Tips to Help Your Dog Relax at the Vet

Does your pet get anxious at the vet? Most animals do show some signs of stress, whether it is a quiet lick of their lips, dilated pupils, an attempt to hide, or frantic panting, pacing, and vocalizations, we see a large range of stress signals.

My older dog is an easy going girl for her check-ups; tolerant and genuinely happy to come to work with me when she is in need of veterinary care. My second dog, also known as “problem child” is the opposite. Many aspects of life are difficult for him, so I knew having a good association with the vet clinic would be more challenging but also more important. Thinking of bringing him in for even just an exam leaves me quietly panicking. My heart races, I get hot, and I feel I am getting a small taste of how he is going to feel at the clinic. It is interesting how connected I feel to him, I feel for him so much that the thought of him being scared leaves me extremely anxious. Who knew going to the vet could be equally hard on us fur parents as it could be on our fur babies? I know I can’t be the only one.

I know so many wonderful clients who love their pets immensely and would love a way to help their animals relax. Finding ways to lessen my patients (and my own animal’s) stress at the vet is one of my passions. I believe it benefits everyone. So what can you as an owner do to help your dog relax at the vet?

1) Prepare them before your appointment

  • Bring them in hungry: I am not saying skip feeding breakfast that morning, but don’t let them fill up right before your appointment time. We will always have a variety of delicious treats to offer here, but if your dog has a favourite treat or any dietary limitations bring your own along. Since going to the vet can be hard for my boy, I will bring something extra tasty like hot dogs. Yes, you read that right, I am a vet tech and I happily use hot dogs when indicated.
  • Stop by for a visit: We love to see our patients coming in just for fun. If your dog is tagging along while you run errands, stop by the clinic just to eat cookies in the waiting room or come for a pee on the front lawn. This will give your dog opportunities to have relaxing and positive visits. Since the clinic can sometimes be quite busy, we recommend visiting at lunchtime. I don’t want my boy to think that the only time he visits the vet something scary will happen. He comes just to hang out, play games, and keep me company during late night checks.
  • Happy travels: Ensure your dog travels in comfort, travelling in a way that keeps your dog the most calm is the most beneficial. For some this may mean in a covered crate so they cannot see outside, while others do better when they can watch everything passing by.

2) Getting in and getting out

  • Checking In: At times the waiting room can closely resemble a zoo. If your dog gets at all worked up in the presence of other people or other animals, try leaving them in the car while you check in. This gives you a moment to scan the waiting room and make a plan. You can talk easily with reception, alerting them of any concerns. You can familiarize yourself with the scale and pick up some tasty treats, and you can scope out a place to sit where your dog will be most comfortable. Many dogs even do best if they wait in the car until an exam room is available and then you can skip waiting in reception altogether. I have learnt with my boy that he will get progressively more agitated and worked up with each small thing that bothers him. If he tried to sit in the waiting room before his turn, he would be so far over his threshold that the appointment could end up being more difficult for him if not completely unsuccessful.
  • Checking Out: When your appointment is finished you may put your dog in the car first before settling the bill. I know the car is my boy’s safe place and he’s eager to get in (regardless of where we are). If you’ve finished your appointment and the waiting room has become extremely busy, we can escort you through an alternate exit or clear a path through reception.

3) Have fun

  • Dogs are very in tune with us; you don’t need me to tell you that dogs are acutely sensitive to our feelings. They have an uncanny ability to read our body language and quickly pick up on our moods. As an owner, you can help show your dog that there is nothing to worry about by doing a few simple things.
  • Keep your body and your leash loose, if we are tense our dogs can see it. If we have tension on their leash, our dogs can feel it. Of course, dogs need to be leashed and not allowed to run up and greet other potentially unwell animals waiting in reception, but make an effort to have a loose leash when possible. This can often be achieved by using a hand with a treat as a guide. Occasionally rewarding them with a treat will keep them close to you while luring them to walk in the correct direction.
  • Play games: No better way to help your dog relax and have fun then to ask them to perform a favourite trick. To help combat any worried feelings your dog may have while at the vet, build their confidence by engaging them in something they are good at.
  • Let them sniff: A dog gets to know their environment largely through smell. Once you are in an exam room (maybe you are waiting for the doctor) allow your dog to smell and explore the room. Sniffing can act as a natural stress reducer, it is both fun and easy!

4) Be an active participant

  • Your dog may need to be moved to a different part of the clinic for more specialized procedures. However, many minor procedures such as ear cleans, nail trims and blood draws can be done in the exam room with you! Many dogs become more worried when taken away from their owners so do not hesitate to ask to be present.
  • Help with what? Your involvement can range from just being present and talking calmly to your dog, to feeding treats or even holding off veins for blood collection. Talk with your doctor and tech to find out what will work best.
  • Practice at home: In order to do a thorough examination, veterinarians need to be able to examine and physically touch many body parts. At home, you can help your dog relax for body handling by spending time getting them used to be touched and felt all over. Do this at a time of relaxation, maybe you are cuddling with them on the couch and you gently go from rubbing the neck and chest to the hips, tail, tummy, elbows, and paws. Try holding ears to look inside or lifting lips to check teeth. Make this type of practice even more meaningful and reward them with something tasty as you go.
  • Muzzle Training: Some dogs may require a muzzle for certain procedures, it does not mean that your dog is ‘bad.’ I like to think of them as a useful tool which improves everyone’s safety and reduces the amount of restraint needed. Training your dog to happily wear a muzzle is an easy and fun activity that will eliminate any stress from having to wear one at the vet.

5) Utilize supplements

  • There are a number of safe supplements available formulated to help reduce stress in dogs, we keep a number of over the counter products stocked and available. You do not need a veterinary prescription to buy these. Some of these supplements can be used for situation stress like a trip to the vet or for generalized stress on a daily basis if that is your dog.
  • If supplements alone, and some of the steps above are not enough to put your pet at ease, talk to your doctor about prescription options. We have many safe medications proven to be very useful in reducing fear, anxiety and stress.

Your veterinary team is dedicated to your dog’s well being, we want to know any and all concerns you have regarding their physical as well as their emotional health. We also aim to treat patients with the minimal amount of stress possible. If you feel your pet experiences too much stress during a veterinary visit, express this to the staff or doctors and give the above recommendations a try. If your veterinarian recommends sedation, this is likely to reduce your dog’s stress and make the procedure more successful. I have personally utilized most of the above recommendations, all of which have provided some benefit to my worrywart of a dog. I have found frequent ‘happy’ visits; time spent playing tricks and muzzle training, to be the most helpful. I will continue to work on his positive association to the vet clinic. For him it is likely something I will need to constantly reassure him of, but it is totally worth it! I want to prevent him from ever feeling too afraid. I want him to be able to remain as cool, calm and collected as possible for him. I want it for me as well.

Written by Monique Ruppel, RVT