Help! My Dog Is Scared & Aggressive At The Vet

Updated November 28, 2020

Does your dog growl or snap at the vet? Just look at this one-star review of a decidedly one-star experience.

dog bite vet review

The fault might actually be mine. I realised afterwards that I could have failed to spot one of the most common mistakes about dog behaviour.

In Chewy’s case, my error was asking if he’d ever shown aggression to a vet before. The word ‘aggression’ is so misunderstood that I think his owners genuinely believed that growling and snapping weren’t signs of aggression.

It’s a bit like when I get asked to check a lump on a dog, and accidentally call it a tumour. Strictly speaking, that’s what it is, but the word has a lot of emotional baggage. Then I need to spend a few minutes explaining that calling it a tumour doesn’t mean it’s nasty, just that it’s a growth.

Calling a dog aggressive is just the same.

Dog Aggression Myths

So what are all these mistakes around dog aggression?

1. Only Certain Dogs Are Aggressive

It’s a very different thing to ask if a dog is aggressive than to ask if a dog has ever been aggressive. Aggression is just a mood. Yes, it’s more common in some breeds, but all dogs can do it.

Both my dogs have been aggressive in the past, usually when pushed too far by the kids. That doesn’t make them aggressive dogs; it’s all about the context. The trick is to understand the triggers and be one step ahead.

2. Aggressive Dogs Are Angry or Dominant

Nearly all of the aggression seen at the vet is caused by fear. In fact, I could probably count on one hand all the dogs I know who have aggression from any other cause.

Understand this, and you’re miles ahead of the pack. Dogs that show fear aggression need our sympathy just as much as they also need to be managed properly. Be silly enough to punish them and they will get worse.

3. Growling Is Bad

Don’t ever tell off a dog for growling either. Growling is great. It’s a dog warning you that you’re going beyond their limits. The last thing you want to do is suppress it.

Dogs don’t want to bite, and will do anything they can to avoid the encounter. Growling and postures like the ‘side-eyes’ with ears and tail down are all about letting you know.

4. Aggression Is Bad

Aggression is bad only in the same way that human anger is bad. It can be genuinely upsetting for someone to see their dog being aggressive, but we can’t expect them to be teddy bears all the time either.

There is absolutely no shame in owning an aggressive dog. In fact, I’m full of admiration when I see an owner who manages their dog’s aggression properly. It’s more common than you think, but you don’t notice those dogs because they’re harmless.

Taking An Aggressive Dog To The Vet

So what do you do if you have a dog that growls, snaps or tries to bite the vet? We see these dogs regularly. As long as everyone is safe, you’ll only be met with smiles and support.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Be extremely open. Even if you think it’s unlikely, we’ll always thank you for saying your dog might try to bite. Remember, there’s no judgement.
  2. Use muzzles. The only problem with a muzzle is how it makes a dog look. With the muzzle on, most dogs are calmer, the people relax, and the exam goes smoothly. Muzzle off.
  3. Use sedatives or anxiety medications. We have several patients who are given a trazodone dose before coming to the vet. They don’t stop being aggressive, but now we can handle them better and they remember less.
  4. Neuter males. This seems to only work as a preventative for certain aggressions in males. You can read the evidence about aggression and desexing here.
  5. Avoid traumatic experiences. I’ve written before about how to protect your dog from bad experiences at the vet but it’s mainly by knowing when to use sedation or patience.
  6. Socialise. This really means lots of good early experiences like puppy school. However, it’s even possible with lots of ‘no treatment’ visits to get a scared adult dog to relax more.

When you visit the vet with a dog prone to aggression, start by letting the reception staff know. Many of our clients choose to wait in the car, others will wait in a side room until the vet is ready. Your vet may have a side door you can enter and leave by.

You can either buy your own muzzle or borrow one. Always put the muzzle on before your dog gets worked up. Often this is before you leave the car. Once a dog is highly aroused you may have no choice but to forget about it and try again another day.

Be calm and speak in a low voice, no matter how you feel. There’s no point in saying “everything’s all right” if it’s in a loud, stressed tone. All your dog hears is the tone.

The Consequences Of Aggression

I’m lucky to say that I haven’t had a nasty bite from a dog for at least ten years. But it wasn’t always that way.

As a new graduate, from a dog just like Chewy, I received a dog bite to my face which required plastic surgery. It happened because I hadn’t yet developed the sixth sense that nowadays keeps me out of danger. Even when I’m told there’s no problem.

One reason I was upset with Chewy’s owners was that I employ recent graduates and trainee nurses who could easily have been there instead of me. Some of these injuries are career-ending.

Did I do the right thing? I hope so but it could have been done more gently.

Related: 20 Dog Breeds Less Prone To Aggression

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!


13 Replies to “Help! My Dog Is Scared & Aggressive At The Vet”

  1. Why aren’t you in the US? Kidding aside, how do I find a vet just like you in the US? Meaning, I’m afraid my dog will bite the vet and I want a vet that is as prepared and understanding as you. This is an irrational fear of mine, which of course makes it a reality with my dog since he feels my fear. Fifty pound, manageable dog.

    1. Hi Sylvie. A good place to start in the US is anyone calls themself ‘fear free’. While not perfect, it should give you an idea of their philosophy.

  2. I just rescued a dog about a month ago she is a very gentle dog barks a little on leash on walks but overall very good dog. The two consists that she has had to the vet they have informed me that she has been snippy and lunging scared acting in the back. Could this have been from something that happened at the kill shelter that she was rescued from and then brought to a new rescue where I ended up finding her? How would one handle a overall friendly dog but has these fears from the vet I have a feeling something happened that made her this way at vets?

    1. Hi Russell. A lot of dogs from deprived backgrounds act this way at vets – I think they understand that we are trying to do a lot more than just pat them. Then they get scared and defensive.
      The answer is probably to use pre-emptive medications such as trazodone or gabapentin before you arrive, and then use sedations administered while you are present for any major procedures. Of course, it may be that some of the procedures being done out the back can be done in front of you, and this (despite other views) I believe to be much better, if a little confronting to see.
      As to why it happened, it’s more likely that it was trauma from before the first shelter. I can’t speak for the area you live in, but even the kill shelters here have well-meaning, caring people in them.

  3. I took my 7 and a half month old Jack Russell to the vet today for desexing. From a previous experience at a different vet about 6 weeks ago, I knew Archie would likely be very hard to control and snarl and bite at being handled. He is an adorable and friendly pup and he loves people and is very dog social but if you try to pick him up or put your hands on him where he doesn’t like it, he snarls and bites. He has even taken pieces out of my hands and I’ve had him since 6 weeks. So I took him for 2 visits beforehand to get him used to the surgery and staff which all went well. On the morning of his surgery he was very excited when we got there and seemed happy so I left him in their capable hands. 45 minutes later I got a call saying they couldn’t control him to do the surgery and to come pick him up. How do I get him calm and manageable so the vet can work with him.

    1. Hi Neil. There are three ways you can approach this.
      1. Arrange the surgery so that you drop him off with an appointment first where a deep sedative injection can be given. That’s what we usually do, and it works because the dog is with you while they receive the injection. Of course, a muzzle will need to be applied but most dogs accept that willingly.
      2. Work with the vets and nurses over a long period to socialise him to them so he regards them as his friends. This will take several months and you will need their support as it will also be time-consuming to implement.
      3. Ask your vets about the use of either trazodone or gabapentin as a drug to be given one hour before arrival. It may take several trials to get the dose right, but these are both very safe drugs that can be administered at home and make dogs easier to handle (though still sometimes difficult) at the vet later.

  4. I congratulate you Andrew for your positive response to the review and making it into a learning experience for all of us.

  5. My previous dog Jack saw Andrew for about 15 years and always needed to be muzzled. He was a small dog but in spite of Andrew trying everything, could never relax at the vets and tried to bite Andrew at every opportunity even when he was a very old dog. Andrew is a wonderful vet, very informative and practical and has always looked after our animals well. I would recommend him and his practice to anyone looking for a vet. We have moved across town but still drive to Walkerville if we need a vet.

  6. Another excellent and informative article thank you. I have just been to our vet with my border collie who in most circumstances is even tempered. However I do not trust her tolerance when she experiences pain. She will snap. Hence I always ask the Vet to put a muzzle on her when she is having any such procedures and I feel no shame in having that need. Nor would I feel affronted should our vet suggest this. You are so right. With the muzzle on she is calm and easy to reassure.
    A family member is a Vet and she was badly bitten by a dog. She needed surgery and still has some pain in her hand. The dog gave none of the fear indications and appeared tolerant then attacked. The owners failed to declare up front that the dog had done this previously at another clinic. They mentioned it afterwards. It could so easily have been avoided.
    I hope the person who wrote this review decides to return to your clinic as she and her dog will be in the best place for this issue to be managed now it is in the open with “no shame”.
    Otherwise she will constantly be moving the care from clinic to clinic and her dog will be the loser.

  7. Having a highly reactive dog to other dogs when on the lead, our experience visiting your practice was very positive. You showed great understanding of the issue and allowed Saber to leave thru the staff exit. This led to a very positive experience to her visit. Cant speak more highly about our first visit to your new premises late May

  8. It’s not just dogs that owners need to be able to warn other handlers about (vet staff, groomers etc)
    Have been coming to Walkerville Vet for well over 20 years now. In that time I have had many cats to bring in and have made sure to mention if there have been any who could be hard to handle.
    I do remember warning the nurses about one Aby, saying, “Watch her when you get her out the box coz if she takes off you won’t catch her again easily”
    I got told later on that said cat had almost got away and the nurse remembered what I had told her and just managed to grab the cat in time. Unfortunately there were still some scratches to be had.

    And then there was Arwen who still managed to bite Andrew even under sedation when having a mouth abscess treated. Must’ve been when she had a full set of teeth.

    1. Thanks for the memories Tracey and for including cats! They do also have many of the same issues and needs, and can even be harder to manage owing to their claws and the impracticality of muzzles.

  9. Andrew sees our dog Henry, who is extremely anxious and terrified of the vet. I cannot speak highly enough of the way Andrew is with Henry (and us). We sedate him before a visit and Andrew always spends as long as it takes to calm Henry (as much as it is possible). I have recommended Andrew to a number of my friends.

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