How to calm dog anxiety for a stress-free vet visit

Does the thought of taking your dog to the vet fill you with dread? Follow our top tips to make it a calmer experience for both you and your pet.

While a routine check-up might be ordinary for us, for a dog, a visit to the vet can be associated with pokes, prods, and pain. So how can you make a visit to the clinic more comfortable for your dog, and how can you get your puppy used to it from the get-go?

1. Create a calm journey

Your dog may be quite happy to jump into the car – probably because they are eternally optimistic that it'll lead to a walk further afield – but getting them in through the vet's door can be another story altogether.

'Your pet could be apprehensive and tense when you arrive at the vet because they have formed negative associations from previous visits,' says Inga MacKellar, an APBC animal behaviourist. 'Vet examinations are unfortunately not always comfortable experiences, so it's understandable that your dog might feel anxious and jumpy once they have realised where they are.

'Walk to your local surgery if you can, as this is the ideal way to help your dog associate something they enjoy (time spent with you) with something they may not like quite as much (the examination itself),' Inga advises. 'But if walking isn't a possibility, work on a calm car journey instead. If necessary, safely restrain your dog using a familiar dog crate, or with a harness and their lead if they are loose in the car.

'You could also try to make trips to the surgery even on days when your pet doesn't have an appointment. Ask the receptionist to recommend the least busy times at the practice, and see whether it would be possible to arrange to have a fuss made of your dog. Make sure it's a calm, friendly experience to help create further positive associations.'

If possible, hold off on your dog's regular feeding before you go. This will reduce the risk of car sickness or accidents, as anxiety and stress can make animals want to empty their bladder and bowels more frequently. If your pet does go somewhere they are not supposed to, try not to get angry and don't tell them off – any negative emotions will compound their anxiety. An empty stomach might also be helpful should your dog need to have any diagnostic procedures such as an X-ray or blood tests.

2. Limit your time in the waiting room

'Vets' waiting rooms can be a distressing place for some dogs. They're usually crowded, noisy and full of all sorts of smells only canines' super-sensitive noses will pick up,' Inga says. 'It's also possible for your dog to sense other pets' fear, which can increase their own anxiety. Ideally you should spend as little time as possible in this environment to keep their – and your own – stress levels down.

'Try to book an appointment early in the day to avoid waiting too long, and limit the time you spend in the waiting room by keeping your dog outside with you until you're about to be called in,' Inga advises. 'If your practice has the time and is happy to help, it can be a good idea to have a quick word with the receptionists and ask them to phone you when it's your pet's turn. You can then use this time to play and have fun together – again, repositioning the experience as an enjoyable, positive one for your dog.'

3. Take treats with you

Once you're in the examination room, your dog could become even more anxious and might refuse to go near the vet, causing everyone's stress levels to rocket.

'Your vet should be adept at gently handling fearful animals, but make sure to stick with one who you know is strong on these skills, as well as on medical knowledge,' advises Inga.

Of course, your dog will pick up on your apprehension and stress, too, so keep your voice and body language calm. Stand at their head, and talk to them, giving them treats when they stay calm during the examination.

Unpleasant interventions, like having their temperature taken, definitely deserve praise and a special treat. 'If your dog likes squeaky toys, take one in your pocket. Squeaking it at exactly the same time they are having a potentially painful procedure may help to divert their attention away from the shock,' says Inga.

'Lastly, once the vet has finished the check-up, try not to test your pet's patience by spending more time at reception to settle up or collect medication. Check with your practice whether it would be possible for you to go outside and enjoy a quick game with your dog, or even to take them home, before nipping back in when everything is sorted.'

Get your new puppy used to the vet

The vet is one of the most important people in your puppy’s life so it pays to start the relationship on a positive footing and keep it that way. In addition to the tips above, try the following to get your puppy used to the vet from the start.

Mock examinations at home

Try to get your puppy used to being physically handled before their first vet visit. This will help the vet by allowing him or her to do a thorough examination without the puppy becoming nervous or stressed.

Get your puppy used to being handled at home by feeding tiny treats, one at a time, as you examine him or her. Very gently, check your pup’s lips and teeth, lift the ears and massage under them, lift the feet and massage between the toes, massage the stomach and raise the tail.

Gradually extend their comfort zone by asking family members and friends to do this, too. Do it not only on the floor but also on a table so your puppy isn’t alarmed at finding they are on a raised surface in a surgery being handled intrusively by the vet.

Do all this tenderly, keeping the treats coming. Stick to healthy treats, however, in order to avoid unbalancing your dog’s diet. Small pieces of carrot or unbuttered popcorn are good.

Be in control

Try to stay calm at the vet’s – if you are anxious, your puppy may sense this and also feel strained. Your puppy will look to you for helpful instructions as to how to behave and will only comply with these if they have not been allowed to become excited.

Bear in mind that your puppy’s cooperation and obedience skills need to be practised in situations where there are distractions – not just in a quiet training room.

If the vet practice holds puppy socialisation classes, it’s worth going along. There have been huge advances in understanding the behavioural and emotional development of puppies, so even experienced dog owners can benefit from classes.

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