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visits to the vet
Visits to the vet can unfortunately be a stressful experience for some pets and their owners. Although the appointments are necessary in having their physical and medical needs met, it is up to you as an owner to ensure their mental welfare and emotional state of mind is not neglected in the process.
If your pet has a negative experience on the journey to or at the practice, they may associate the vets with the unpleasant event that occurred there. As a result, this can make them more difficult to handle the next time or reduce their level of tolerance. Difficulty handling, refusing to get into the car or carrier, or even attempting to bite, scratch and escape, are examples of what may become a learnt behaviour unless you can provide numerous positive experiences for them to change the way they respond. The aim for this is to break the negative associations and make it a positive experience which can be achieved by working with your vet to minimise FAS (Fear, anxiety, and stress).
By reading your pet’s body language and respecting it, you can make vet trips a positive, stress-free experience with time and trust by working with your pet, instead of against them. If a negative emotional response is too ingrained, it can at least help them learn to cope, with as minimal FAS as possible. It isn’t just experienced at the practice that can impact their behaviour towards it; the events leading up to it will have an effect and owners must take into account the time and appropriate methods it will take to get them there first.
The more positive associations your cat or dog has at the practice, the easier handling and treatment will be, and the faster they will be able to bounce back from the visit. This in turn makes it a more pleasant ordeal for everyone involved and your relationship with your pet will remain untarnished.
Fear, anxiety and stress, also known as FAS, is commonly experienced by all animals throughout their lives but is typically increased at the vets. There are numerous reasons FAS is high and negative associations are made;
- Their first impressionable experience at the vets is likely for an injection (first vaccination).
- Some animals find travelling frightening/sickening and the association is made between the car and the vets.
- Unfamiliar people and smells all around.
- Small spaces with numerous other animals.
- Not all practices have species separate waiting areas, meaning there are prey-predator species within sight/smell/hearing range.
- Your pet may hear the distressed vocalisations of other animals.
- Waiting around for an unknown length of time in an unfamiliar place makes settling difficult.
- Most vet visits require being touched in intimate places by strangers and sometimes injected/administered treatment they are not comfortable with.
- Some vets/owners prefer to use equipment for convenience/safety purposes (some are necessary, such as muzzles for the safety of handlers – the dog may not be muzzle trained).
- Inappropriate restraint techniques that take away the animal’s choice.
All these situations, and more, will increase FAS and make your pet likely respond with ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘shut down’.
The term ‘shut down’ is when your pet learns that no amount of fight or flight will stop the negative experience from occurring and so they quite literally give up trying. Often becoming unresponsive to stimuli, they may breathe heavier but will often become very motionless and try to curl up. An animal in shutdown is an animal experiencing high levels of FAS. This will take longer to bounce back from and should not have reached this stage as it can sometimes lead to fear-based aggression. Prolonged and continuous exposure to FAS can have negative impacts that can extend to the animal’s physical health as much as their mental health. It will also take longer for them to bounce back from a particularly stressful vet visit. Some individuals may even need at least 72 hours to decompress from the event, and the stress hormones, such as cortisol, to lower again.
choosing your vet
If you have recently brought a new pet into your life and you are looking to register them to a vet practice, do plenty of research first. If you already have an existing vet, consider if they are the right one for your pet.
Professionals in the veterinary industry undertake years of education to provide your pet(s) with the best care possible and whilst they offer diagnosis and treatment, are they doing so in a way that reduces and minimises FAS?
Check if your vet practice or individual professional within the practice is registered as a Fear Free Vets. You can find out through their website, social media pages or by calling the practice to ask. If so, you will see the following logo proudly displayed;
Alternatively, you can visit the following link to find the registered individuals and practices within the UK;
The Fear Free program was founded in 2016 in America and the program is making its way around the world, including the UK, so more and more professionals may soon join for the certification and the benefits it provides.
If you find yourself unfortunately out of range from a Fear Free practice or professional, you can always engage in a discussion with your vet to discuss their methods of handling and treatment to ensure your pet’s emotional well-being and mental welfare are not being neglected in order to meet their physical needs.
Even if the practice is not Fear Free certified, a tour of the accessible facilities before registering is always beneficial. A good practice that has taken steps to reduce FAS will have some or all of the following features just in the reception;
For some, FAS begins before reaching the practice. Whether your journey is by vehicle or walking, or the animal is on a lead or in a carrier, ensure the experience is as pleasant and positive as possible.
Allow yourself plenty of time to prepare your pet and get yourself there. By allowing the animal to make its own choice to get inside the car or cage, you will already be significantly minimising FAS, so if it rises when you enter the clinic it should be at a tolerable level. By forcing your animals to do something they are unsure or frightened of doing, not only are you damaging your relationship with them, but you’ll make them warier of the situation the next time due to the negative association and FAS may already affect your pet. This could mean low tolerance and poor coping methods when they are inspected at their appointment. As explained earlier, this could lead to fight, flight shut down, which is an equally undesirable, high level of stress.
Always ensure you have the correct equipment available for your animal and that it is in good, working condition. For dogs, they must be safely and appropriately collared or harnessed with a strong lead. If you know your dog has a history or tendency to be reactive then bring a muzzle (always muzzle train your dog if one is necessary. Putting one on when your dog is not trained to wear it will cause stress and discomfort and can cause them to struggle to remove it). The practice will have all the handling equipment for their safety, however, bringing your own responsibility and it will have the dog’s own smell.
On arrival to the vets, always check the waiting rooms for space available and animals already inside. Be sure to consider as much as possible; from the noise levels to unneutered males and females sharing the same space, as well as prey-predator species.
If the waiting room is clear or your dog is behaviourally suitable to enter, ensure they are kept on a short lead so that they cannot reach animals they do not know. Even if another dog is dog-friendly, they are there due to pain, injury or illness, all of which can affect behaviour and reactions.
If you know your dog has behavioural issues with other dogs or animals, consider leaving them in the car until your appointment is called. By informing the vets and other owners inside, they can clear a path for you to ensure your journey to the clinic room is as stress-free as possible for all involved.
Even when entering the practice, adopt the same techniques you may have used for encouraging the dog into the car. Do not pull, drag or force your animal inside as this reinforces the negative emotional response toward the environment. Where possible, reward your dog for making the choice to go forwards. Every step counts!
Whilst waiting for your appointment, you may find yourself surrounded by strange new people and animals of all kinds, vocalising their FAS. Even well-behaved animals can fidget with uncertainty, so where possible, try bringing along some small training treats or a quiet toy to distract them with. Not only can this work as a distraction but the smell of home may bring some familiarity.
Cats feel much safer when they are head level and above. If there are cubby holes for carriers available, consider using them. They will be placed out of the way of bumps and knocks, and the room’s volume will be considerably dulled to them.
For any crated animal, always cover them with a large blanket or towel, ensuring it is a ventilated material. Keeping their confined area dark and quiet as possibly has shown to significantly reduce FAS by impairing their senses. By reducing them, they have fewer things to worry over. For cats specifically, consider spraying their cover with calmer such as Feliway.
When it is your turn to enter the clinic room, remember that whilst the vets are there to provide treatment and relief to your pet, they must listen to what your pet’s body language is telling them. You are their voice, so if your pet is clearly uncomfortable, frightened or unsure, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask the vet to give your pet a moment to relax, or to be the one to handle them where necessary. You are the one to have a relationship with your pet, therefore they are more likely to cope with your touches than a stranger.
In non-emergency cases, the general Fear Free practice is the 2-try rule for cats and 3-try rule for dogs.
This rule means that the vet should only be allowed 2-3 attempts to handle, inspect or administer treatment. If the dog struggles and is restrained or forced to endure, FAS will increase. Therefore, if the dog struggles it must be given a break. Only if the animal can calm down and relax once again, the second attempt can go ahead. If the dog struggles again, let it be and give it time to relax before trying a third time. This is repeated a maximum of three times before it should be left and the appointment rescheduled. If the animal cannot calm down from the first or second time, the next should not be attempted.
The same rule applies to cats but with two tries instead of three due to their lower tolerance to being handled and restrained.
Once your appointment is over, it may be best if you can place your animal back into the vehicle to calm down in the quiet isolation of an area that smells like home while you wait to revisit the reception desk.
If your pet has had a negative experience or association at the vet, even those that tolerate it better may need 48-72 hours to ‘come down’ from the raised cortisol levels. These levels will have increased due to exposure to FAS. A confident animal with a high tolerance for stress may be able to relax much sooner.
Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’ because it is released in response to stress and fear, as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response. Higher levels of FAS mean more cortisol is secreted into the body and higher volumes of the hormone can have numerous side effects. After a spike in cortisol, dependent upon the individual and their tolerance to stress, it can take 2-3 days to fully bounce back from a stressful event and for the hormones to drop to normal again.
Due to this, it is important your pet is left alone for the rest of the day when they return home, and even the next if they had experienced high levels of FAS. If necessary (such as walking, feeding, cleaning), interactions should be kept to minimal contact, calm and pleasant. By leaving your pet to do what they choose, and when they choose to, they will likely make the decision to sleep, hide and relax in ways and places where they feel safe, enabling cortisol to gradually lower.
To assist them in settling down again whilst allowing them the space they need, you could provide your dog with a long-lasting chew or their favourite toy and cats could be given a small amount of a high-value treat such as chicken or ham. If they choose to remain in the carrier when the door has been opened, allow them the time and space to come out when they feel ready.
- Research your vet practices and how the staff conduct themselves when handling and treating the animals.
- Allow your pets to make choices. Never use force.- Remember to reward your pet for making good choices.
- You must read your pet’s body language, they’re always communicating with you.
- Utilise what you have; towel covers, cubby holes etc. to make your pets more comfortable.
- Try not to put your pets in situations where they feel their only responses are to fight, flee or shut down.
- Maximum 3 attempts for dogs, provided they can calm down between each try, and 2 attempts for cats.