Fear-Free Veterinary Visits for the Anxious Pet

Vet Clinic Anxiety

Just as in humans, some animals are much more nervous or anxious about certain things than others. We ask animals to come into a strange place filled with unusual smells and sounds, allow a new person to touch them on their feet or other sensitive parts of their bodies, and tolerate being poked with needles or having other uncomfortable procedures performed. It’s very reasonable to be nervous! Anxious animals aren’t “bad dogs” or “bad cats”- they are fearful, and they can’t respond to people in the same way that they can when they are in a comfortable setting.

Anxieties and fearful behavior can escalate with age, so it may not even be that a pet had a bad experience, but that their worry about what to expect is escalating.  Some animals deal with their fear by freezing while others try to protect themselves by becoming aggressive. Biting, lunging, swatting, and scratching are common reactions of a very fearful cat or dog. This, of course, is dangerous for everyone involved.  Again, this doesn’t make them a ‘bad patient’ – they are just worried and trying to protect themselves in the best way that they know how.

Fear Free Practice and Pre-Veterinary Pharmaceuticals

In the past decade, there has been a big movement towards what is termed ‘fear-free practice’. We are trying very hard in veterinary medicine to make a visit to the veterinary clinic or grooming facility be as pleasant as possible – we are trying to eliminate as much fear, anxiety, and stress as we can. We do this by using anti-anxiety medications. It’s not ‘doping’ them; it’s providing them with support to handle stressful conditions, much like a human may drink chamomile tea before a public speaking engagement or take an anti-anxiety medication prior to getting on an airplane.  If we don’t help a pet, each visit becomes more and more scary for them.  

We call these medications Pre-Veterinary Pharmaceuticals or PVPs.  Your veterinarian will generally start with one medication, then adjust the dose and/or add additional medications. Cats typically receive a medication called gabapentin. Many dogs receive both gabapentin and trazodone. We may need to adjust our protocol with a patient depending on their response.  Providing a loading dose the night before and again 2 hours prior to the visit creates a markedly more relaxed experience for the patient in most cases. 

Muzzle Training

We also utilize muzzles for the safety of our staff as well as the safety of fearful pets. Muzzling a pet does not create a bad experience.  Quite the contrary, a muzzle can be an incredibly helpful tool for animals who are fearful.  Fearful pets still feel a responsibility to be in control and protect themselves and their loved ones  from the dangers- but they are scared and they don’t really know how to do that job in that situation.  When we place a muzzle, it does several things:

  1. It takes away that perceived need to be in control — they can relax because no one is expecting them to do that job any more.
  2.  It uses pressure points to calm them.
  3. It reduces the danger of a dangerous bite to the humans in the room.  As a result, everyone in the room is more calm — which helps her to be more calm in turn.  Animals absolutely sense the mood of the humans in the room.  If we are worried, they will be worried as well.

From a safety standpoint, a muzzle is necessary.  We are responsible for the safety of everyone in our clinic- our patients’, our clients’, and our team members’.  

We can make muzzling less scary for patients by working on muzzling at home. If our pet parents can desensitize our patients to wearing a muzzle at home and make it be a ‘fun’ thing to do, dogs can be muzzled at home or in the car prior to coming into the building- this helps fearful dogs so much. You may purchase a muzzle to practice at home. Spray cheese on the muzzle and let them lick it off- do this daily for many, many days.  When they are comfortable with that, you can offer food on the other side of the muzzle so that they have to stick their nose through it to get the cheese or treats.  Once they can do that without being worried, you can practice buckling it.  Make it be a fun game — lots of praise and excitement so that wearing a muzzle becomes fun for them. The Muzzle Up! Project has some great resources for training a pet to wear a muzzle.

It can feel overwhelming to have a pet that struggles with these anxieties and fears.  We really want to take these important steps, though, so that coming to the veterinary clinic or to a groomer doesn’t continue to be such a scary event for them, and so that we can safely and thoroughly provide the care that they deserve.


Content prepared by St. Francis Animal Hospital, 1227 Larpenteur Ave. West, Roseville MN. 55113