When I worked at the PDSA in the early 2000’s, I had under my care a large German Shepherd Dog who was being treated for epileptic episodes. Now, you may think that is special about that? Well it’s the only dog I have ever authorised a dose of drugs to without physically laying my hands on it at all and it never had a blood test to make sure that it was either receiving enough but not too much medication.
Why you may ask did I not feel the need to examine said dog, you make us bring our pets in for examinations and blood tests if on medications that require monitoring. I asked the Head Vet at the time, when I was told the said dog was in the car outside “why is it not being brought in?” “Go and have a look” he said” but do not open the doors”.
I walked outside and the owner of the dog greeted me and I asked how the dog was doing. ”Fine” he said, and lead me to a steamed up Vauxhall Vectra that was rocking violently back and forth. The GSD was running up and down the back seat, mouth agape, snarling and biting at the windows. I can still remember on the back seat was obviously the family matriarch, calm as you like. If I had any doubts that the dog was well and fit, the violence of the rocking car put pay to that and after asking a few more questions decided that on balance the dog was “Just fine” in the car and so could have more medication, No problem.
I genuinely like animals, I enjoy making them feel better and helping their owners care for them. But my heart sinks when I hear “He hates the vets, he has always been this scared since he was a puppy”.” A totally different dog at home, happy and playful” or “It must smell different here, makes him scared”. “From the moment we pull into the carpark he starts shaking” “My cat hates her basket and the car journey to the vets”.
Why do these Dogs and Cats dislike a place that is designed to help them? Why do they get so scared? Where and when does this fear start? Is it the pet’s personality, breeding and early socialisation, owner influence, or what happened on a previous visit?
I think all of those factors play their part. An unsocialised puppy is going to be fearful, especially those that have come from a less than great start. Good breeders will take into account the temperament of their potential breeding stock and will only want to produce happy healthy well-adjusted pups. Those first few weeks both with the breeder and at the puppies’ new home are essential in developing a well-balanced friend for life. All influences are important, including the owners view of how the puppy will respond during their first visits. I have seen puppies that where confident and happy to go to the vets, later become fearful because the owner seem to think that it was natural to be scared. It was a shame because their previous dog had been scared as well.
What can we do to help provide both owner and pet with more confidence at the vets?
We find that if the owner is relaxed this helps the pet be more accepting of the visit. We want every dog to pull their owners in through the front door and be keen to see us. How do we to try to establish the vets as a place that dogs especially find welcoming and have a happy experience?
We try to keep waiting times down with prompt appointments.
We give small treats at appointments – Most of our long term dogs know where our treat jar is!
Recognising that not everyone finds the consulting table or even the waiting/consulting room a comfortable place and so examining them on the floor or in the carpark.
Moving animals from car to consulting room without waiting inside.
Keeping our rooms smelling clean with our choice of floor cleaner, usually of lemons a common cleaning smell at home.
We have even considered segregating the waiting room and offering separate segregated cat and dog appointment times.
But by far our most successful way of making the vets a fun place is by offering early veterinary socialisation appointments for puppies with our nurses within the veterinary environment, or weight and worm appointments for short. By attending these on a regular basis, we have some of the most happy patients and owners. We like to think a little bit of effort by both puppy owners and ourselves creates a dog that wants to be here.
So if they are ill in the future and need our help, they are not afraid to show normal reactions to stimuli. They are relaxed enough to allow a full examination and helping us to help them. Even if they attend us for routine surgery such as neutering, they still seem to think we are great and come running through the door and up the corridor.
Some adult dogs that we see over a long time period do improve in their attitude to seeing the vet, but it takes a long time. We would rather start with a positive association than try to correct a negative one.
The question still remains to be answered, that German Shepherd so long ago. Nature or nurture? What made him behave like that? I hope he finally trusted someone to help him, I will never know. But together with puppies owners we can try to prevent the same type of fear with early socialisation and make a trip to the vet’s fun.