Preventing Stress, Fear & Scares At The Vet

Updated November 28, 2020

Yesterday: a dog who panics whenever someone touches her feet. The day before: a dog with anxiety about her ears being touched. These dogs are everywhere, but what happened to them?

The answer is something I’ve held back a long time from writing about. It contains criticism of my own profession as well as others. God knows, I’m no saint, and like most vets, I’ve made all these mistakes too. But we’re going to keep making them, so you need to know how to stop them.

It’s about dogs getting hurt at the very places they are supposed to be helped. By people who would never dream of hurting them. It happens easily and it happens all the time.

The dog afraid of having her ears touched

She first came to me for a routine checkup as a puppy. As she walked in I noted how she shook her head and thought, “I must look at those ears.” However, everything changed the moment I turned over her ear flap to look inside.

Out of the blue, she panicked, yelped, even tried to bite me and fought to get away. There was no other option but to give up and let her go.

I’d seen it enough times to already have a good idea what had caused this, and her owner confirmed my fears. A few months earlier, she had an ear infection, and was taken to her previous vet.

I happen to know this vet practice well, and they do good work. When the vet went to put in the ear treatment, it wasn’t easy. The vet said, “we’ll just take her out the back and put it in for you.”

That’s when it began. From then on, she has not allowed anyone to handle her ears the way a vet does. The ear infection never cleared up because the owner couldn’t treat it and the vets couldn’t check it.

We’ll never know what happened ‘out the back’ that day but it was clearly traumatic. it was probably nothing more than one nurse holding her while the other put the ointment in her ears. Like I said, it doesn’t take much.

The dog who won’t let her feet be touched

I’ve known her since her free check as a tiny puppy. She was always a sensitive dog, but we could do anything if we handled her the right way. That is, until the day she came in completely changed.

Now her owners couldn’t clip her nails without a terrible fight. I looked at the nails and said, “you don’t need to clip them, they’re already short!” But it was too late. Someone, this time at a pet store, had already tried to clip them and cut her to the quick.

By the way, the idea that all dogs need their nails clipped is one of the most annoying myths because it does a lot of harm. Most active dogs don’t need their nails done until they get old. If you try to clip their nails, this usually happens.

By ’this,’ I mean a dog learning that foot handling equals pain. Thanks very much. From here on, the very best you can hope for when handling their feet is a scared, frozen look. As in this case, it’s usually much worse.

When Bad Things Happens

Times to be especially careful are:

  • Nail clipping or checking broken nails
  • Ear inspection (that’s why I always get a nurse to keep the head still)
  • Removing grass seeds, matts and burrs
  • Clipping, especially around the bottom
  • Injections
  • Handling any painful area

Why Bad Things Happen

How is it possible that these dogs were hurt by people trying to do their best? Reasons include:

Not wanting to say no. It takes a lot of guts to refuse to do something, especially if you are an employee of a larger enterprise.

Time pressure. Most things are possible with enough patience, but vets have only a limited time before they start running late.

Not recognising the damage. I think often the people involved simply don’t see the problem yet (it took me years to notice how these single events changed dogs).

Not foreseeing the damage. We’re often guilty of being too optimistic about how easy something will be. Until too late.

So what can be done to prevent this happening?

How To Reduce Fear At The Vets

Patience. If it can’t be done quickly without stress, it shouldn’t be done at all. I always tell clients when a dog has their first ear infection that it may take all night to get the first dose in. However, if you make it fun, from then on it will get easier, not harder.

Treats. It’s always easier when a puppy is food-focused. That way you can keep their attention on the treat the whole time. It often even works while getting an injection!

Keep them in sight. I hate to say this, but I would always question why a dog needs to be taken away from you. Sometimes the vet might be young and nervous when watched, which I can understand. Sometimes it might truly be that your puppy is getting affected by your stress, or that the procedure will upset you. However, if you can be a calm role model for your pup, your presence will always be helpful.

Take no for an answer. Ask the vet their honest opinion rather than simply requesting a procedure. I last made this mistake of not speaking up a year ago. It was a very experienced and authoritative owner but I should have stayed true to myself regardless.

Visit more often. Lots of happy visits to the vet make the sad visits easier. It’s called trust. That doesn’t mean you need to actually see the vet though. Just a regular weigh-in, a treat or coming along with the other pets does the trick too. The best of all is, of course, puppy preschool!

Sedate, Sedate, Sedate. Both the above cases get sedation whenever they need the problem area treated. It’s easy, safe and stress-free, just a little more expensive and time-consuming. But they don’t remember a thing.

So how are the two patients going? Sadly, the dog with a phobia of foot handling is unlikely to improve without intensive behavioural therapy and possibly medication.

The outlook for the dog with the ear infection is much rosier. She has had several sedations, the ear is fixed, and she now even lets me peek at her (not painful) ear. Every time I see her she trusts me more.

So if I ever say to you I need to use a sedation to get a job done, or something just can’t be done, I hope you’ll see how high the stakes are. For these dogs, and many others, it can take only one false move to mark them for life.

And that dog at the start? That’s Hugo, who I sincerely doubt has had one unhappy moment in his life.

Further reading: Taking An Aggressive Dog To The Vet | Anxiety in Dogs & Cats

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

One Reply to “Preventing Stress, Fear & Scares At The Vet”

  1. Thanks for sharing your incredibly honest journey of self-awareness. The pets in your care are some of the luckiest in the world. So many people in so many places could save the entire world if they learned to apply your method. All one needs to do is open their eyes and see (i.e., cause and effect).

    My hat is off to you, doc!

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