of veterinarians (for new owners). And finally, you might enjoy this episode of Simon’s Cat: Off to the Vet and Other Cat-astrophes.

What are your tips for trips to the vet?

Belew, A., Barlett, T., & Brown, S. (1999). Evaluation of the White-Coat Effect in Cats Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 13 (2), 134-142 DOI: 10.1111/j.1939-1676.1999.tb01141.x
Lockhart, J., Wilson, K., & Lanman, C. (2013). The effects of operant training on blood collection for domestic cats Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 143 (2-4), 128-134 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.10.011  
Mariti, C., Raspanti, E., Zilocchi, M., Carlone, B., & Gazzano, A. (2015). The assessment of dog welfare in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic Animal Welfare, 24 (3), 299-305 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.24.3.299
Mariti, C., Bowen, J., Campa, S., Grebe, G., Sighieri, C., & Gazzano, A. (2016). Guardians' Perceptions of Cats' Welfare and Behavior Regarding Visiting Veterinary Clinics Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2016.1173548
Photos: flywish (top), lillke, and Dewayne Flowers (bottom) (all Shutterstock.com).
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