Calming strategies: making vet visits stress-free for anxious dogs (2024)

When your dog’s anxious about visiting the vets, it increases the risk of difficult behaviours and causes a lot of worry for both of you. It might even mean you try to delay vet trips, which could affect your dog’s wellbeing.

In this article, we’ll explain how to prevent anxiety issues at the vets, and how to help your dog if they’re already showing signs of fear or aggression.

Why dogs become fearful or aggressive at the vets

Most dogs only go to the vets when they’re injured, ill, or need treatments like annual vaccinations. So, it may feel like an overwhelming place with lots of sights, sounds, smells, and people that your dog isn’t used to. This can be quite difficult for them to cope with – especially if they’re already feeling uncomfortable or sick.

If your dog has been through painful or frightening experiences at the vets in the past, they may develop a fear of examinations by the vet. Likewise, being restrained for examinations and treatments can also be quite worrying for dogs if they aren’t used to it.

Signs that your dog is afraid at the vets

Dogs show how they’re feeling through their body language, but it’s not always obvious. Below are some examples of signs your dog is feeling uncomfortable or worried. Take a look at our article on anxiety in dogs for more information.

Early signs your dog is anxious at the vets

  • licking their lips
  • sneezing
  • yawning
  • sniffing more than usual
  • lifting up one paw
  • putting their ears flat against their head
  • cowering closer to the floor
  • tucking up their tail.

These behaviours show that they feel scared and would like whatever’s happening to stop. Noticing how your dog feels at this stage means you can act to make them more comfortable, have a positive experience, and avoid a fear developing (see the ‘Keeping your dog calm at the vets’ section).

More signs your dog is anxious at the vets

If a dog continues to feel anxious and the thing they’re worried about doesn’t stop, they may show other behaviours, including:

  • looking or walking away from the vet
  • refusing to walk into the examination room or waiting room
  • starting to sweat through their paws
  • panting when it isn’t hot
  • pacing around the room
  • shaking or hiding
  • barking at whatever’s worrying them.

If your dog continues to show signs of fear and stress, they might feel the only other option is to go stiff and tense (also known as ‘freezing’), growl, show their teeth, snap, or even bite.

It’s important to recognise a dog’s worry before they feel the need to bite, so that you can protect your dog’s well-being and others’ safety. You may need to reschedule the appointment or speak with your vet about the best options.

Remember, showing these behaviours doesn’t mean your dog is ‘naughty’ or ‘dominant’. These are some of the only ways that your dog can say, “I’m not comfortable, please give me space”.

Urgent vet visits

You can help your dog feel calmer at the vets with the right training, preparation, and actions.

Sometimes, there may be situations where you can’t wait for your dog to become confident enough to tolerate a vet exam. In these cases, you may wish to discuss anti-anxiety support with your vet – for example, medication or an alternative type of examination.

This can help keep everyone safe and make sure your dog gets the care they need. To see more on how to do this, take a look at our article on muzzle training.

Building confidence with handling at home

Once you know your dog’s scared of being handled at the vets, it’s important to start working on building their confidence right away. This could prevent the problem from getting worse.

One way of looking at this situation is thinking about your dog’s confidence levels like a bank account. A good experience at the vets, where they feel safe and happy, is like adding £10 to their ‘trust’ account. A negative experience is like taking out £10.

Too many negative experiences means their ‘trust’ account empties. This is when we see problems like aggression, or even refusing to walk into the exam room or vet clinic!

To keep that bank balance positive, and help your dog maintain confidence and trust in these situations, we need to make sure they have more positive experiences than worrying or painful ones.

A simple and fun way to help with this at home is to play the Bucket Game, developed by dog behaviourist Chirag Patel, shown below.

Bucket game

This game gives your dog a clear way of letting you know when they’re uncomfortable and need a break. It’s called cooperative care and means your dog can willingly engage with treatments and vet exams rather than just tolerate them. Practicing this game helps your dog learn that you understand and will listen to them, without them needing to growl, snarl, or bite.

Watch the video below to see how the game works.

If you’d like help with this training game, or with something else relating to your dog’s behaviour and training, get in touch with our behaviour and trainings specialists for free advice. They’ve got tonnes of experience, and whatever the issue they’ve probably seen it before!

Visiting the vets ahead of time

Preparation can be key for success. You can help your dog get used to the vets before they even need an appointment. This will mean less stress for both of you, and make it easier for your pet to get care when they need it.

If your vet practice agrees, try visiting once a week with your dog. These visits should be low pressure, with lots of attention from you and high-value treats (for example, chicken, cheese, or ham) for being brave. The aim is to make each trip feel positive.

If your dog’s very anxious about going to the vets, start with just walking around outside, or walking in and leaving immediately. As their confidence builds, you can walk around the reception area together, letting them sniff and explore, whilst giving them treats now and then.

As they grow in confidence, add in activities like getting on the scales and having a treat and fuss from a willing receptionist! If the vet practice agrees, you could even encourage them to walk into the nurse’s room between appointments and do some easy tricks.

We recommend trying a ‘meet and greet’ with your vet, too. You may be able to book a separate confidence-building appointment with them before a medical appointment – giving your dog a chance to become comfortable with the vet ahead of an official visit.

Arranging your vet visit

When arranging an appointment, it’s important to explain to the receptionist how your dog usually behaves at the vets. This will let them know what your dog needs to feel more comfortable.

For example, you could discuss:

  • choosing a quiet time of day
  • avoiding busy waiting areas by waiting in your car until called or using an alternative entrance
  • seeing a vet you’ve seen before who understands your dog’s needs
  • booking a double appointment (if possible) to slow the pace, give you time to reward your dog, and allow the vet to examine them fully.

How to keep your dog calm at the vets

During the appointment, remind anyone who’s interacting with your dog that they’re nervous and need time and space. Regularly give your dog high-value treats during and after each brief examination or treatment – and let the vet know you’re doing this.

Explain that you’d like the vet to take a brief pause each time you say “yes!”, so that you can give your dog a treat and make sure they’re coping well.

Another way you can help is by standing nearby so you can read your dog’s body language and behaviour. If at any point they show signs of anxiety, there are things you can do to help them de-stress and calm down, including:

Reassurance

Reassuring your dog by giving them a gentle fuss and speaking to them calmly will help them feel safe.

Sniffing games

Sniffing helps to lower a dog’s heart rate, which can enable them to relax. Check out our video on how to teach your dog the ‘find it’ game, which you can use to give your dog a break.

Talking to your vet

If your dog growls, snaps, bites, or won’t tolerate an examination, talk through options with your vet to lower your dog’s stress, while still protecting their health and wellbeing.

If this is just a routine check-up, can it be delayed for a month to allow you to practice confidence-building exercises? And if the appointment is needed urgently, is there a way to reduce your dog’s stress to allow them to be examined more safely and easily?

Aftercare

Consider aftercare to help your dog de-stress after their vet visit. Things like a tasty chew, an activity toy like a Kong or lick mat, or a long walk in nature are all great options for helping your dog calm down naturally. But check with your vet in case there’s anything they shouldn’t do after their appointment.

If you’d like more support with your dog’s behaviour, please get in touch with our Behaviour and Training Specialist team – they’d be happy to help.

Calming strategies: making vet visits stress-free for anxious dogs (2024)

FAQs

How do vets calm dogs with anxiety? ›

If your dog develops a serious anxiety disorder, your veterinarian may recommend medications or natural therapies. SSRIs and antidepressants are occasionally prescribed for dogs with anxiety, including fluoxetine and clomipramine.

How to calm dogs down at the vet? ›

How to keep your dog calm going into the consultation room
  1. Stay calm and relaxed. When it's time for your appointment, stand up calmly, showing your dog that you aren't worried. ...
  2. Use treats as incentives. ...
  3. Pick up smaller dogs and carry them into the appointment room, if they're used to being carried. ...
  4. Be patient.

How do I help my dog not be scared at the vet? ›

Take your dog to the veterinarian just to say hello but not for an exam or procedure. Have the receptionists, vet techs, and veterinarians give your dog his favorite food or toy and build up a pleasant association with their presence. Try to stay with your dog as much as possible for procedures.

Why is my dog so nervous at the vet? ›

Vet visits can be stressful. All those strange smells and sounds, plus the potential for uncomfortable pokes and prods, are enough to make any dog nervous. For anxious dogs, in particular, going to the vet is a trial. However, anxious dogs don't have to be anxious patients.

How do I sedate my dog for a vet visit? ›

Sedatives are usually administered orally or injected into a dog's veins; it all depends on the required level of sedation. For oral sedation, acepromazine is most commonly prescribed by vets. Injectable sedatives include Telazol, dexmedetomidine, or a combination of acepromazine and butorphanol.

What helps dogs with severe anxiety? ›

Working on relaxation behavior modification exercises may also help. Almost all anxious dogs benefit from positive reinforcement training and increased predictability and consistency in their routine and in interactions. Dogs exhibiting frequent anxious behavior should see their veterinarian as soon as possible.

Will a vet put a dog down for anxiety? ›

Anxiety: euthanasia for anxiety is generally only considered after all other medication treatment and behavioural training options have been exhausted.

How do I desensitize my dog to the vet? ›

Acceptance can be improved if it is possible to distract your dog when the stimulus is presented. Here food rewards are useful. For example, when taking your dog for a veterinary visit, it can be very useful to withhold food on the day of the visit and bring along your dog's favored toys and treats.

How do I take my fear aggressive dog to the vet? ›

Use a muzzle if needed and keep the dog on a secure leash. Let the vet know in advance about the dog's behavior so they can be prepared. It might also help to try to calm the dog with treats or toys during the visit. Utilize a muzzle and desensitization techniques to safely transport your aggressive dog to the vet.

What makes a vet fear free? ›

Fear Free Certified® veterinary team members will initially avoid eye contact with your pet and focus on you instead. This helps your pet feel less stressed because he's not the center of attention and gives him time to check out his environment and become accustomed to the team member's presence. Got treats?

Does melatonin help with anxiety in dogs? ›

As mentioned earlier, melatonin can be helpful for dogs with severe anxiety. But there are plenty of uses and other evidence suggests that melatonin for dogs successfully treats some forms of hair loss (canine alopecia).

What are signs of anxiety in dogs? ›

Signs of anxiety can include:
  • Destructive behaviors.
  • Drooling.
  • Ears pulled down or back.
  • Excessive barking.
  • Licking lips.
  • Panting.
  • Shaking.
  • Whining.

What can I give my dog to calm down before a vet? ›

Exploring Calming Aids

Consult with your vet about the possibility of using natural remedies or supplements to ease your dog's anxiety. These aids can range from pheromone sprays to CBD treats, offering a gentle way to soothe nerves without resorting to heavy sedation.

How do I calm my dog down at the vet? ›

Help them know they are not doing any wrong in the situation. As the vet starts to handle and examine your dog, offer rewards throughout. Use your voice and praise them as well, making sure you use a light and happy tone so they know you are not telling them off. If you stay calm then this will help your pet stay calm.

What is the way to calm a very nervous dog? ›

Give Your Dog Plenty to Do When They're Alone

Give them a favorite chew bone or a food-stuffed chew toy to keep them occupied. Or consider using puzzle toys that exercise your dog's mind. Finally, some dogs like the background noise of a TV or radio so they don't feel as alone.

What is the best drug for anxiety in dogs? ›

Diazepam (Valium) - This medication can be an effective anti-anxiety medication, muscle relaxant, appetite stimulant and seizure-control drug for dogs. Diazepam can be helpful in treating dogs with panic disorders such as severe noise aversion or phobia if given in advance of an event known to trigger anxiety.

What makes dog anxiety worse? ›

The most common reasons for anxiety in a dog is abandonment, fear of being home alone, loud noises, traveling, and/or being around strange people, children, or other pets. We've also seen the anxiety in dogs that have been abused or neglected.

Can dogs be put down for anxiety? ›

Anxiety: euthanasia for anxiety is generally only considered after all other medication treatment and behavioural training options have been exhausted. A dog with crippling anxiety can be as traumatic as any other severe physical illness.

What is a natural sedative for dogs? ›

Soak a dog treat in chamomile tea for a mild, natural sedative. Brew a cup of chamomile tea and allow it to cool to room temperature.

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