Angel or Devil? There’s No Telling Which Pets Will Act Best at the Vet

Dr. Patty Khuly

Do you have a Jekyll and Hyde case on your hands? In other words, is your pet a perfect angel at home — wings and all — only to sprout devilish horns at the vet? Or perhaps you’ve experienced this inexplicable corollary: You endure the experience of manhandling a highly unwilling cat into a carrier, receiving two armfuls of deep scratches to show for it Thus armed with the evidence of malice, you go so far as to (responsibly) inform your veterinarian of your kitty’s tendencies, only to find that your vet seems to have the magic touch. Your monster cat has suddenly morphed into the sweetest, most cuddly kitty.

This latter scenario, lush with unexpected compliance, may prove pleasantly surprising — if only it didn’t make you feel as if a) you no longer have any animal behavior cred whatsoever and b) you don’t even know your own pet!

In case you’re the sensitive sort, likely to feel inferior upon your pet’s misbehavior (or failure to live up to your warnings, whichever it may be), here’s a secret: Veterinarians and their staff understand this phenomenon well. And in no way would we ever allow an animal’s behavior to reflect on someone’s “parenting” skills.

Because here’s the intriguing reality: Even the most mild-mannered pets can act out obnoxiously at the vet, while the “least likely to play well with others” can sometimes surprise you.

So what’s that all about? How do they do that? And why?

It’s called stress. Let me explain, using distinctly anthropomorphic terms: Have you ever observed fellow human beings in an emergency? Let’s use a serious traffic accident as an example. In such a case, people typically fall into one of two categories:

1. The cool-as-a-cucumber type

2. The chicken with his head cut off

Oftentimes, these reactions to stress will be summarized as “fight” or “flight,” respectively.

This is a serious simplification, of course, but its application to pets at the vet’s office is unmistakably apt: Some cower and try to hide (even melt into the table), while others act all big and scary.

Unfortunately, the latter response tends to be more stressful for our patients. Everything takes twice as long when they’re putting on the Cujo act. If the situation is rough enough, chemical restraint (aka sedation) is often in order. And that’s no fun for anyone.

So what do you have? Jekyll or Hyde? Angel or devil?

Though you may be lucky enough to have a perfectly socialized and 100 percent vet-acclimated pet — in which case I’ve probably just managed to annoy you with my assumptions — the reality is that most pets fall into the fight or flight categories. After all, the vet is every bit as stressful for many pets as a competitor or predator.


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