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. Once 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.
Puppies undergo a socialization period from 4-14 weeks of age. (Kittens have a socialization period as well, but theirs is at a younger age before they are usually adopted.) This is a critical time in a puppy’s development. During the socialization period, puppies’ brains are like sponges. When they experience things and people and the outcome is a positive one, they will not fear that type of person or thing later in life. However, negative circumstances or those not encountered at all during the socialization period can cause fear when the puppy is older. Fearfulness can be an inherited trait and extremely resistant to change. With time and patience pets can learn to reduce their responses to situations that provoke fear.
If you have a puppy or kitten, work to prevent fear now. At home, touch your pet’s ears, feet, tail, and lips while giving him small treats and/or lots of praise. When you take your pet for a veterinary visit, make sure he is hungry. Break special treats into tiny pieces, giving them to him throughout the visit and reward him for being brave on the scale, while the veterinarian is performing the physical exam, and especially during vaccinations. Hand treats to staff members to give to your pet. If he is not food motivated, use a special toy instead. Take your pet to the clinic just to weigh him or have staff members give him treats so that a trip to the veterinary hospital does not always involve needles.
The best prevention against fear is puppy socialization classes. (Kitten socialization classes exist, but are difficult to find.) The goal of socialization classes is to expose puppies to many different people, situations, sounds and other puppies in a positive, controlled environment. Puppy classes differ from obedience classes in that puppy classes focus mainly on socialization. Some puppy classes do teach basic commands, but it is not the main objective. After graduating from puppy classes, obedience classes are a great next step.
The way an animal reacts to a situation as an adult depends on his experiences as a puppy or kitten – both positive and negative. A scary visit to the veterinarian, pet store, or groomer when they are young can cause animals to fear those places for the rest of their lives. Therefore, it is vital that you make these experiences as fun and positive as possible.