Reducing The Fear Of Veterinary Visits

Why might my dog show aggressive responses at the veterinary office?

Many pets are afraid when they come to the veterinary office and may show this fear as submissive urination, panting, drooling, avoidance, growling, snapping, or biting. Aggressive behaviors toward strangers in a veterinary situation should not be mislabeled dominance or status-related aggression. Most pets that are aggressive at the veterinary office are exhibiting fear-related aggression.

How can I help my pet get over this fear?

A gradual training program of desensitization will help your pet become more comfortable with visiting the veterinary hospital. A visit to the veterinarian is an overwhelming situation for some pets and their owners. The goal is to start at a level of challenge the pet can handle, and then progress to more challenging situations while teaching the pet to be calm and relaxed. It is also important for the owner to feel calm, relaxed, and in control. Any anxiety the owner feels is transmitted to the pet. If the owner feels anxious and unsure, then the process should be slowed down even if the pet is doing well.

Learn to observe your pet closely for subtle signs of anxiety like yawning, licking, raising a front paw, or looking away.

What is systematic desensitization?

Systematic desensitization is a training method used to reduce an animal’s undesirable behavior in response to a given object or situation. It is the most effective means of treating fears and phobias.

How does systematic desensitization work?

The situation that evokes the undesirable response, fear, or phobia is usually capable of being broken down into separate components, which often stimulate separate senses. For example, consider a pet that is terrified at the veterinary hospital.

It may be the sight of the veterinarian in a white coat, the smell of disinfectant used at the practice, the fact that it is in proximity with other animals in an anxious or excited state, or the memory of receiving a treatment such as an injection. The object of systematic desensitization is to identify the separate elements of the problem, which can then be presented to the animal separately so that your pet can be gradually trained to relax in their presence.

How is this organized?

For this example, if the veterinarian wears a white coat, it is useful to start by exposing your pet to people in white coats in the home. The stimulus has to be presented to the animal at a level high enough to arouse interest without causing the problem behavior, which in this case is fear. Members of the family can wear a white coat and handle the pet, play with him, etc., and then try placing him on a table or worktop. Rewards can be used as soon as the animal starts to relax. The use of a head halter for training can help ensure safety as well as better control and may calm some pets; this may be extremely useful during the actual visit.

Next, it may be possible to repeat the situation away from your home. Local trainers are often prepared to help in situations such as these. The process will lead the pet to have interest in the stimulus and show no signs of anxiety. 

The next component is then introduced, for example: the presence of a number of other animals, the smell of the veterinary clinic, and so on. It is important that the response is positive and can be reliably repeated before you move to the next stage. It is also important to occasionally present lower level cues to which you know your pet will respond reliably; in other words, give your pet a refresher.

“Your pet is systematically trained to each individual cue before some of them are combined together.”

If the fear response is elicited by the sight of a syringe, using a toy syringe in a similar sequence with copious food distractions often works well, but rapid progress should not be expected. These treatment techniques work provided sufficient repetition is completed and you are prepared to spend a lot of time with your dog. Your pet is systematically trained to each individual cue before some of them are combined.

Acceptance can be improved if it is possible to distract your pet when the stimulus is presented. Here food rewards are useful. For example, when taking your pet for a veterinary visit, it can be very useful to withhold food on the day of the visit and bring along your pet’s favored toys and treats. The mere sight of the toy or treat may be sufficient distraction for your pet. 

If he shows no inappropriate response, lavish praise should also be given. If any of the stimuli that incite fear can be avoided or your pet can be sufficiently distracted, the fear might be substantially reduced or entirely prevented. Therefore if the syringe is hidden from view while the pet is distracted with a favored toy or treats by the owner, or the examination were to take place on the floor rather than the table, the dog might be less fearful. 

Behavior products can also be invaluable in that the head halter can keep the head focused on the owner and not the veterinarian (provided the owner is calm and positive) and can also control the head and muzzle to ensure safety, while a calming cap that covers the eyes can reduce some of the visual stimuli that might incite fear.

For other pets, “happy visits” to the veterinary clinic, which are associated with food rewards, fun, games, and nothing else can help ease the anxiety associated with a veterinary visit.

Remember: it is extremely important to train your cat to travel to the vet in a carrier. This is the safest way to get them in and out of the clinic, so begin training at home by placing the in the carrier, then take them for car rides in the carrier until they are more calm being in it. You can also place items with your smell on it or pheromone products, such at Feliway™, on blankets inside the carrier to make them more at home and calm.

Are there any other tips for desensitization training?

1.   DO NOT TIRE YOUR PET

Training sessions should never go on too long otherwise your pet’s attention level will drop and no progress will be made.

2.   REPEATED SHORT TRAINING SESSIONS ARE BEST

When starting a new training session, always start several levels lower than the point at which the previous session finished. 

3.   REVIEW IS NECESSARY

Once the goal has been achieved it is important that there is regular reinforcement of the learning. This is done by regular exposure to what were the original problem elements. Injection fears in particular need attention in this respect.

4.  CONSIDER THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE

If your pet is anxious about the car ride or is likely to need a head halter, muzzle, or calming cap, then systematic desensitization to each of these should be completed prior to the veterinary visit.

5.   REDUCING ANXIETY

To reduce anxiety during training, the use of pheromones, which are naturally produced chemicals, may help. Adaptil™, a dog pheromone product, is an artificially synthesized version of a pheromone produced by lactating female dogs that has a reassuring effect and is available in multiple forms to reduce anxiety.  The spray form may be placed on a towel to reduce anxiety related to car rides, and a diffuser plug in can be used in the veterinary office. Again, a similar product for cats is Feliway™.

A dose of a drug to reduce anxiety before the veterinary visit may also be beneficial for some fearful pets. Check with your veterinarian to see if these are necessary or would help your pet.

What should I try to teach my pet?

What we want is relaxed and calm body postures and facial expressions that will let us know the pet is more comfortable. So when a dog sits on command, we want to reward relaxation, not tense, scanning, or shaking behavior. If your pet does not know how to do this, practice this task before beginning any part of the desensitization program.

In order to achieve this, management of the stimulus (such as the veterinary hospital personnel) will be quite important. The distance to the clinic, the number of people, and other pets present will all factor into your pet’s response.

All cues and most treats should come from the owner. Corrections should be firm but not forceful until the dog sits and appears calm and settled. This should occur within 60 seconds, if not, make the situation easier for your dog by lessening the stimulus either by increasing the distance or turning the dog around so he cannot see things as well. 

Do not punish or get angry with your pet. If your pet is aroused and reactive, then recognize the need to slow down and progress at a less stimulating pace. Remember the goal is for your pet to have a positive, pleasant experience.

“Any behavior you reward is likely to occur again.”

Positive reinforcement is used to reinforce desirable behaviors. Remember: any behavior you reward is likely to occur again. For dogs, use small, pea-size pieces of a soft special treat; try tiny bits of hot dog, cheese, or boiled chicken. For small or finicky dogs, try peanut butter or squeeze cheese on a wooden spoon. For cats, use small treats or bits of their favorite food. Do not reward your pet every time. Reward his best efforts or anytime you are pleasantly surprised by his behavior. If your pet refuses treats he would normally take, then this is a sign of anxiety and you should make the task easier for him by manipulating the stimulus intensity, try a better treat and/or repeat the task when your pet is hungrier.

If there is any question about aggressive behavior then your pet should wear a muzzle.

Remember that progressing slowly is often fine – progressing too quickly can be detrimental and counterproductive, so it is better to progress too slowly than too fast. You may also take a break as needed. The number of sessions will vary depending on the severity of the pet’s behavior. Remember if your pet begins to show any fear or anxiety, this indicates that you are proceeding too quickly. 

© Copyright 2014 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

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