We’ve learned a lot about dogs and cats over the last 20 years including a lot about their behaviors. The truth is dogs are not people and cats are not small dogs. They have different preferences and respond differently to stressful situations. Unfortunately, visiting the veterinarian is frequently considered a very stressful experience for both pets and their owners.
The good news? You don’t have to sacrifice care by skipping out on regular veterinary visits because of stress. There are plenty of ways for you and your pet to stay relaxed during a veterinary visit. As we work on becoming Fear Free Certified, we want to share some of these tips with you!
Fear Free visits start at home!
Socialization is key! Early, positive experiences can build a foundation of trust and help prevent fear from developing. Puppies should be enrolled in training and socialization classes. Dogs should be comfortable riding in the car, visiting new places and meeting new people. A combination of rewards, slowly acclimatizing your pet to car rides and, sometimes, anti-anxiety medications given prior to the veterinary visit can greatly reduce or eliminate anxiety associated with car rides.
Something most clients don’t think about is that it’s ok to come by, even when your pets don’t actually need any kind of care. In fact, we encourage it! We have several patients who stop by for nothing more than some love and a handful of treats. This allows us to bond with our patients and build trust.
Owners can also desensitize their pets to being examined by handling them frequently at home, rubbing their feet, ears and gums.
Pheromone & Supplement Therapy
Like most animals, dogs and cats use a series of scents and pheromones, or “chemical signals”. These pheromone signals are used to mark territory and convey a large range of feelings including anxiety and contentment. There are several products that mimic some of the “feel good” pheromones that animals give off.
Feliway is a synthetic pheromone that mimics the facial pheromone produced when a cat rubs its face on an object to scent mark. Meridian is a synthetic pheromone that mimics the pheromones mother cats produce to reassure kittens. The calming pheromones from both of these products reduce the alarming sense cats can feel during stressful situations and help control those unwanted behaviors that stem from stress including aggression and inappropriate urination.
Adaptil for Dogs works in a very similar fashion. Mother dogs communicate with their puppies through natural messages released into the air. These “comforting messages“are called Dog Appeasing Pheromones and they provide a strong signal of security and comfort to dogs of all ages. Adaptil is available in several different forms: diffusers, collars and spray. In the event that an owner does not have Adaptil at home, we do have bandanas that have been pre-treated with spray in all of our exam rooms. Clients are encouraged to loosely tie one around their dogs’ necks while waiting to be seen.
In addition to synthetic pheromones, we also carry some supplements that have shown effective relief of stress in both dogs and cats. Zylkene is made with a milk-derived ingredient and it promotes calmness in pets. It often gives pets a calm feeling without causing sedation or drowsiness. Zylkene can be used for specific stress inducing events such as a visit to the vet, boarding, fireworks, thunderstorms and travel. Pets that are fearful may benefit from starting Zylkene one-two days prior to a known stress inducing event. It is also approved for long term, daily use.
Visiting the Clinic
All dogs entering the clinic should be on leashes and all cats should arrive in carriers. We try to make sure that all pets are moved into exam rooms quickly but if your pets are especially anxious, ask if you can wait in the car or even outside. In addition, ask our staff for a bandana that has been pre-treated with Adaptil. This can be tied loosely around your dog’s neck and will help him/her to relax some while waiting to be seen.
It is best for your pet to be hungry when he/she comes for his visit to a Fear Free veterinary clinic, since he will have a wide assortment of treats and toys available to reduce anxiety, distract and reward him while waiting, being examined and having treatments done. Pet owners are encouraged to bring their pet’s very favorite treats and toys as well.
In the exam rooms, pets will appreciate a familiar slip-proof surface on the table. Both Feliway and Adaptil are used throughout the clinic in their various forms and are also used in our boarding facility.
We get numerous calls every day from pet owners needing to reschedule their cats’ appointments because they are hiding or they can’t get them in their carriers. This is because most cats never see their carrier unless they are going to the vet and they have been conditioned to associate their carrier with scary experiences. Cat owners should find a place in the home where their carrier can be left out. Allow your cats to become familiar with their carrier. A carrier that opens from the top as well as the front is ideal. Leave the door open so the cat can investigate and leave its scent on the carrier. Put treats and favorite toys in the carrier to encourage exploration. Make sure the bedding is soft, comfortable and stays in place when the cat moves. If the carrier you use is one of his or her favorite safe sleeping spots, your kitty will be much more likely to accept transportation in a vehicle and also will be happier once they reach the hospital. Clients are encouraged to pick up a Feliway wipe prior to the appointment so that they can wipe their kitty’s carrier at home an hour or so before their appointments.
Once at the clinic, cats are moved quickly into our kitty exclusive exam room. We keep a Feliway Diffuser plugged in at all times to help create a naturally soothing environment for our feline patients and help them feel safer while here. Cats are welcome to explore the exam room and even climb the cat tree. We have plenty of catnip and treats at hand and also keep warm towels on hand for cats to curl up or hide under during their exams.
For kitties that require a little extra stress reduction, we have “Feline Fear Free” kits. These kits include a couple of doses of a tasteless medication that can be sprinkled directly on their food the night before and the morning of their appointments. This medication will help to relax them. In addition, the kits include a Feliway wipe for their carrier.
All cats that drop off for exams or boarding are kept in a separate area, away from dogs, and are given tents or boxes to curl up and hide in.
Sedation is not a last resort
We will never struggle with your pet or hold him/her down in an uncomfortable position for any reason. This will only create a cycle of fear and distrust that will become nearly impossible to break. Once a pet is at the clinic, if it is fearful and won’t take a tasty food reward, even if hungry, it’s time to regroup. While a lot of people balk at the idea of sedating their pets, sedation with safe and effective modern drugs is ideal in many situations and is certainly more beneficial to the pets’ mental well being than being wrestled to the table or floor. Some pets may even need sedation for routine examination and that’s ok! Many pets are so psychologically damaged or fearful that they would benefit from sedation before they even leave home. Our doctors can work with you to create a stress reduction plan for your pet that meets their individual needs.
Clients are encouraged to bring their pets by for “happy visits” or desensitization exercises to prepare them for future handling without sedation. Even a very fearful pet can be taught to tolerate procedures with time and effort.
By: Tara Sansing