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How to Reduce Your Dog's Fear at the Vet

Six practical ways you can help your dog feel calmer at the vet, improving veterinary visits for not only your dog, but you as well!

Many of us are all too familiar with the anxiety-filled behaviors that arise in our dogs during veterinary visits - shaking on the ride there, resisting walking into the lobby, cowering when members of the medical team approach, growling, snapping - these are all signs of canine stress that often go hand-in-hand with veterinary visits. Has your dog ever exhibited these behaviors at the vet?

While it's normal for our dogs to respond to a stressful event with these fear-based stress behaviors, wouldn't it be wonderful if your dog no longer categorized going to the vet as a 'stressful event'? It's possible, and we're here to show you how.

With just a little preparation and a few minor adjustments, you can greatly reduce your pet's vet visit-related fear and anxiety, helping them to experience veterinary care outside of that 'fight, flight or freeze' state.

In this article you will:

  • Learn how to recognize when your dog is feeling fear, anxiety or stress

  • Learn about your pet's fear threshold (think: comfort zone)

  • Learn our TOP 6 TIPS for how you can reduce your dog's fear, anxiety and stress at the vet

Recognizing Signs of Fear, Anxiety and Stress in Your Dog

Before we're able to help our canine friends feel more safe and secure, we first need to be able to recognize when they are feeling fear, anxiety or stress (FAS). Signs of canine FAS can be subtle and as a result are often overlooked or misinterpreted. If you know what to look for you will be amazed at what your dog's body language can tell you. Here is an overview of the most common canine body language indications of FAS (fear, anxiety and stress):

Canine Body Language Indicating Fear, Anxiety and Stress:

  • Dilated pupils

  • Ears back

  • Panting

  • Pacing

  • Shaking

  • Hyper-vigilance

  • Excessive Yawning

  • Lip licking

  • Tight mouth

  • Low, fast wagging tail

  • Tucked tail

  • Stiff, rigid body

  • Side-eyeing

  • Lifting of a lip

  • Trying to flee

  • Growling

  • Snapping

The ability to recognize these stress indicators is a powerful part of reducing your pet's fear, anxiety and stress at the vet. The more familiar you are with your pet's body language, the easier it will be for you to identify their fear, anxiety and stress in the early stages, enabling you to intervene before your pet escalates up the fear ladder. The more subtle signs of stress, like dilated pupils, pinned back ears and hyper-vigilance typically occur first, long before a pet escalates up their fear ladder to the more severe, overt signs of FAS like freezing, trying to flee, growling or snapping. Once a pet has reached the top of his fear ladder, they've entered a 'fight, flight or freeze' state. When your pet is in this fight, flight or freeze state, their stress hormones are severely elevated and and they are not cognitively available for a positive, fear free experience. By honoring the early warning signs of discomfort, we can help your pet to stay within their comfort zone, below that fear threshold, creating a more harmonious experience.

So you've thought back to previous veterinary visits, reflected on your pet's body language and have identified that your pet does in fact feel stressed at the vet. Now what?

Tips on How to Reduce Your Dog's Fear at the Vet


With just a little preparation and a few minor adjustments, you can greatly reduce your pet's vet visit-related fear and anxiety, helping them to experience veterinary care outside of that 'fight, flight or freeze' state.

TIP 1: Make Happy Visits to Our Hospital

How does your pet react when you pull into your favorite drive-thru? The one where your pet always gets a special treat (perhaps a pup cup from Aroma Joes)? He probably gets pretty excited as he recognizes the location and anticipates the yummy treat he is about to get. This is the kind of association we want to build for your dog and our veterinary hospital. We want your pet to feel excited upon arrival, remembering all the good things that occurred the last time he came to see us. One way to work towards this goal is to make frequent 'HAPPY VISITS' to our hospital parking lot and lobby. These visits are short, positive and pressure-free. At these visits your pet gets lots of treats and love - and that's it! Your pet is not asked to do anything outside his comfort zone, but instead rewarded for simply showing up! Lots of sniffs, treats and pets.

We'd love for you to call our office to discuss setting your pet up with a happy visit!

TIP 2: Exercise Your Pet Before Their Visit

Exercising your dog before coming to the vet is one of the best things you can do to help set them up for a successful visit. Similarly to humans, when dogs are pent up with excess energy, it's much harder for their nervous system to remain calm and regulated. Offering an outlet for energy-release before coming into the clinic will support their ability to settle in the stimulating veterinary environment.

Keep in mind that mental exercise is often just as effective as physical exercise! If your dog unable to safely exercise their physically body due to an injury or otherwise, challenge their mind before a veterinary visit. A half hour mental enrichment session with surely tucker your pup out!

TIP 3: Use High-Value Treats Along the Way

Did you know that eating and licking actually releases endorphins for our pets? What a helpful tool! As you embark on this journey to help your pet feel more comfortable at the vet it's very important to incorporate treats into your efforts - but not just any treats! We recommend you use HIGH-VALUE TREATS. High-value treats are treats that your dog loves and finds extra special. Unlike low-value treats, high-value treats are special enough to your dog that they'll peak his interest even in an environment where there is distraction, like stressful triggers. Typically these high-value treats are of the soft, moist, fragrant variety. But, every dog has a different set of preferences, so we suggest you do some fun exploration with your pet to figure out which treats he loves most!

TIP 4: Explore Calming Pheromones

The concept of calming pheromones is similar to that of aromatherapy - it utilizes scent to calm the nervous system. Commercial calming pheromone products mimic the natural calming chemicals mother dogs release to sooth her young. For humans, the pheremone is odorless, however for our dogs, it's a powerful scent that promotes relaxation. At Epping Road Vet we love the canine calming pheromone product Adaptil. Adaptil comes in multiple forms including a spray, diffuser and a wearable collar. We use the diffuser form of Adaptil throughout our hospital, with several diffusers set up in our exam rooms and treatment area. We recommend the wearable collar for our patients coming in for veterinary visits, so that way the calming pheromones accompany your pet from start to finish, including the car ride to and from our hospital.

We carry Adaptil products in our hospital as well as through our online pharmacy!

TIP 5: Skip the Lobby

The lobby of a veterinary hospital is often a busy place, full of smells, animals and people that are all unfamiliar to your pet. This hustle and bustle of unfamiliarity can cause a high level of stress for your dog before they've even entered their exam room. If your pet is a dog that exhibits indicators of stress when waiting in a veterinary lobby, skip it! If your dog is a dog that reacts to other animals whenever he is in the veterinary lobby, skip it! By avoiding the lobby all together, you're able to keep your pet below their stress threshold in the moments leading up to their appointment, contributing to a more successful exam.

TIP 6: Explore Pre-Visit Anxiety Medication

For some dogs, their fear, anxiety and stress levels are so high when visiting a veterinary hospital that they enter into a 'fight, flight or freeze' state. When a pet is in this state - a status we refer to as 'over threshold' - the stress hormones in their body are so elevated, they're unable to register reassurance or comfort through calming tactics such as offering treats, making it very challenging to offer a fear free experience and nearly impossible to organically build a positive association with the vet.

Has your food-obsessed dog ever turned down a treat at the vet? This phenomenon is why! His stress levels were too high for him to engage in the feel-good activity of enjoying a treat.

For these patients, we recommend exploring situational anti-anxiety medication. These are medications that will be given to your dog at home, before veterinary visits. These medications help your extremely fearful pet stay below their fear threshold, keeping them in a state of mind where they are available for positive association building.

We are happy to answer any and all questions you may have about these medications!


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