Making Vet Visits Less Stressful is Essential, and Here's What We Can Do to Help Dogs

Why we should monitor dogs for signs of stress at the vet, and the steps dog owners and veterinary professionals can take to help, according to a new review of the literature.

We should monitor dogs for stress at the vet, and here's how dog owners and vets can help, according to new research. Photo shows dog at vet having blood draw.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Many people know their dog is afraid of going to the vet. It’s not surprising because a vet visit is very different from the dog’s usual daily experiences, and yet it’s essential for them to get good veterinary care. A new literature review by Petra Edwards (University of Adelaide) et al examines the scientific literature to find out what helps dogs at the vet, and what we still need to know.

Making vet visits less stressful has several benefits, including increasing the likelihood of people actually taking their dog to the vet, making it easier for the vet to make the right diagnosis, and reducing the risk of the vet staff or owner being bitten. In addition, stress is bad for dogs’ physical health, just as it is for people.

Petra Edwards, PhD Candidate and first author of the paper, told me in an email,
“We had two main ideas that developed throughout the review process. One was: there’s likely not a simple, black and white reason for why dogs develop a fear of their vets or the clinic. Lots of different things can play a part (like their genetic makeup, their previous veterinary history or the sights, sounds or smells of the current vet environment).  As such, we suggest each dog might be sensitive in their own way and watching their body language will provide useful information on their specific needs during the current vet visit. 
We also found that continuing to improve dog welfare in the veterinary context can be the responsibility of the guardian (dog owner) and vet team alike. There are lots of common sense approaches to reducing a dog's fear or stress in the clinic. While some of these may not be proven as yet in the scientific literature, our understanding of how dogs learn is very well established and it’s logical to assume it will apply equally in the veterinary context. 
For example: guardians can reward their dog while being handled by the vet (if this is okay from a medical perspective) and veterinary staff can request guardians bring treats, toys or their dog's mat to the visits or have those options available themselves. We hope guardians and vet staff will be empowered to start the conversation and brainstorm strategies together to help dogs cope with their vet visits better or prevent fear in the first place.”
The review summarizes the existing research on dogs at the vet, which finds many ways in which dogs show signs of stress during real or mock veterinary visits, as shown by behavioural signs, physiological measures (such as cortisol levels), and the judgment of clinicians or dog guardians. At the same time, they note that the range of different measures and study designs makes comparing them difficult.

There are many factors that can influence the dog’s stress, including genetic make-up and other biological factors. It seems that smaller dogs are more fearful at the vet, but it’s not known to what extent this is due to genetic factors or the different ways in which people treat small dogs.

How to make vet visits less stressful for dogs, according to new research. Photo shows happy dog at vet
Photos: visivastudio/Shutterstock

A dog’s prior visits to the vet influence how they experience future vet visits, so a dog that has had many procedures may find vet visits more stressful than a dog that has only had routine appointments. Socialization of puppies, including for veterinary handling, and dog training can help the dog to cope better.

Previous research has shown that the use of punishment has risks for animal welfare, and the paper considers this within the veterinary context:
“Punishment to change unwanted behaviour should not be used or recommended within the veterinary context, and veterinarians treating dogs trained with these methods should be aware the dogs may be more susceptible to experiencing distress during their care.”
The scientists also point out that trigger stacking may occur if the dog experiences different aspects of the visit as difficult, which together become even more difficult, such as the car ride, being in a carrier, being in the waiting room, being on a table in the exam room, being restrained, and so on.

All of these different factors mean that each dog will experience the stressors of each vet visit differently, so it is important to play close attention to watch for signs of fear, anxiety, and stress, and intervene sooner rather than later.

The paper pulls together recommendations to help make visits to the veterinarian less stressful for dogs.

There are several tips for dog guardians to help their dog with vet visits:

  • Don’t feed the dog just before a visit so they will be more interested in treats offered at the vet
  • Bring the dog’s mat and/or toys as they may be of comfort during the consultation
  • Be there for the consultation
  • Train the dog to like riding in the car/being in their carrier in advance, and consider using pheromones
  • Train the dog to like routine handling/vet care, such as nail trims, ears being examined, tail lifted up, etc., and maintain regular practice, perhaps also at the vet.

This training may involve positive reinforcement or desensitization and counter-conditioning. As well, the guardian can partner with the vet in spotting early signs of fear or stress during a consultation (see how can I tell if my dog is afraid for some tips).

"We hope guardians and vet staff will be empowered to start the conversation and brainstorm strategies together to help dogs cope with their vet visits better or prevent fear in the first place.”

There are extensive suggestions for vets too, such as not wearing a lab coat, knowing about the different types of restraint (including sedation), and avoiding unnecessary entry/exit from the exam room once the patient is in there. Veterinarians will want to check the paper for the full list (temporary free access link below).

There is also a helpful list of recommendations for guardians and vets together, of which I highlight just a few:

  • Fearful or aggressive dogs should wait in the car, if possible, instead of the waiting room
  • Have a great supply of treats on hand e.g. roast chicken, squeeze cheese, peanut butter
  • Reward all of the behaviours that you like (so long as the vet says treats are okay)
  • Give treats during and after anything potentially scary such as injections and taking the temperature
  • Basket muzzles are better than nylon ones as they make it easier for dogs to pant, drink and eat
  • Muzzle train dogs in advance, and put peanut butter inside the basket muzzle before fitting it
  • Have the guardian present whenever possible; guardians should ask for this if the vet does not suggest it, but at the same time, understand that sometimes it is not possible
  • Be aware that sometimes sedation is the best form of restraint

The paper includes a table summarizing some of the certifications in low-stress handling techniques, including Fear Free certification for veterinarians, veterinary practices, and dog trainers, the Low-Stress Handling University, Better Veterinary Visits, and Ready…Set… for Groomer and Vet.

As well, the scientists draw on a well-known social psychological approach called the theory of planned behaviour. They point out that successful culture change will involve positive attitudes from both dog guardians and veterinary professionals, subjective norms that prioritize reducing stress, and the extent to which people perceive they have control over the veterinary experience for dogs.

This is an important paper that highlights ways for dog guardians and veterinary professionals to reduce stress for dogs at the vet, as well as the urgent need for more research in this area. Since going to the vet is a necessary part of dogs’ lives, it’s imperative to make it easier for them.

If you want to find a Fear Free certified professional or practice, you can search via their directory. And if you like this post, I think you will love my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, which has a foreword by Dr. Marty Becker

What works to help your dog feel less stressed at the vet?

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

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:

You may also like why don’t more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs; this list of resources on how to have less stressful vet visits; and my interview with Dr. Marty Becker about Fear Free.

Edwards, P. T., Smith, B. P., McArthur, M. L., & Hazel, S. J. (2019). Fearful Fido: Investigating dog experience in the veterinary context in an effort to reduce distress. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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