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Help! My Dog Freaks Out at the Vet! What Can I Do?

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Dog Training By Erin Jones 14 min read May 23, 2021 4 Comments

Mosquitos can transmit disease

When I first began my career as a dog trainer and behavior consultant, I worked in a veterinary clinic. I saw dogs who loved saying hello to the staff, and others who didn’t want to step through the front door.

Because dogs generally (hopefully) only need to visit the veterinarian once or twice a year, the environment can be unfamiliar and potentially frightening for many dogs.

The clinic where I worked was quite progressive and knowledgeable about dog behavior, and there were quite a few dogs who would walk through those doors eager, even excited about visiting one of their favorite places.

Why? Because those dogs came to visit us many times before they needed to be there — to say hello, eat some treats, or participate in our puppy school.

This was done preemptively, before the clinic became scary.

Not every dog has had this type of positive experience, or any experience at all for that matter. And no experience can make trips to the vet just as scary as a bad experience during an office visit.

But don’t worry: There are several things you can do to help calm your dog at the vet.

We’ll share a few of the best techniques and strategies below.

Dog Anxiety Going to the Vet: Why Do Dogs Get Scared About Vet Visits?

We are unable to rationalize with our dogs, tell them what is happening, or explain what is about to happen. The unexpected can be scary for our dogs.

In fact, there are many things that we, as humans, may not realize or think about our dog’s experience at the vet.

Some of these could include:

  • Smelling the myriad medications, cleaning products, and unfamiliar animals in the office. Even if the other dogs are in an exam room or out of sight, there are signals and scents we may be unaware of that our dogs easily pick up. This is unavoidable; doctors, technicians, and assistants will need to approach and touch your dog.
  • Being subjected to unfamiliar procedures. I suspect most of us are not looking in our dog’s eyes, ears, and mouths on a regular basis. This can feel foreign and worrisome to some dogs.
  • Being put in positions they’d rather not be in. Some of these situations might include being lifted up onto an exam table or a scale. It could also include being poked and prodded with needles, stethoscopes, or other medical equipment.

Think about it: When was the last time you took your dog to the vet for fun? To have a good long play with friends? To meet familiar faces and gorge on treats? If you are like most people, the answer is likely never.

This lack of exposure and positive experience can lead to a dog vet phobia.

What Are Some Things Anxious Dogs Do at the Vet? 

Anxiety can manifest in different ways for different individuals.

Dogs don’t speak our language, so it is important that we learn to read their body signals and be on the lookout for signs of stress. Most stress signals work in conjunction with others; they rarely occur in isolation. So, make sure you look at the whole dog, nose to tail.

Watch for behavior that is unusual for your dog, specifically.

Some of the common signs that your dog is feeling anxious:

  • My Dog Screams at the Vet. Vocalization is not uncommon for a dog who is feeling overwhelmed. Dogs vocalize for a number of reasons, but if your dog’s vocalizations sound like a scream or cry, whimper or whine, your dog is likely feeling fearful or anxious.
  • My Dog Shakes or Trembles at the Vet. You know that feeling when you’re waiting at the dentist’s office? Or when you’re about to jump out of a plane (ok, maybe not, but I am sure you can imagine!) Shaking is a response of your nervous system that we call fight or flight. When your dog is faced with something potentially scary, stress hormones are preparing the muscles to either fight or run, resulting in trembling or shaking.
  • My Dog Starts Panting and Drooling. If it is hot, and your dog is otherwise relaxed, panting is nothing to worry about. But excessive panting and/or drooling can indicate stress.
  • My Dog Poops at the Vet. It happens more than you think. And no one at the clinic minds, I promise! The gastrointestinal tract often reacts to stress and anxiety. No need to make a big deal about it, it’s not their fault. Just remember to pack your poop bags in advance!
  • My Dog Barks at Vet. Some dogs, when feeling stressed, may bark at people or animals in the clinic. Remember I talked about fight or flight a moment ago? Well, if we take away the option to flee (because they are indoors and restricted by a leash), then their only other option is to fight.
  • My Dog Gets Aggressive at the Vet. Sometimes your dog’s tolerance for people, other animals, or being handled, can diminish greatly in a stressful environment. They may bark or lunge, as I mentioned above. They may also growl, snap, or even bite. This is their way of communicating that they are uncomfortable, so it is important to not punish them for letting us know. If we do, they potentially may bite without warning the next time, which is much worse. Note that aggression and anxiety go hand-in-hand, so you should consider working with a professional if your dog displays any aggression issues.
  • My Dog Does… Nothing. Yup, that’s right – “nothing” can actually be a sign that something is wrong. We can’t assume that a lack of behavior means that our dogs are fine. If your normally wiggly happy dog is suddenly frozen in fear, it is likely your dog is feeling very overwhelmed.

So, what does a happy dog look like? Look at the ears, mouth, tail, eyes, and body movements. Are their ears and brow relaxed, tail at half-mast and wagging broadly side to side? Is his jaw relaxed? Are his eyes soft and relaxed? Is his body “wiggly”?  

The more you learn about body language, the better you can mitigate any issues before they arise.

How Do You Go About Taking a Reactive, Frightened, or Aggressive Dog to the Vet?

There are several things that you can do to make the vet more enjoyable for our dogs. These might include:

  • Taking your dog to the vet during off-peak times. The first or last appointment of the day will mean that the clinic will be less chaotic. My vet will often have emergency time slots available where no other appointments are booked and can sometimes fit in a nervous dog or cat during those times. Also, daytime appointments will likely be much less busy than evenings and weekends, so keep that in mind, and take some time off work if you can. And don’t be afraid to let the staff know ahead of time. They might be able to schedule you more appropriately.
  • Friendly Visits. Take your dog in to visit staff when you are not there for a medical reason. Be sure to have some super delicious high value treats on hand and let your pooch sniff around and say hello to the staff. This will make the experience much more positive.

    I used to teach a puppy class in the veterinary clinic after hours and weekends. Puppies who came to that class always loved coming to the vet because of all the positive experiences they enjoyed before coming in for something medical related later.
  • Do your research. Not every veterinarian or clinic is created equal. If you can, look for a Low-Stress Handling or a Fear Free certified clinic in your area. This means the staff has been trained to make the experience as positive as possible for your dog. It also means they know how to better handle a nervous or anxious dog without the use of force.

    Also, consider your dog’s personal preference. My dog prefers men to women. If I choose a male vet, she is likely to feel more comfortable overall.
  • Practice. Not every dog loves being handled. Some don’t enjoy their ears being touched, while others don’t like having their mouth examined. So, practice these things early. For example, you can look in your dog’s ears, then offer him a treat. Remember, your dog will be most anxious about things that are unfamiliar. If you are unsure or your dog is already fearful of certain procedures, you can contact a certified professional dog trainer or fear-free professional to help you through the process.
  • Exercise. Sometimes anxiety can be exacerbated by over-excitement. Exercise will not completely prevent anxiety, but if your pooch has a nice long walk or run at the park prior to visiting the vet, he may feel a little more relaxed, as his needs have been already met.
  • Teach your dog to “calm”. There is a great protocol for teaching your dog to settle. It is a useful skill to teach any dog, but particularly one that is easily stressed or highly excitable. Start by teaching your dog to be calm in regular situations, and then slowly increase the level of distraction around them. Pretty soon, you will have a dog who is able to settle in all environments, including the vet!
  • Keep yourself calm. Make sure you remain calm, no matter how your dog is reacting. This means refraining from raising your voice, pulling on the leash, corrections, etc. Instead, reassure your dog that you are there for them. It is okay to pat, hold, or talk to your dog if he is feeling scared, the same way you would comfort a person if they were feeling anxious.

    And remember, if you are stressed, your dog will likely think there really must be something to be stressed about!
Dog frightened by vet

How to Calm Your Dog at the Vet 

If your dog is stressed, anxious, or fearful, it is completely acceptable to comfort him. In fact, I encourage it. You don’t need to make a big deal about it. Here are some other options that may help:

  • Treats. If your dog will take treats, I recommend coming armed with a baggie full of high value (highly desirable) treats. This might include cheese, liver, peanut butter, or whatever your dog loves the most. Keep in mind, they may be too anxious to eat anything while there, but it is better to come prepared anyway.
  • Cuddles. If your pup wants to be close to you, allow him to cuddle. You want your dog to seek you out for comfort.
  • Keep your distance from triggers. Try to keep them at a distance from other dogs or people if your dog is being reactive. Always feel free to ask if there is an empty room where you can wait instead of the busy waiting area.
  • Avoid any form of punishment. Even if you feel your dog’s behavior is inappropriate, or that he should know better, he likely can’t help but have an emotional reaction. By reprimanding your dog, you can make his anxiety worse and take away his source of comfort (you).
  • Calming wraps. Tight-fitting clothing can often help reduce fear and anxiety. The ThunderShirt, for example, provides consistent, reassuring pressure, which often helps dogs feel more secure. Despite the name, these wraps are not just for fear of thunder – they work in many anxiety-provoking contexts. You can buy a Thundershirt here, or make a custom version on your own.

Dog Sedative for a Vet Visit: Can I Give My Dog Calming Meds?

You may also want to discuss anti-anxiety medications with your veterinarian. There are a lot of pharmaceutical options out there, and they may just help your dog cope with the stress a little better. This could make the visit a little more enjoyable for everyone.

Though there are daily use anxiety meds, if your dog is only anxious about certain situations (like being at the vet), then you can use what is known as an “event med”. This is given 30-60 minutes before you arrive at the clinic and will work for about 3-6 hours.

Again, discuss the options with your vet. That is what they are there to help you with, and they can work with you to find the right fit for your dog.

Will Adaptil Make My Dog Calm at the Vet?

Adaptil (D.A.P.) is a synthetic appeasing pheromone that comes in a spray, diffuser, or collar. It may help to reduce stress in your dog. Just note that you likely won’t see a huge change in your dog’s behavior, particularly if the anxiety is severe or has persisted over time.

There have been studies showing the efficacy of Adaptil in reducing some stress-related behaviors (for example, Kim et al., 2010; Landsberg et al., 2015; Mills et al., 2006), while others have found that it is not effective at reducing stress (for example, Hewson, 2014).

In conclusion, there is no harmful or inherent risk to using Adaptil but do so knowing that there may or may not be much noticeable change in your dog’s anxious behavior.

Having said that, many clinics I have been to actually have an Adaptil diffuser in the exam rooms already!

Should I Muzzle My Dog for the Vet?

I think every single dog should learn to love the muzzle. Think of it this way, if you have used the muzzle at home and already made it a fun, positive experience, then when you need to use it, it’s not an added stress.

On the other hand, if your dog has never worn a muzzle, is already feeling anxious about being at the vet, and then you suddenly slap one on, he will likely hate it and become even more stressed out.

Note that not all muzzles are created equal. I prefer the basket muzzles for most occasions because they still allow you to effectively feed treats and are less restrictive. There are several brands on the market, and clearly, not every dog’s face shape and needs are the same.

Check out this article for some of the best muzzles on the market!

What Happens If My Dog Bites the Vet? Can a Vet Sue Me If My Dog Bites Him?

Getting bitten from time to time is part of the job for a vet, and most vets see the potential to be bitten as an occupational hazard. If your vet feels that a dog might bite them, he or she will generally use extreme caution, such as administering sedatives and making sure the dog is muzzled.

Legally, vets have assumed the potential of a bite as a condition of their work and would have little legal foothold, especially if you have fully disclosed any potential risk.

Can Veterinarians Refuse to Treat a Dog? 

Your vet has the right to refuse to treat your dog, just as you have the right to refuse any treatment recommended.

In the United States, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, aside from emergencies, veterinarians have the right to decide whether to have and/or continue to serve any client. If you are an existing client, he or she has an obligation to continue to either work with you or provide you with a referral.

This situation is likely rare in the case of an anxious or fearful dog, so I wouldn’t worry too much. However, taking precautions and minimizing risk is ideal for everyone involved.

veterinary care puppy mills

Can a Dog Be Traumatized After a Vet Visit?

Every time we expose our dogs to something that they find fearful, we are potentially “traumatizing” them. Visits to the vet, however, do not need to be traumatic if we take measures to minimize stress and avoid escalating triggers.

Your vet and (and the support staff) are there to help!

For example, my dog is fearful of new people in new situations.

In a few weeks, she will be going in for her spay surgery. Instead of dropping her off at 8:00 am, having her handled by strangers, and waiting for her surgery in an unfamiliar environment alone, I will take her in at 9:00 am when the vet arrives.

That way I can stay with her until her pre-surgery meds have taken effect and she is relaxed and sedate. I will also pick her up as early as she is able to leave.

***

Make the vet as stress-free as possible by reducing risk, comforting your dog when he is anxious, and creating a positive relationship with the clinic. Allow him to form positive feelings about being handled by practicing in low-stress environments and giving him plenty of his favorite treats while you’re there.  

Make both of your lives easier by doing your homework and setting them up for success!

Have you figured out any techniques or strategies that help keep your dog calm at the vet? We’d love to hear about them! Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Written by

Erin Jones

Erin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. After completing her MSc in Anthrozoology, Erin moved to New Zealand early in 2019 to complete her PhD at the University of Canterbury – New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies. Her research focuses on the ethics and social constructs of the human-dog relationship and humane training practices. She lives in Christchurch, New Zealand with her husband and their dog, Juno.

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Tony

Fascinating article, so well presented.
I have a 45kg German Shepherd which I adopted when it was 18
months….I have owned GSD before. This lad was never well socialised or given much basic training.g if any. Over the last year and a half have set about building a relationship with him as well as defining some boundaries. A couple of months ago I took him to the vets fotretment forsn ear infection, he did not like having his ear prodded and ended up I muzzle and being physically restrained.
Long and short, we had 3 such visits to help administer antibiotics. It was impossible to do this at home as I ended up with a nasty bite to my hand.
Ear seems to be fixed but about two weeks later I went to offer my dog his favorite post walk treat. Usual routine is SIT > SAY PLEASE dog offers his paw > dog gently takes treat from my hand and disappears to eat it. This time however, he sat down button SAY PLEASE, he snarled, lunged at me and bit me twice on either hand.
Other than being ushered outside where he was left to cool down for5 minutes, he was not punished. All of the work I have done for over a year to build a relationship with this fellanowseems to be out of the window, he does not trust me. He follows my every movement with his eyes, is reluctant to come to me even for the word Walkies.
Any advice on what might be going on here?
Thanks
Tony

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Ben Team

Hey, Tony. Glad you liked the article, but we’re sorry to hear about the troubles with your pooch — sounds like a pretty scary situation.
Honestly, given your dog’s size and the fact that he’s now (if I’m understanding correctly) bitten you multiple times, we’d strongly urge you to reach out to a canine behaviorist.
We wish you the very best of luck — let us know how it goes!

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Linc Benkert

This was good article. We live close to the vet, so frequently I take my 90 pound Doberman “puppy” in just to stand on the scales. That works well with us. Only thing he doesn’t understand is why he can’t say hello to the other dogs when we are there for an actual vet trip. His size is enough to cause some of the pet owners to almost faint.

Reply
Will staszko

Erin,
You did a great job on this article! Cheers 🙂

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