The Fearful Patient: Steps to Reduce Stress

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What are you terrified of? If I were to ask our staff that question, I would get a number of them telling me they are terrified of spiders. If I were to force these staff members to be exposed to spiders, they would likely scream and cry. They would do whatever they could to remove themselves from that situation.

Additionally, the more I expose them to spiders, likely the more extreme their reaction will become. Fear does not fade away with exposure but likely gets worse. Would their behavior be justified? Would they be acting irrationally?

Now I would like you to consider your cats and dogs. What are they afraid of? When they are scared, how do they behave?

Here is a small list of stressors that I have witnessed on a daily basis over many years of working in the veterinary field.

Cats:

  • Transportation in a carrier
  • Leaving their home environment
  • Unfamiliar people
  • Restraint
  • Loud unknown noises and smell of dogs
  • Nail trims
  • Injections

Dogs:

  • Unfamiliar dogs and people
  • Loud noises (fireworks and thunderstorms)
  • Restraint
  • Nail trims
  • Injections

Steps to Reduce Fear

At Medical District Veterinary Clinic, we understand that fear and stress in our patients can become dangerous for them and us. We strive to make veterinary visits less stressful for you and your pets and thus safer for everyone involved. At each visit we assess the fear of our patients and consider what we can do to decrease their stress levels.

Some of our common practices to attempt to decrease stress for cats include:

  • Placing feline patients directly into one of our feline only rooms so they are not in lobby potentially with loud, barking dogs
  • Allowing cats to come out of their carriers on their own. Pulling or dumping a cat out of a carrier creates a lot of stress and fear for cats.
  • Removing the top of the carrier if cats do not want to exit carrier on their own and performing exam while cat remains in the bottom of the carrier, if possible.
  • Using towels to help restrain, so cats can hide their face during exams
  • Using feline appeasing pheromones in the exam rooms and feline hospitalization ward to decrease stress
  • Prescribing medications to be given at home to decrease the stress involved with being placed in a carrier and traveling in the car
  • Full sedation is occasionally recommended when it is safer for the cat and us. We feel bad for our patients that have such severe fear and anxiety in a veterinary clinic that they react in fearful/aggressive ways. The use of sedation makes their experience much more pleasant and safer for everyone involved.

Some of our common practices to alleviate stress for dogs include:

  • Treats, treats, and more treats! We use a combination of dog treats and high value treats like peanut butter and cheese. I also recommend coming in when your dog is hungry so the treats are even more valued. You can also bring some treats from home if your dog has a favorite.
  • Allow dogs to greet us when they feel comfortable versus quickly approaching a scared dog
  • Minimal restraint techniques
  • Performing most exams on the floor. Dogs do not like to be placed on tables. The really small dogs are hard to examine on the floor, so some dogs are placed on tables, but whenever possible we prefer to do exams on the floor.
  • Placing alerts on patient records of dogs that are reactive with other dogs so they can be placed directly in exam rooms upon entry to the clinic. Minimizing their exposure to other dogs helps keep them calm.
  • Prescribing medications to be given at home to decrease the stress involved with travel and veterinary visits
  • As with highly fearful cats, dogs that have such severe fear and anxiety that they react in fear-based aggression are occasionally recommended for examination under full sedation. Sedation makes their experience less stressful and safer for everyone.

Ask for Help

Please ask any of the doctors or staff if you have questions about decreasing fear and anxiety for your dog or cat. Whether their fears are related to veterinary visits, grooming visits, thunderstorm anxiety, or something else, we would be more than happy to discuss possible alternatives and or sedatives that may be beneficial.

The mental health of our patients is important. We understand that if dogs and cats hate going to the vet, the experience is also stressful for you, and the chance of these pets getting regular veterinary care decreases. Please let us know how we can help you have a more enjoyable veterinary experience, and we will do the same.

Drew Sullivan, DVM
Medical District Veterinary Clinic

Image by Gabriele Leonardy from Pixabay

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