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.

How to help dogs and cats be less stressed at the vet. Photo shows dog and cat at vet.
Photo: flywish/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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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.

Essential tips to help dogs and cats be less stressed at the vet. Photo shows 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. Photo shows vet with dachshund
Photo: Dewayne Flowers/Shutterstock

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.

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

If you're a cat person, you might like to check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

What are your tips for trips to the vet?

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. 

Useful links:

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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