Scared cat at vet
As a practicing small animal veterinarian, one of the most common scenarios I encounter is clients feeling frustrated with how their pets behave at the veterinary hospital. Clients are often shocked or embarrassed that their normally well-behaved cats or dogs are refusing to sit or otherwise "ignoring" commands, pulling on their leashes, hiding under chairs, hissing, barking excessively, jumping on the veterinary staff or worse: trying to bite or scratch. I can’t tell you how many times I hear pet owners say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with my pet!”

This problem can be bad enough that some pet owners dread taking their pets to their veterinarians. Some clients will forgo vital veterinary care altogether to avoid embarrassing or difficult situations with their pets. The good news is that I, and most veterinary professionals, understand that your pet isn’t a disobedient or "bad" dog or cat; your pet isscared.

Visiting the Vet Can Be Overwhelming to Your Pet

When a pet owner apologizes for his or her pet’s bad behavior during a veterinary visit, I use the opportunity to educate the client about the signs of fear in pets and the effects it can have on their behavior. I usually equate it with the way I look and feel when I go to the dentist: stressed and scared. 

Dogs and cats who are normally easygoing can feel so much fear at the veterinary hospital that they become aggressive and next to impossible to handle. This can be bewildering to pet owners who are accustomed to having well-behaved pets at home.

Board-certified behaviorist and UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Behavior Service Chief-of-Staff Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, MS says, “Aggressive postures are one manner in which an animal keeps the ‘scary’ thing away.” In this case, the "scary thing" could be how your pet views veterinary staff. Bain also says that if people are keener on reading an animal’s body language before the pet displays aggressive postures, and then leave the animal alone, he will be less likely to resort to displaying aggression.

Learning to Understand What Your Pet Is Trying to Telling You

Pets are trying to communicate with us all the time, but sometimes we don’t recognize it because the signs of fear in your pet look different than in humans. So how can you tell if your dog or cat is telling you that he is afraid? Animals use their body language to help communicate how they feel. 

Signs of fear in dogs can include, but aren’t limited to:
  • avoiding eye contact
  • barking
  • clinging to the owner
  • cowering
  • having dilated pupils
  • flattening the ears
  • growling
  • salivating
  • startling easily
  • lifting one paw 
  • licking or curling the lips
  • panting
  • pacing
  • holding the tail in a tucked position
  • refusing to take treats
  • trembling
  • whining
Signs of fear in cats can include, but aren’t limited to:
  • hiding
  • hissing
  • tucking the legs and tail tightly against the body
  • having dilated pupils
  • freezing/becoming immobile
  • averting the eyes
  • growling
  • biting
  • swatting 
  • yowling
  • running away

How Stress Can Affect Your Pet’s Health

Fear not only makes veterinary visits more difficult, it also affects your pet’s health. According to Dr. Bain, stress can increase levels of cortisol (a stress hormone the body makes). Prolonged elevation of cortisol levels can decrease responsiveness of an animal’s immune system and predispose the pet to infectious disease and other medical conditions. Furthermore, the cortisol and adrenaline surging through your animal’s system can mask health problems. Another common complaint that I hear from veterinary clients is that their dogs were acting sick at home, but as soon as they got to the hospital, they stopped acting sick altogether! Fear can sometimes mask signs of disease, Dr. Bain says. An example is a dog who is limping: If the dog is stressed and anxious at the veterinary clinic, it may pace around the room, pulling at the leash to get out, both of which will mask the signs of illness. 

Making Vet Visits Easier on Everyone

Reducing fear during veterinary hospital visits not only gives you and your pet a better experience, it can benefit your pet’s health as well. Dr. Bain has several tips for owners on how to help their pets be less fearful of the veterinary hospital and staff.

Practice happy visits: For dogs, if the owner can take time to visit the vet for "happy visits" with the pet, just to get treats and attention, the times that they need to go there for veterinary care can be less stressful. Having a good relationship with their dogs by using positive training methods and taking their dogs to training classes that use only these methods, will help decrease their dogs’ reactivity overall. 

Help the vet team reward your dog: Behavioral experts also recommend taking your dog to the vet on an empty stomach so that he will be more motivated to take treats from the veterinary staff. Of course, only do this if it makes sense for your own pet and your vet agrees. 

Limit waiting room time if possible: Imagine you are a little Pekingese or timid kitty getting stared down by a strange Rottweiler. It can be scary! If possible, ask veterinary staff if you can keep your pet out of the waiting room as much as possible, and take your pet straight from the car or outdoor walking area into the exam room.

Build better associations for your cat: For many cats, the only time that they go in their carriers and in the car is to go to the vet. One way of helping cats is to get them used to being in their carriers by leaving them out at home for them to relax in. You can also put treats or toys in the carrier, or feed your cat in her carrier at home. By training your cat to enjoy riding in the carrier in the car, you help take away that trigger and predictor of future stress at the veterinarian’s office, Dr. Bain advises. Spraying your cat’s carrier with a feline pheromone like Feliway may reduce stress by helping make the carrier smell more "comforting." Though make sure the spray has evaporated completely before putting your cat in the carrier.

If your dog or cat simply cannot relax at the veterinary hospital, talk with your veterinarian to see if she recommends sedation or anti-anxiety medication that you can give at home before the visit. There are many safe alternatives available.

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