Some pet owners may feel dread when thinking about bringing their pet to the veterinarian. Fear, anxiety, and stress can be major barriers to bringing dogs, and especially cats, in for much needed medical care. Stress can cause major obstacles to providing the highest medical care once the animal is at the vet. A relaxed, happy vet visit starts at home by decreasing anxiety before your pet reaches the vet’s office. Listen to this week’s episode for valuable, actionable tools on decreasing stress before your pet’s trip to see the veterinarian.
Russell Sprout, the anxious mascot.
[00:01:04] Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode of Your Vet Wants You To Know. As some of you may know, that ugly mug that you see on the podcast art is my dog, Russell Sprout. He is the perfect mascot for the show because he has a host of chronic issues like allergies, ear infections, and Cushing’s Disease. He really helps me illustrate how frustrating some of these issues can be, and he allows me to sympathize with what many of you are going through. You can imagine with all of these health issues that he has, he’s had more than his fair share of vet visits throughout his life. Don’t be fooled by how cute he appears as a cartoon. In real life, Russell is as feisty as he is ugly- which is very. This attitude has not always made for the most pleasant vet visits.
Hesitating to seek veterinary care because of stress.
[00:01:47] I’m going to take off my ‘veterinarian hat’ for a moment and put on my ‘pet owner hat.’ I worry about bringing him to my clinic. Not because I think anything bad is going to happen to him, but because he’s an anxious dog, in general. I used to think to myself, “Is the risk of the stress of bringing him in for an exam and testing worth the benefit of the treatment that he’ll get.” As a veterinarian, I don’t want my pet owners to ever have to ask themselves this question. If their pet needs care, I want to be able to provide care without the owner hesitating.
[00:02:18] In today’s episode, I’ll be talking to you about what stress does to the body, the risks associated with bringing a stressed animal to the vet, the benefits of reducing fear and anxiety, and then I’ll have a lot of actionable tips for you on how to decrease stress when bringing your pet to see your veterinarian. There’s a lot of products that I mentioned throughout the episode, and I think it’s important to note that I receive no financial compensation for highlighting these products. They’re just really good tools often with evidence-based research to support their use.
The Harmful Effects of Stress on the Body
[00:02:48] Having pet owners be comfortable bringing their pet in to see me, and not hesitating when it needs medical care, is just one of the reasons that I want to decrease stress in my patients. When an animal or a human is stressed, their body releases cortisol, its natural stress hormone. This is the fight or flight hormone that helps keep animals safe in the wild, and it’s responsible for the sweat stains that many of us have experienced when speaking in front of a crowd.
[00:03:11]When cortisol is released in pets who come to the hospital, it can have a wide range of effects. In cats, cortisol causes an increase in blood sugar. So if your vet takes a blood sample and your cats, blood glucose or blood sugar is elevated, we may need to do additional tests to be able to determine if it’s high because the cat actually has diabetes, or if it’s high, simply because of the stress of that visit. Cortisol can mask pain, so if you made an appointment because your dog is limping and then, all of a sudden, it isn’t limping anymore, it could actually be because of the stress response that’s occurring. Some dogs become so stressed, they will actually develop diarrhea as a result of cortisol. This phenomenon occurs so frequently, we actually have a name for it in veterinary medicine- stress colitis.
Benefits of Creating a Fear Free Exam
A favorite toy helps create a Fear Free trip to the vet!
[00:03:57] In addition to being able to provide care when your pet needs it, creating a calm, fear-free visit allows the vet to get a good physical exam, to minimize changes in lab values and to decrease consequences of stress following the visit. Fear Free is actually a growing movement among veterinary professionals, as we seek to minimize fear, anxiety, and stress in the pets that we care for. Thousands of other veterinarians, veterinary technicians, support staff and I have undergone additional training in how to address a pet’s emotional needs when caring for their medical needs as well. If you’d like to find a veterinary professional near you that has received additional certification in Fear Free techniques, I’ll have a link in the show notes and on the resources page of Your Vet Wants You To Know.
[00:04:42] Even with Fear Free training, I can only do so much once an animal is in my office, to keep their stress level manageable. If their anxiety level is already through the roof, and I try and to get them to calm down for their exam, it’s like trying to put a toddler who just funneled a bunch of pixie sticks down for a nap. It’s not going to happen. I’m good, but I’m not that good. As a speaker for the Fear Free organization, I’ve done many continuing education lectures for veterinarians and staff on how to minimize stress within the clinic, equipping them with tools for managing anxiety once your pet is there. But if you, as the pet owner, want to set your pet and your veterinary team up for success, then reducing your pet stress during their vet visit starts at home.
Fear Free Vet Visits Start at Home!
[00:05:24] Think about the steps you take in order to get your pet to the vet- getting the pet on the leash or in the carrier, getting them into the car and driving or on the bus at the subway, etc. Going to the vet should not be the only time that your pet does those things. If your cat panics every time you get the carrier out of the closet because it dreads going to the vet, then why are you keeping the carrier in the closet? Get it out. Throw those treats in. Spray it with pheromones, like Feliway or Adaptil, which will provide a very calming scent for animals. Make it comfy and cozy enough that your cat explores the carrier on a regular basis and thinks of the carrier as its safe space.
[00:06:00] Better yet, consider upgrading your cat carrier to one that really helps them minimize stress by providing a warm, comfortable ride, and giving the vet team easy access to examine your cat while it’s still in its comfy carrier (having the lid zip completely open), rather than a carrier that’s hard, cold, and only opens from a small door in the front that the cat winds up being pulled out of or poured out of onto the table for its exam. There are 2 carriers that I really love for cats and small dogs- the Doc & Phoebe’s Sleep & Go 3 in 1 Pet Carrier and the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed. Both of these carriers provide comfortable and secure transport to the vet, and allow for easy access, so that your pet doesn’t even have to be moved from its snuggle spot. They’re great tools that I really wish all cat owners would use to make the trip and exam less stressful. Get the carrier out a few days before the exam or better yet, just leave it out in a place of the house that the pet feels safe. Toss some treats in it every once in a while to create a positive association. That way you’re not going to be calling up your vet’s office saying that you’re running late to the appointment because the cat ran away when it saw you bringing the carrier out of the closet.
The Day of the Vet Visit
[00:07:14]On the day of the appointment, if your vet has prescribed any anti-anxiety medication to make the visit more pleasant for your pet, make sure you’re giving those medications with enough time for them to start working, unlike my husband, who gives Russell his Trazadone on the way out the door, expecting it to kick in by the time he gets to the hospital. Spoiler alert- it doesn’t. Next week. I have special guest Dr. Hope Jankunas, who will help me dive deeper into these medications that are known as pre-visit pharmaceuticals. Please make sure that you are subscribed to the podcast so that you don’t miss that episode. It’s a really good one.
[00:07:47] Some pets get really nauseous from motion sickness in the car, so if your veterinarian has given you anti-nausea medication, make sure you give that to your pet with plenty of time for it to take effect. Pheromones are also a really great way to reduce stress. These are species specific smells that give a message to animals. The ones we use in veterinary medicine (Feliway for cats and Adaptil for dogs), send a message of comfort and calm. You can spray a blanket and the carrier for cats and small dogs, spray a bandana to put on large dogs, and spray the backseat of the car for all of your pets to provide that sense of comfort during travel. If you like the smell of lavender, this can also be used to provide a relaxing smell for the pets. Some dogs can benefit from a pressure wrap called a Thundershirt, that has been shown to decrease fear during travel, thunderstorms, fireworks, and any type of stressful situation.
[00:08:39]I’m also a big fan of music therapy for decreasing stress. I always try to listen to soothing music before my toddler wakes up from her nap. There have been a number of really fascinating studies looking at the effect of music on pets, and as a result, we have some really great evidence-based recommendations for music that can help keep your pet calm before it’s vet visit. Cat specific music is designed to mimic purring, suckling, and chirping sounds that occur during a cat’s emotional development stage, shortly after birth. This music has been shown to improve handling scores and stress levels in cats when compared to silence and compared to classical music. Music For Cats Album 1 and 2 can be found on Spotify and they help to set a really nice ambience in the car for your cat. In dogs, there isn’t as much evidence yet for species-specific music. Research shows that classical music, and in some studies, reggae, generally decreases anxiety in dogs. So while you could listen to one of the ‘Through A Dog’s Ear‘ albums on Spotify, at this point, the data shows that most classical music will work just as well. When in doubt, you can always listen to “Who Let The Dogs Out?”
Providing a Comfortable and Secure Ride
[00:09:48] Make sure the temperature in the car is ideal and not sweltering or freezing. Before you start driving, your animal should be secure in the car. A quick note about moving carriers into and out of the car- cats would much prefer if you lifted the carrier gently from underneath, rather than swinging them around with one hand from the handle on the top. Animals in carriers should be placed in the backseat, on the floor, on a non-slip surface. Larger dogs can benefit from a seatbelt harness to keep them secure. Cats can be stressed from too much visual stimulation, so placing a towel sprayed with Feliway over their carrier, but leaving the towel up on one side for ventilation may be helpful for them. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the appointment, so that you’re not rushing and you’re not worrying about being late. If you are panicked trying to get out of the house, your pet will absolutely pick up on that. Not to mention, you’re driving maybe less than smooth. Keep calm. Talk to your pet matter-of-factly, rather than that high-pitched baby voice.
Bring Your Pet Hungry and with Treats!
[00:10:46]I think one of the most important things a pet owner can do to set me up for success as a veterinarian, is to bring their pet hungry (if it’s medically appropriate), and to bring lots and lots of their favorite treats for me to give during the exam. The scientific term we use for when we give treats to train the animal to have a good experience is called ‘classical conditioning and creating a positive association.’ The layman’s term is bribery. I love bribing my patients to think that I’m the best treat giver in the whole world. It makes everyone happier and each subsequent visit easier and easier, since your pet is expecting something awesome.
Getting treats at the vet helps decrease stress and allow for a more thorough physical exam. Teaching your pet a few simple tricks helps boost their confidence when they can show off at the vet!
Set Your Pet Up for Success!
[00:11:23] If you’re worried about your pet’s anxiety level with veterinary visits, talk to your veterinarian. They can tailor a plan for your specific animal that helps to reduce everyone’s stress level, as well as helps get more thorough and accurate physical exams and diagnostics. I’ve got a couple of great resources on the website for you to check out. There are handouts from Fear Free on ways to decrease stress, and links to find a Fear Free certified veterinarian near you, if you’re looking for someone with additional training on how to lower stress in your pet. On the resources page of the website, I also have a link to the American College Of Veterinary Behaviorists, so you can consult with a specialist. If you need more guidance. If you have tips for other pet owners on how you reduce stress in your pet before vet visits, I encourage you to join our Facebook group. Share your stories in a community of people who are looking for advice for their animals.
Scratching the Itch
[00:12:22] I like to end each episode with a segment called Scratching The Itch. The segment is designed to highlight something, whether it’s a human interest story, a product, or a website that provides relief or just makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch.
[00:12:35] Our oldest dog, Molly, has been on medication for seizures for many years. Because I’m a dermatologist, I don’t carry it in my hospital, so my husband picks it up each month from a small pharmacy in our local grocery store. The pharmacists are wonderful and they smile enthusiastically as they give him medication for “Molly, the dog,” as they so lovingly refer to her. My husband is a healthy forty-something year-old with no underlying health conditions who writes for a living, so we have been waiting very patiently for him to be eligible for a vaccine, but nervous about availability of an appointment, when eligibility opens up in a couple of weeks. When he stopped by the pharmacy to pick up Molly’s medications last week, he very politely asked if there were any extra vaccines, as it was close to the end of the day. They said, “Unfortunately, no,” but told him to keep checking, which he has been doing every single day.
[00:13:24] Yesterday, while I was at work, I got a call from the pharmacy (which was strange because Molly wasn’t due for her refill yet). So, instead of letting it go to voicemail, I answered. Rather than an automated reminder on the line, the pharmacist said, “Hello. I wanted to let you know that we have a dose of a vaccine that’s going to go to waste, which we can give to your husband if he can get down here in the next few minutes. Immediately, I burst into tears and said that he would be there as soon as possible. I called him from work and told him to get there as soon as he could, and then I sat down to catch my breath. The pharmacists were very happy to give Molly’s dad the extra dose at the end of the day and told him, “You should probably check on your wife. It sounded like she was crying.” Their care for my dog and my husband certainly scratched an itch for me, and I’m incredibly thankful for all of the scientists who developed the vaccine, as well as the people working, tirelessly, to transport and distribute the vaccine. It brings me hope that my almost-one-year-old son can finally meet his grandparents.
[00:14:22]If you have something that scratches the itch that you would like to be featured in the segment, you can contact me through the website, or message me through social media or our Instagram page. That’s all for today. I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.
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