This guest post was contributed by Dr. Katherine van Ekert, co-founder of Vet Pronto. Vet Pronto is an on-demand veterinary service that brings highly qualified and compassionate veterinarians right to your door.
Zoe, our family’s border collie, used to love car trips. That’s generally because they meant adventures to the beach and getting to hang out with her favorite humans. But somehow she always knew when we were making that turn towards the vet clinic. We would still be miles away, but suddenly her attitude would change. She would hide behind the driver’s seat with her tail between her legs and head cowered down. Zoe’s veterinarians were lovely and she was always met with lots of pats and treats, but that didn’t stop her from conjuring up terrifying memories of needles, overnight hospital stays, or surgeries.
All of this pales in comparison to one of our clients’ recent experiences when an attempted trip to the vet left her cat traumatized. After attempting to wrestle her cat into the cat carrier, the cat bit her on the mouth and scratched her face and neck. Not only did the cat hate being confined in a small carrier against her will, she also hated the car trips.
Why stress happens: the fight-or-flight stress response
Most of the reactions we observe when we see that our pets “hate” going to the vet are actually results of the fight-or-flight stress response. This reflex roots back to the days when animals (including humans) needed to defend themselves from environmental dangers. For our pets, fight-or-flight is often induced when they feel they are threatened, have no control, or are scared of what is about to happen, such as going to the vet clinic where they have had previously traumatic experiences. These past experiences can include being handled by strangers, having procedures like vaccines and blood tests performed on them, being kept overnight in a strange environment, and/or having surgeries where they may have woken up disoriented or in pain.
When this stress response is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system releases a cascade of stress hormones (catecholamines), especially norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline). This helps animals prepare for either fighting (i.e. a cat biting their parent’s lip) or fleeing (Zoe whimpering with her tail between her legs).
This stress response also has secondary effects which can make performing a physical examination more difficult. An increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, panting, hyperglycemia (increase in blood sugar), digestive disturbances (such as release of bowel and bladder contents), and pupil dilation can all interfere with our interpretation of a patient’s symptoms and physical examination, making it difficult to appropriately diagnose a disease.
Stress reduction techniques
There are two main approaches you want to take when your dog is stressed: reducing the triggers that cause the stress response and increasing your pet’s sense of control over their situation. Specific techniques can include:
1) Using a calming pheromone spray (such as Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats). These are natural products that help pets feel safer in their surroundings.
2) Keeping all noise to a minimum.
3) Desensitizing them to the experience of car travel and going into the clinic by slowly introducing them to the idea. Start by leaving your carrier in the house for a couple of weeks, then placing treats inside to encourage them to explore. Eventually, leave them sitting inside until they get comfortable and maybe even let them sleep inside the carrier for a couple of weeks. Make multiple trips to the clinic where all you do is give them treats once you arrive. This all builds up positive associations so that they are more excited to go visit the vet in the future.
4) Staying calm yourself. Our pets pick up cues from us, and the calmer you seem about the experience, the calmer they will be.
5) Bringing the vet to you! House calls can be a great alternative to going to the clinic.