Using Medication to Help Veterinary Visit Stress in Dogs and Cats

A pet’s mental health is as important as their physical health.  When you bring your pet in for a veterinary appointment, it may not be possible for your pet’s veterinarian to complete an examination or treatments due to stress associated with the visit.   If your pet is showing significant levels of FAS (fear, anxiety, and stress), your veterinarian may give you medication to be given before your pet’s next appointment.

Why does my pet need this medication? 

High levels of FAS can have negative effects in many ways.  It isn’t healthy for your pet.  Elevated stress hormone levels can suppress the immune system, change lab work results, and more.

Every time your pet is in a stressful situation such as going to the veterinarian, they learn to associate it with feeling anxious or scared.  That means that each time they go back to the clinic or a groomer, or you try to do something that they find scary, they get more and more scared.  They also anticipate something bad happening, so the anxiety starts sooner and sooner.

If they stay at a high level of FAS, your pet may learn that the only way to make people stop doing the things that scare them is to be aggressive. Remember they cannot speak our language and tell us “Stop, I am scared”, so aggression may be the way they are able to communicate this message.  Because of aggressive behavior due to repeated negative experiences, this could result in a situation where your veterinarian is unable to provide necessary medical care to your pet when they are sick or injured.

My pet isn’t aggressive – can’t you just do what they need?

Physically, we might be able to provide necessary care, but it would have a negative impact on your pet’s mental health.  We don’t want them to learn to be more afraid at the veterinary hospital or start being afraid of strangers, or you, or in other situations. It is simply not fair to hold them down and do what is needed.  This will simply amplify the negative behaviour.

He didn’t need medication last time – why are you saying he needs it now?

FAS often increases because of memories of bad experiences.  Giving medication to lower FAS also changes what your pet is learning, so they don’t continue to become more and more anxious or aggressive.

What if my pet is still fearful after taking these medications?

The medications we provide for you to give at home may not be enough for your veterinarian to do full procedures, but they may allow injectable sedation to be given without causing undue stress.  If your pet doesn’t need urgent care, you may need to try a different combination of medications or different doses to get the correct dosing appropriate for your pet.

What else can I do to lower my pet’s FAS?

Happy visits
If your pet travels in a carrier, use treats so they are happy about going in and out of the carrier at home. Also take them for car rides in the carrier so it isn’t a scary thing. If your pet gets sick while travelling in the car, you can ask your veterinarian if there is medication they can take to help with the nausea. Take your pet to the veterinary hospital when nothing is needed so they can learn that it’s a good place to be.  Start by giving treats in your car or out in the parking lot.  Call ahead and if it’s a quiet time, staff may be able to come out to your car and give your pet treats, or you can bring your pet inside for some. These exposure visits will help build a more trusting relationship with your pet and the hospital.

Basket muzzle training for dogs
For the safety of the hospital staff and your dog, many fearful dogs require muzzles.   If the muzzle is introduced properly, your dog will associate it with treats and good things, and it will lower anxiety when worn.  If it is not introduced properly, putting a muzzle on a fearful dog can increase anxiety and aggression.  If you want more information about using a basket muzzle visit the Muzzle Project.

Remember to Start Early

Socialization is incredibly important at an early age.  During their fear period, if something negative happens, it can impact their behaviour and mental happiness for their entire life.

Ensure that you are introducing things slowly while they are young and setting them up for positive experiences.

Most puppies and kittens will visit the veterinary hospital for their vaccinations at a young age. Once their first sets of vaccines are done, the next time they come in is 4 – 12 months later for their spay and neuter.  A lot of growing happens in between these two timeframes. Coming to the hospital for happy visits, if even only once a month for weight checks, or simply to stop in and get a treat, can help your pet remember that the hospital is a good place!

Remember, our goal is the same as your goal – to have your pet happy and healthy. We are here for you each step of the way to ensure this happens.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or concerns.