Striving Toward A Pawsitively Fear-Free Veterinary Visit

By Teresa Garden, DVM

There is a growing trend in veterinary medicine to provide a more relaxed atmosphere for our furry patients. This is a good thing. Many pet owners tend to skip routine veterinary care because their pet is scared to death to be in a carrier, scared of the car ride, or scared of the vet clinic. Or possibly all of these may be triggers for fear.

As a holistic clinic, we have always tried to be sensitive to our patients emotional well-being during their visits with us. But the “fear-free” movement is now being embraced by conventional veterinary practices as well. “Fear-Free” is about pet owners and veterinary teams working together to create a less stressful and more enjoyable environment for everyone. From the carrier to the car ride and into the veterinary clinic itself, there are many things that can be done to help our more sensitive pets “go with the flow”.

THE CARRIER – Many cats and small dogs are afraid of their carrier because they associate it with a trip to the vet….especially if that is the only time they are in it. To alleviate “carrier fear” it is best to acclimate your pet to the carrier by leaving it in a common space in your home. Leave the door open and place a favorite toy or treat inside. Cat nip may be appropriate for cats who enjoy it. On the day of the vet visit spray the carrier with a pheromone spray to help calm your pet. Feliway spray or wipes can be used in the feline carriers and Adaptil spray can be used for the dog carriers. Apply these products to a blanket or towel placed inside the carrier. Feliway and Adaptil are also available as collars impregnated with the pheromones which can be worn around the neck during stressful events. Gently rubbing a little Rescue Remedy onto your dog’s or cat’s face will also help to decrease fear and nervousness. Rescue Remedy is a blend of Bach Flower Essences which treats stress and anxiety.

THE CAR RIDE – It is best to allow your furry friend to get well acquainted with vehicular travel as a kitten or puppy. They are most adaptable at a young age. If your adult dog or cat is afraid of car travel, there are steps you can take to make car travel more tolerable. Desensitization is first and foremost. This entails just sitting in the car at first with your pet for a few minutes. Next time start the car and let it run for a few minutes. After that, drive up and down the driveway. Then take a trip around the block. After that, slowly increase car travel time in increments to match travel time to your vet’s office. A desensitization program can be enhanced by natural remedies such as pheromones collars and sprays and Rescue Remedy. Other natural treatment options for anxious car travel include Zelkeyne and Composure. The drug Dramamine can help treat motion sickness in dogs caused by car travel.

THE VET CLINIC – Last, and by all means notthe least, veterinary clinics can do their part to lessen patient fears and anxieties. Eliminating the wait in the waiting room is very helpful. At Animal Health & Healing we try to schedule appointments so each pet can be brought directly into a private exam room upon their arrival rather than be exposed to a waiting room full of nervous dogs and cats and their over-wrought humans. If a wait is necessary, clinics may consider avoiding bright over head fluorescent lighting. More subtle lighting is better tolerated by dogs and cats. I just use a regular table lamp in the corner of the room. Soft music is helpful to create a relaxed environment. We play light classical or spa music in the waiting area and sometimes in the exam rooms as well.

Once in the exam room, we encourage our patients to explore the room while the doctor talks to the client and gets the medical history of the pet. This time allows the pet to relax a little more before I start my physical exam. Having separate exam rooms for dogs and cats is very helpful as well so they don’t have to “smell” another species and get upset or aroused. The cat exam room is sprayed with Feliway spray beforehand and dog exam room sprayed with Rescue Remedy. Stainless steel exam tables are covered with small throw rugs so the little pets will have more secure footing and not be cold or uncomfortable. A large rubber mat is put on the floor to allow for a more comfortable exam on the big dogs. This is especially important for the seniors and geriatrics. Tile floors cause them to slip and slide and become more afraid.

It’s important to be cognizant of the acute sense of smell our patients possess. Female veterinary staff should refrain from wearing perfumes or heavily scented body lotion. Male staff may need to forego aftershave. What smells pleasant to us may be overwhelming and even noxious to our animal patients. Dogs and cats find the smell of cigarette smoke repulsive. Therefore, veterinary staff that smoke should make sure their work attire is free of cigarette smoke odor. Calming scents such as the pheromone products and Rescue Remedy are both welcome and beneficial.

There are a few other simple small things that can be employed to make a big difference in the vet visit. Most dogs and cats are food motivated. Offering them safe healthy treats during their visit will build trust and enjoyment. Treats can also be employed as a diversion tactic during medical procedures. Clients are encouraged to bring along treats from home as well as a favorite toy or blanket to help their pet relax and make them happier. Some enjoy being combed or brushed by their owner during the visit. Some of our patients do best if their dog or cat buddy from home comes along for moral support.

To me, the “fear-free” movement is based on common sense, kindness and consideration of our patients well-being. This has been a part of our philosophy at Animal Health & Healing for a long time. I’m grateful the veterinary profession as a whole is now embracing the wisdom of practicing medicine in this manner. The benefits of a “fear-free” experience extend to all of us.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area.
Please call 314-781-1738 or visit online at www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com.