It is not uncommon to see pets anxiously waiting in the reception area of the local vet. Some cower under chairs or huddle up to their owners, while others bark and whimper to anyone that pays them some attention. So how can you spot signs of stress and is there any way to reduce it? Dr Russell Harrison, veterinarian from Lort Smith Animal Hospital in Victoria says there are a few signs to look out for.
“Dogs will do things like licking their lips as a sign of anxiety. It is also obvious when they come up close to you and they don’t want to be left alone,” he says. “More often, they will do things like drink excessively and they might not eat. Some dogs will go off their food when they are anxious, especially in the presence of their owner.” So how can you know if it is just the stress of being at the vet, and not clinical anxiety?
“There are lots of dogs that will be anxious at the vet and not anxious elsewhere — it is sort of hard to say what percentage, but I would say almost all dogs that come to the vet display some elements of anxiety, like most people going to the doctor are going to be anxious — it just depends if it’s going to be a clinical condition or not,” says Dr Harrison.
“So if they’ve been to a vet before and something unpleasant happened and they’re back in that same environment, they could potentially be fearful that the same thing is going to happen again.”
The vets and nurses at Lort Smith have participated in a low-anxiety animal handling workshop to help ease animals’ stress of being at the vet. This means that the next time your stressed-out pooch comes in, it’s not so worried about what may or may not happen.
“As vets, we always need to think what is going to happen next time,” says Dr Harrison. “So, if the dog’s in pain and needs a procedure done, it’s really important that we give appropriate painkillers so the dog doesn’t feel any discomfort or else the next time it comes into the vet for something simple like a vaccination, it may remember what happened last time.”
Dr Harrison says there are some techniques owners can take from the workshop to calm down their pups before their next visit:
- Travel: One of the key things is getting the pet used to travel. It’s not much of an issue in dogs, because many people take their dogs in the car, it’s more of a problem in cats. But even some dogs don’t like going in the car. So it’s a matter of taking the time to get your dog used to going in and out of the car. Start by just having the car door open at home and placing their bed on the back seat. Place a treat on their bed and slowly build up their confidence to the point that the dog’s happy to be in the car with the doors shut. You can be in there with them to ease their anxiety. After they are more comfortable with sitting in the car, try going for a small drive around the block. This is what we call “desensitisation”.
- Positive visits: Then the other option is to bring your dog to the vet and reward a positive. Basically it’s just a matter of going to the vet, getting them weighed and, as all vet clinics have treats available, give your dog a treat while he’s in there. Just do this as frequently as possible, so that when you do need to take your dog in for something unpleasant, it’s used to the clinic, the people and the smells, and sees it as a positive place to go.
- Vet introduction: We also do things like when the vet introduces themselves to the dog, they take the time to get the dog comfortable with them, rather than rushing up and taking temperature straight away. It is all about the way you talk to them, the way you stand, your height, etc.
- Using pheromones: We also use the pheromone DAP (Adaptil) and we spray that on a piece of cloth which we give to an owner in the waiting room. They can tie it to their collar, and that sort of has a calming effect on the dog before they go in to see the vet.
- Desensitisation: Sometimes we have to take blood samples and put in drips and give injections, which can be frightening. Things like the clippers can be scary for them, so we run them slightly away from the dog while giving them a treat so they get used to the noise, and then we get them used to the vibration. We do this slowly rather than rushing through it all.