Being human means trips to the doctor from time-to-time and being a pet means trips to the vet, and no matter whether it’s for a routine check-up or a serious illness, they can be stressful. A condition that’s familiar to doctors is the “white coat syndrome” which occurs when patients who are feeling stressed about the visit have higher blood pressure than they might if they were relaxing at home. The same principle can apply to animals, and pets who are generally relaxed and easy-going might show signs of anxiety even during a standard check-up.
There’s no need for these visits to be overwhelming, and with practice and preparation a trip to the vet can be less stressful for everyone. Following are some tips on how to help your pets overcome the white coat syndrome.
Remain calm yourself
An important influencer of our pet’s mood is our own, and if we display signs of stress then they can easily affect our pets who are attuned to picking up our emotional cues. We need to start by destressing ourselves, and even though we might be worried about what’s wrong with them if they’re sick, we need to try to remain as calm as possible. Make a point of leaving plenty of time to get to vet visits so that you’re not rushed, as hurrying and driving too fast will only add to our pets’ tension, and be sure to talk to them in a soothing and calm voice.
Unless your vet has recommended otherwise or your pet is sick, be sure that they have eaten, exercised and relieved themselves well before getting ready for the visit.
Don’t make their carrier all about vet visits
There wouldn’t be a vet hospital that hasn’t received a last-minute cancellation from a pet owner whose pet has taken off when their carrier has appeared, and most cat owners will be familiar with the vanishing kitty phenomenon. If your pet stresses out the minute they see their carrier because they know it means a trip to the vet, then that will set the tone for the whole trip. Get carriers out several days before visits and allow them to explore and get in and out several times. Put a blanket, a toy, or something with your scent such as a worn t-shirt in their carrier, to create some curiosity and comfort. It should make life a little easier when you need to put them in and latch it shut.
Get them comfortable with handling
A trip to the vet means that your pet is going to be handled, and most likely by someone who is a stranger. Being prodded and poked isn’t something your pet will enjoy but you can help them learn to tolerate it by touching them in places they’re not used to while they’re relaxed. The more exposure they have to different people touching them, even if it’s just petting, the more likely they will be to tolerate someone unfamiliar handling them.
Paws, ears, tails and tummies are often sensitive areas, therefore getting them used to being touched in these places can help the next time the vet conducts a physical examination. Practicing handling techniques when they’re young is better, but older animals can be trained to tolerate being handled too. If your pet is an infant, practice it daily and reward them with a treat every time they allow you to give them a gentle prod.
Familiarise them with the hospital
If your pet struggles to cope with vet visits, taking them to the hospital several times just for a visit (rather than a consultation) can help them to become more comfortable with the environment, especially its smells and sounds. Ask the team at your vet hospital to help you create positive associations with the visit by allowing your pet to interact with the staff at reception and reward them with treats. Allowing them to sniff around and scope out a consult room if possible, can go along way in reducing anxiety during a proper visit. Try to conduct these preliminary visits when there are other people and pets in the waiting room as it will help to familairse them with the conditions they’re most likely to experience when it’s their turn.
If, however, this is a stressor that you can’t seem to overcome, consider booking appointments for quieter times when they’ll be less likely to encounter several other animals and owners. At quieter times your wait is also likely to be less, and if your pet really doesn’t cope with waiting rooms, check with the hospital staff whether it’s okay for you both to wait in the car until the vet is ready to see you.
Familiarise your pet with the car
Pets can find car journeys terrifying and some animals – especially cats and puppies – never go in a car except to go to the vet. All the noises, movement, and new smells can be particularly stressful, and they won’t understand why they’re in the car or where they’re going. If your pet gets scared during car trips, try taking some short journeys (even if you only drive around the block a few times before coming home again) to help them become more comfortable with them. For dogs, trips to a fun destination such as a park or a friend’s home can help them to build a positive association with car travel.
Waiting room sensitivities
You can’t presume that while at the vet your pets will behave as they normally do; they need to be secure, and dogs should be brought in on a lead and cats and other small animals should be in carriers. Put yourself between your pet and other animals and create as much space as you can between you and your pet and other people and their pets. Keep your pet facing you as much as possible and comfort them if they’re scared.
Keeping them preoccupied with a scratch behind the ear or some other petting can help distract them from fretting about what’s coming next. Unless they’re not allowed to eat, treats can help in rewarding them for good behaviour, and providing one after the consultation will help in creating positive associations with visits.
Be prepared for your visit
If only our pets could talk… but they can’t of course, therefore you need to do the “talking” for them. Make note of anything you have observed that may help the vet in their assessment, such as changes to your pet’s appearance or behaviour, and any symptoms you’ve noticed. If you’re attending a new hospital, a record of your pet’s medical history will help your vet to identify changes and make a diagnosis. You should be able to provide your vet with details of your pet’s vaccinations, medications, supplements and preventatives such as flea and worming treatments.
Talk to your veterinary team
If your pet gets very stressed going to the vet, alert the staff at your hospital so they can take extra care to avoid anything that might add to their anxiety. Talk to your vet about what can be done to make the consultation less stressful. Some of the techniques vets can use include getting down on an animal’s level (and even conducting the exam on the floor if your pet doesn’t cope with a consult table), and approaching an animal from the side as opposed to approaching from the front which can be more intimidating. Your vet will know what to do, including being gentle and using a soothing voice.
Ask your vet whether it would be appropriate to bring a comfort from home, such as a favourite toy, a familiar blanket, or one of your worn t-shirts… something that smells like you or home.
Fear free handling techniques
The “less is more” rule often applies when it comes to restraining nervous pets, and some vets are specially trained in fear-free handling techniques. Don’t forcefully hold your pet down on a consult table; Instead talk to your vet about how the examination is best approached, as they will know how to help your pet acclimate to the sights, smells, and sounds of the consult room. Pheromone therapy can also help in taking the edge of pets’ nerves. Talk to your vet about suitable options for your pets.
Once home allow downtime
Your pet will be tired after a trip to the vet and happy to be home. Allow them to relax and regroup quietly at their own pace and give them some space if they want it. Keep an eye out to make sure they’re okay and watch for any changes in behaviour or reactions to treatment they received during their visit, especially medication.
Remember that you can help to relieve much of the anxiety of vet visits by staying calm, getting your pet used to the experience, and being prepared. Don’t be afraid to let your vet hospital know that your pet gets scared or that you’re concerned about your ability to get them to the hospital without freaking them out. If nothing you’ve tried helps, then ask your vet about the possibility of house calls. They can be a little more expensive but can help make appointments less stressful for everyone involved.