Helping dogs’ emotional well-being during vet visits

by Jennifer Korinchak

Can you imagine telling your dog, “Let’s go to the vet!” and seeing her wag her tail, instead of high-tailing it under the bed?

At Leesburg Veterinary Hospital, we’re working to make that dream a reality with the Fear Free Initiative. Over the past year, our medical and support team have undergone training to transform the entire veterinary experience for pets. Becoming Fear Free Certified encouraged us to modify procedures, handling techniques, and changes in our hospital design to help pets feel safe and comfortable during exams.

A pet that is calm and happy not only makes it safer for the veterinary staff, but also leads to more effective, comprehensive exams.
Here are just a few changes and recommendations we have for creating the least stressful and (dare we say) enjoyable veterinary visits for you and your canine companion.

Travel Time
Sometimes the most stressful part of visiting the vet is traveling to and from the appointment.  For dogs, we recommend withholding food for a few hours before the vet visit. Not only does this help decrease the chance of nausea or car sickness, but it allows us to use positive reinforcement techniques with high-reward treats come exam time.

Does your pet experience motion sickness during car travel? If so, we may suggest prescribing medication before the appointment to alleviate that.
Prepare your vehicle before traveling with your pet. Make sure it is clean and comfortable for when your pet enters the car.

Give yourself plenty of travel time before the appointment, preferably leaving ten minutes earlier than you think you’d need to get here. Not feeling rushed, you can have a less stressful trip and focus on driving safely and slowly. Less frantic starts and stops will hopefully lessen your pet’s anxiety or motion sickness.

Check-In
We all know the typical veterinary check-in process: arrive at the hospital, grab your dog by her leash, check in at reception, and then wait in the lobby until appointment time. In our Fear Free training, we’ve learned that the waiting game cannot be a one-size-fits-all method for every pet.

If your dog immediately becomes anxious upon entering the doors, we recommend keeping her in your climate-controlled car while you check-in, or even taking a walk on the hospital grounds. We will be happy to come out to get you when your appointment is ready to begin.

If your pet appears nervous, we likely will not greet them right away but instead let them explore and acclimate at her own pace.

With its large walled-off bays and spacious benches, our lobby was designed to keep pets separated and close to you while waiting. For dogs, we highly recommend using a standard six-foot leash. If you use a retractable leash, please keep it locked at no longer than six feet in length.  We are also more than happy to do check-in and check-out procedures in the exam room to minimize animal-to-animal interaction as much as possible.

We recently began providing pheromone-infused bandanas that speak to your pets’ sense of smell and act as natural calming agents. The pheromone bandanas can be applied to your dog’s collar or tied around their neck; she can also enjoy the bandanas on the car ride home!

Exam Time
You may notice fewer white doctor coats (since they can be scary for pets) and more soothing music in the exam rooms. The staff will interact with your pet using a considerate approach that involves gentle-control handling and minimal restraint. We attempt to get to know each pet and work with individual personalities instead of forcing her to behave for us.

Since most dogs feel more comfortable with their owners, we will do our best to perform vaccines and blood work in the exam room to help reduce extra anxiety. Does your pet feel more comfortable on the floor instead of on the higher exam table? No problem! We’ll come down to them—placing mats or towels on the floor and performing the exam where they are most relaxed.

Conditioning Pets to Happy Visits
The earlier pets have a positive association with the vet, the better. We highly recommend bringing puppies to our practice as often as possible during their younger months. Early positive experiences help build a foundation of trust and familiarity.

For older pets, schedule a “fun visit” without examination or treatment. Stop in just to say hi and soak up some love with lots of hugs, belly rubs, and treats.

This type of conditioning helps your pet think of the vet as a happy place, instead of a location where they’re taken to be poked and prodded.
It is important to realize that these steps alone will not automatically turn a very fearful pet into a happy easy-going patient. With time and repetition, though, we hope that nervous pets will become less anxious and enjoy coming to see us.

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beetle and baileySix-month-old Cavachon brothers Bailey and Beetle visited Leesburg Veterinary Hospital recently for their neuter procedure. They were super-sweet but also prone to stress, so the team at LVH implemented several Fear Free techniques to help reduce their anxiety during their stay.
While they waited for the procedures, the two were kept together in the same cage and dressed in specialized calming coats. Coats like this help relieve angst by providing a gentle, calming pressure. Their blue toy was infused with pheromone spray, which also acts as a natural calming agent. During pre-operative EKG tests and IV placement, the pups were offered frozen broth pops as a distraction.
Bailey and Beetle recovered well from their neuter procedures. Lower stress hormone levels are especially crucial after surgeries, as the reduction of stress helps with post-operative wound healing and a return to optimal health. Both brothers displayed less anxiety and fear due to the methods utilized, which will likely foster more excitement and less fear, when future vet visits are needed.

Jennifer Korinchak is a Marketing Consultant and blogger for Leesburg Veterinary Hospital. This article contains contributions from Dr. Jennifer Boyle. To get more advice on animal-related topics, visit LVH’s blog at leesburgvetblog.com. For more information about The Fear Free Difference, visit fearfreepets.com.