Study Shows Just How Stressed Dogs Are at the Vet's

Most dogs show signs of impaired welfare at the vet, according to their owners, and too many people scold their dog at the vet.

A West Highland Terrier is unhappy at the vet

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A survey of 906 dog guardians in Italy found most people report their dog as being stressed at all stages of the visit to a vet clinic, from being in the waiting room to being examined by the vet. 6.4% of dogs had actually bitten their guardian at the vet and 11.2% had growled or snapped at the vet.

The report by Chiara Mariti (University of Pisa) et al draws important conclusions about what owners and vets need to do to help dogs at the vet, including teaching them to be handled.

The scientists write, “It is in fact alarming that only one third of dogs seemed to tolerate all kinds of clinical handling carried out by the vet.

“The proportion of guardians who resorted to scolding their dogs if they refused to be treated is also alarming. Veterinary surgeons have a duty to ensure their patients’ welfare, and therefore, they should take advantage of every situation to advise guardians that the use of punishment is not recommended due to its negative implications on dog welfare and behavior.”

Most of the dogs (89.9%) had had regular visits to the vet since they were a puppy, so you might think they were used to going to the vet.

But many owners (39.7%) said their dog already knew they were going to the vet while they were in the car, and 7.4% before they had even left home. Add in the dogs who showed signs of stress as soon as they arrived (52.9%), and over three quarters of dogs are said to show signs of stress before they even make it in to the waiting room.

Dogs who were stressed at the early stages of the visit were more likely to be stressed at the later stages too.

Most people were able to give at least some treatments to their dog at home (50.6%) and 47% said they could give all treatments. However, about two thirds said they had sometimes had difficulty.

Of those who struggled to give treatments, most scolded the dog and then did the treatment anyway (72.4%). This is unfortunate because scolding the dog does not teach them to accept the treatment and can make things worse in the future. Only 14% of owners did not scold the dog in these circumstances.

In fact there was a link between scolding the dog when owners found it hard to give a treatment and aggressive behaviour towards the vet. This was the case whether the owner scolded the dog and did the treatment anyway, or scolded the dog and abandoned treating them.

People’s assessments of their own dog at different stages of the vet clinic showed the majority had impaired welfare at each stage, except for the transition from waiting room to consultation room. Even then, 30% of dogs had to be encouraged and 16% had to be carried into the room.

The paper makes many important recommendations for both dog owners and vets.

Dr. Chiara Mariti, first author of the paper, told me in an email, “To the owners, I would suggest to get the dog becoming habituated to the veterinary clinic, to being handled, and to being exposed to common clinical practices. This means to gently, gradually and progressively familiarize puppies with manipulations (to being touched all over their bodies and used to the most unpopular treatments, such as temperature measurements and ear examinations), associating any kinds of handling with positive emotions and stimuli.

“Also a positive association with anything related with the travel can help. Courtesy visits to the clinic, just to familiarize with the place and the vet without any interventions, and real visits since puppyhood are strongly recommended.

“More importantly, in case dogs refuse to be treated by their owners, the latter should not scold the dog, but rather trying to understand the problem, being gentle, and maybe to ask for a behaviourist’s help.”

If your dog is stressed at the vet, you're not alone. The signs of stress to look for in your dog, and how to look after your dog's welfare.
Photos: Tinxi (top) and melis (both
Almost everyone said the vet tried to give their dog food, but 37% of dogs would not take it. Food is a very good way to help animals at the vet but an animal that is too stressed will not eat. This result suggests vets need to learn how to use food to help their patients, and how to keep their patients from getting so stressed they will not eat.

Only a third of owners said their dog would let the vet handle them anywhere.

Vets did make some attempt to talk to the dog (53%), use the dog’s name (40%) and pet them (53%) but this was not enough to make dogs comfortable. It was still helpful, because dogs whose vet did not do this were more likely to be stressed in the waiting room, on the exam table, and when the vet approached.

There are clear consequences for a vet’s business, because about a third of participants said they had previously changed vet. The most common reasons were because they did not think the vet was competent (24.5%) or because of the vet’s attitude to their dog (18%).

Dr. Mariti says, “My advice for the vets: make sure you are protecting your patients' welfare, that is a duty of your profession.

“Vets can work at different levels, from the education of owners (handling and habituation of puppies, appropriate treatments at home, avoiding any kinds of punishment, including scolding…) to the preparation of the clinic to make it as much dog-friendly as possible: the place, the kind of handling, noises, and the presence of conspecifics and strangers can be stressful for some dogs, and this may be a relevant welfare issue especially in cases where the dog has to visit the veterinary clinic regularly or if recovery is long.

“Vets behaviour is also relevant, as dogs feel calmer when the vet spends some time interacting with them before the visit.”

The finding that many dogs seem to know where they are going in advance of arriving at the vet has important implications too. The scientists say for some dogs there is a risk of developing a more generalized anxiety disorder. They also say it suggests dogs have learned when they are going in the car to the vet rather than somewhere else. For dog owners, this shows the importance of also taking the dog for pleasant outings, so they don’t learn to be afraid of the car.

This research confirms that vet visits are stressful for many dogs. An earlier study observed 45 dogs in the waiting room at the vet (Mariti et al 2015) and found that 29% were highly stressed according to signs noted by a veterinary behaviourist including trembling, low tail, lowered ears, and trying to leave. Taken together, these studies show that both dog owners and vets need to take steps to improve canine welfare at the vet.

Many cats also find vet visits stressful.

There is a lot we can do to make vet visits better for our canine and feline companions. These days, there are some excellent resources on how to help dogs and cats be less stressed at the vet.

What do you do to try and reduce stress for your dog at the vet?

Mariti C, Pierantoni L, Sighieri C, & Gazzano A (2016). Guardians' Perceptions of Dogs' Welfare and Behaviors Related to Visiting the Veterinary Clinic. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 1-10 PMID: 27712096

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