Imagine you are at the mercy of a creature that is bigger than you and speaks a language you do not understand. Most of the time, this is okay. The giant feeds you, loves you, gives you cookies, and brushes your hair. You even have your own soft bed. However, once a year she makes you get in a vehicle and takes you to a place where other giants touch you and hold you, but you do not want to be touched. The giant in the white jacket even pokes you with needles! Sometimes you have to visit this place more often if you are sick or in pain. It is even worse because you already feel bad and you just want to be left alone.
For some dogs and cats, this is a reality. They have learned to fear the veterinary hospital and even the car ride to get there. Some cats will run and hide if they see the cat carrier. At the hospital, pets’ signs of fear include running and hiding behind their owners, urination, defecation, anal gland discharge, and shaking. Some pets become aggressive. Once fear has been learned, it requires a lot of time and patience to reduce a dog or cat’s response to fear-inducing situations. This is especially true if fearfulness is inherited from the animal’s parents.
To help your pet become less afraid of the veterinary hospital, you must reward her for being calm. This reward can be a small food treat, playing with a toy, or attention. Make certain that you are only rewarding your pet when she is relaxed. If you pet her, hold her, or tell her “it’s okay” when she is fearful, you are rewarding her for being scared. Never punish a pet for being fearful. It will make her anxiety worse and may cause her to be aggressive. Take your pet to the clinic when she is healthy and does not need to be seen by a doctor. Depending on your pet’s level of fear, you may only be able to take her to the parking lot the first time. For a dog, walk her around the parking lot and yard, giving her treats for being brave. Give commands such as “sit” or “down” and reward her for performing those behaviors. Next time, walk around the lobby and ask staff members to give her treats. Have her walk onto the scale if she is brave enough. If you have a fearful cat, sit in the lobby with her in her carrier or on your lap. For the following trip, ask a staff member to take you to an exam room. If your pet is calm, perhaps a doctor can stop in a say “hi” to your pet without doing an exam. Make sure these steps are done gradually. If your pet becomes fearful, you have progressed too quickly. Back up to the previous step and only proceed if your pet is relaxed. Maybe you can only go halfway down the hall or just put one foot on the scale. That is okay. (Note: Saturdays are usually very busy for veterinary clinics, so that is not an ideal time to take your fearful pet for a visit.)
Synthetic pheromones help some pets relax. The pheromone product for dogs is called DAP (dog appeasing pheromone). It mimics the pheromones produced by a lactating female dog that gives puppies a sense of reassurance. This signal of comfort helps alleviate fear in puppies and adult dogs. The feline equivalent is called Feliway and it is a synthetic imitation of a cat’s facial pheromones. By creating a sense of familiarity, Feliway can help comfort a cat in a stressful environment. Both of these products come in either an electric diffuser or a spray. The spray products can be applied directly into a cat carrier or car 15 minutes before introducing the pet.
A majority of fearful pets will never be completely calm at the veterinary hospital. The goal is to reduce the anxiety and the reaction to the fear so that a visit to the clinic is less stressful for your pet and for you as well.