Your dog, Lulu, hates the vet. You are in awe of her sixth sense because she seems to know that she is on her way to the vet, even on the car ride over. You can sense her anxiety as she whines and hops up and down with nervous energy. And at the vet, she continues to freak out. She sees that man with the white coat and thinks she is getting a shot every time. You shutter as Lulu retreats to the corner and attempts to hide within a room where hiding is impossible. You want to help your little furry friend but are not sure what to do. Why is she is so nervous? Is it something I did? How can I help her? You ask yourself these questions and more as Lulu decides to pee in the middle of the vet patient room. You do not scold her because you know she is just nervous, but your patience is wearing thin. You need some solutions for both of your sakes.
The Root of the Behavior
Many dogs hate going to the vet and think about it, do you enjoy going to your yearly physical? Do you enjoy getting poked and prodded? Probably not, but as humans, we have the capability to understand the importance of these exams. Lulu, on the other hand, has no idea why you are taking her to this strange place where people dressed in white continuously touch her and sometimes cause her pain.
There are many reasons why dogs do not like going to the veterinarian. As stated above, it is an unfamiliar place where dogs sometimes get shots and held against their wills. These negative connotations stick with Lulu. Dogs remember more than we give than credit for. Owners also tend to get frustrated at this nervousness and sometimes disobedient behavior and may scold and punish their dog every time at a vet’s office. Additionally, some dogs just are not used to the constant touch that vets need to do, such as touching paws, restraining a dog’s body for an examination, etc. The Americans Veterinary Medical Association recorded that 41% of pet owners reported that their dog had a fear of going to the vet. This rose to 51% in 2015. Interestingly, during this same time period, pet owners reported that their own anxiety also increased when going to the vet. It rose from 30-38%. This increase could be due tough economic times, but the correlation also suggests that stress in owners, when going to the pet doctor, might transfer to their pets.
Another study was done by Chiara Marita of the University of Pisa in Italy, also had dog owners report that their dogs were stressed when visiting the vet. The study found that most of the 904 dogs studied displayed some form of anxiety. 11.22% of the dogs had even growled or snapped at the vet while 6.4% bit their owner or the vet, ouch! The study also reported that around 39% of dogs displayed anxiety while they were on their way to the vet’s office. And dogs that were stressed at this stage, seemed to be more likely to be stressed at the later stages of the vet visit as well. One conclusion from the study recommended that owners provide more support for their nervous, furry friends at the vet, such as helping to hold them, petting them, and providing positive reinforcement. Excessive punishing during a vet visit is strongly discouraged and could actually enhance the dog’s fear even more, and you certainly don’t want Lulu freaking out more.
Encouraging the Behavior
You want to do your best to prevent Lulu’s nervousness at the vet, not encourage it. As the study above shows, dogs with anxiety can act out in harmful ways, but there are preventative measures one can take to instill a healthy and safe veterinarian experience.
It is important to provide positive reinforcement, instead of negative consequences. Load your dogs up on treats. Seriously! Give Lulu treats on the way to the office, during the visit when she behaves, and give her a whole boatload when she is finished with the appointment. Many vets now have treats readily on hand and work hard to have dogs associate the vet’s office with something more positive than shots and poking.
It’s also important for owners to play an active role in the visit. They should stay with their pets, if able, pet them and talk to them in a soothing voice. Yelling and scolding, although difficult at times, should be avoided. Owners can also prepare their canines beginning when they are pups. Socialize your dog with a doggy daycare or play dates or take Lulu to the dog park. This will not only get Lulu used to other dogs—but also people. Moreover, owners can get their dogs used to touching. Touch their paws, head, belly, etc. Give Lulu a bear hug once in while. This extra touching will be beneficial when Doctor Pete puts Lulu in a necessary hold for her shots.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Regardless of your efforts, some dogs will still be frightened going to the vet. Perhaps they had a very traumatic experience there in the past, or maybe they are known for their fearful demeanor. You can also take steps to bring your dog to the vet’s office, even when you don’t have a scheduled appointment. A lot of veterinarians encourage short visits where you can bring Lulu in and give her some treats: no shots are involved, only positivism. If your dog seems to get nervous on the car ride to the vet (a common issue) you could work at keeping that ride mellow and calm. Play some Enya, no joke, talk to Lulu in a calm and soothing voice, and stay positive all the way there.
Just like your mom made you go to your yearly physicals, it is your responsibility to bring Lulu to her vet appointments, but it doesn’t have to be a terrible experience for everyone in involved. Take the preventative measures to prepare Lulu for the inevitable: be her support system at the vet, not her punisher. Offer her lots of treats and take steps to make the vet’s office a more positive experience. Touch and socialize your dog, and create a calming atmosphere on the ride to the actual appointment. Although a bit of work, Lulu will thank you for it, maybe even with a paw shake.