How to Have a Trauma-Free Vet Visit For Your Dog

Does your dog dart out of reach as soon as she sees the pet carrier or leash? Does she cry, whine and shake when you turn into the parking lot to the veterinarian’s office?

These are the common reactions when pets know a veterinary visit is coming. Somehow, dogs always seem to know.

You may have noticed that your dog isn’t always crazy about the vet’s office. A variety of circumstances can provoke these anxieties. Some pets may have had a frightening experience there, or they associate the visit with an unpleasant procedure such as a nail clipping. A dog may feel fearful or protective of his owner in the presence of other dogs or become unsettled at the smell of unfamiliar cleaners, medicine, and the scent of other agitated animals. Whatever the reason, a trip to the doctor’s office for your pet can be a stressful and anxious event.

The stressful components to the vet visit for some dogs include the following:

  • Getting in the carrier (for small dogs)
  • The car ride to the clinic
  • Waiting in the lobby
  • Time spent in the exam room
  • The car ride home

Every dog is different, and many of the tips below are for pets that are more stressed about these visits. Some dogs love other animals and the attention from humans, so they may not need as much (or any) assistance. Use the tips below as they apply to your dog and your situation. I hope they make that dreaded visit safer and more pleasant for you, your dog, and the veterinary staff!

Prepare Yourself and Your Dog

As you go through the process of taking your dog to the vet clinic, stay calm. Your dog also reacts to your stress levels, so don’t speak loudly or yell at your dog no matter what your dog does. Speak peacefully and softly or remain quiet.

Take any health history and records from other clinics to your appointment. Don’t forget to write down any questions you may have to ensure they are answered when you talk to the doctor.

If your dog is going to require bloodwork, withhold food the morning of your appointment or as directed by your veterinarian. If your vet requires a urine sample, you may want to restrict your dog’s access outside for a few hours beforehand.

Prior to the Visit

If your vet’s office is close, taking a brisk walk for exercise past the office door and making a quick visit for a treat and petting will help make the office a nonthreatening place. Your dog may even have a gender preference and do better with either a female or male doctor. If that is the case, the veterinary practice can help accommodate you by scheduling you with the doctor your pet loves best.

Before You and Your Dog Leave for the Vet Clinic

If you are taking your dog in a “pet taxi” or carrier, desensitization helps make your dog feel more confident. Keep the travel kennel out and use it as an everyday place to rest and keep toys so your dog feels comfortable seeing it. Throw a dog treat or toy in it occasionally so your pooch moves in and out of it freely and develops confidence in the presence of the carrier.

For those dogs that are capable, a period of play or exercise before heading off to the clinic can drain excess energy and calm your pooch. A little extra attention before you begin preparations can be really helpful for many dogs.

On the day of the vet visit, be ready by making sure you have your phone, keys, and wallet or purse ready to go. Place any paperwork, such as medical records, in the car beforehand so you don’t forget anything. Practice where your carrier will go in the car and how to maneuver it in and out of the vehicle.

Minimize the time your dog is away from home by making the departure as fast and easy as possible. Once you are ready to leave, gently get your dog in the carrier or attach the leash. If you are using a carrier, make sure it is level and won’t easily tilt, which can be uncomfortable and cause additional stress. You can also use the seat belt to secure your dog so it won’t fall with a sudden stop. If you are using a carrier, loosely cover the carrier with a sheet so your dog cannot see outside; excess visual stimulation can stress your dog. If your dog is anchored in the car’s seat by a leash, make sure they are secure before leaving and all harnesses are firmly secured.

If you have a multi-dog household, you might find that your pooches are quite bonded and are very unhappy if they are separated. Some clinics will allow you to take both dogs to the appointment, but check with the receptionist first. Even though some dogs don’t like being apart, they can be stressed in their own way when one dog is getting attention or experiencing distress, and two upset dogs can be much worse than one.

On the Way to the Vet Clinic: In the Car

Many owners find it worthwhile to desensitize their dog to the car. For younger dogs, try taking your puppy in their carrier on short trips in the car. The purpose of the trip should be a short ride ONLY to desensitize your dog; do not run errands or leave your dog unattended in the car. Speak softly and reassuringly throughout the trip, and keep windows rolled up and the radio off. When you return home, open the door to the carrier and let your dog stroll out on her own to a small food treat.

Once your dog feels confident in the car, ask the staff at the veterinary hospital if you can stop by for a non-medical visit like a weight check. Let your puppy interact with the veterinary staff for a few minutes and then proceed home. Your veterinary staff will be happy to take a minute or two for these important interactions; a stressed-out dog is hard on them, too.

Ensure that the car itself is a healthy and safe place by monitoring and managing the temperature of the car. Don’t blow air directly on your dog, but don’t let it get too hot, either. Keep the windows up and keep your dog in the carrier; don’t let him or her roam. Dogs can be killed if an accident occurs, and small dogs can actually cause accidents by getting under the gas pedal.

When you have your actual visit, go immediately to the hospital or clinic for your appointment and immediately home afterward. If you are taking more than one dog in for car, each dog should be taken in their own carrier or on their own leash. Fights and squabbles can break out even among loving companions, and injury can occur.

If your dog is extremely stressed, call the clinic from your phone and tell them when you have arrived in the parking lot. One option is to wait quietly in the car with your dog (make sure the car isn’t too hot or cold) until they calm down. You might want to ask the receptionist to call you when they are ready for you to minimize your wait in the exam room.

Your Dog: At the Veterinary Clinic

Keep your dog in the carrier until your veterinarian or the staff is ready for you. If you are keeping your dog on a leash, wind the leash up until your dog has only a short length on which to wander.

When you arrive, check in with the receptionist right away. While you wait, choose a spot that is quiet and away from other pets. Even if your dog is comfortable and loves other animals, not all pets feel the same. If your dog is in a carrier, keep the carrier covered with the light sheet or towel.

Speak quietly and calmly to your dog during the examination and evaluation. Some dogs prefer you be with them during the exam; however, many protective dogs become very stressed when their owners are close by. It sometimes works to everyone’s benefit to do a physical exam or procedure in a separate room with only the veterinary staff in attendance. As much as you want to be with your pet every minute, this is often a simple solution that decreases anxiety.

When You Get Your Dog Back Home

If it is okay with your doctor, a bit of play or a walk after the visit helps to diminish fear or anxiety. Some dogs may prefer privacy and solitude after a stressful experience. Try to “read” your dog to see what works best for them, and let things calm down before returning to your daily routine.

Can’t You Give My Dog Something?

Most dogs do well during a normal veterinary visit. However, every veterinarian has patients that, despite all efforts, are so frightened and anxious that even a simple physical exam is impossible. Everyone takes these pets very seriously. A frightened pet can become defensive and injure the owner, doctor, staff, or even another patient in the clinic. A pet’s behavior may prevent or delay important medical care, and it does no one any favors to make a stressed animal even more upset.

Based on your pet’s health, your vet may suggest providing a mild sedative for your dog. The sedative may be a pill you give before you leave for the clinic or medication administered by the doctor. Sedation can be a lifesaver for those pets needing urgent medical attention. Please discuss this option with your doctor if you feel this is a necessary step.