Dogs and Fear of the Veterinarian

What to Do If Your Dog is Afraid of the Vet

A chihuahua puppy being examined by a veterinarian
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Is your dog afraid of the doctor? A fear of going to see the veterinarian is one of the most common phobias in dogs. Even the most happy-go-lucky canine may cower in fear as you try to coax him through the door of your veterinarian's office.

Why Some Dogs Fear the Vet

The most common reason that dogs develop a fear of going to the veterinarian is that it feels traumatic to them. Think about a typical visit to the vet's office with your dog.

As soon as you walk through the door, your dog is bombarded with strange smells and sounds. Chances are you will run into some other animals while you are there, and whether your dog loves or hates other animals, seeing them is sure to raise his excitement level.

Next comes the examination. Your dog is restrained by a veterinary technician while the veterinarian gives him a physical exam. Your dog can become confused and fearful at this unfamiliar type of handling. Most regular visits to the veterinarian also involve needles in the form of vaccinations and having blood taken. This unusual handling happens while surrounded by strangers. For sick visits, all of this occurs while your dog is already not feeling well. Add it all together and you have a pretty traumatic experience for your dog. It's no wonder so many dogs develop a fear of going to the veterinarian.

How to Get Your Dog to Tolerate Vet Visits

The good news is that a fear of the veterinarian can be fairly easy to conquer with a little time and effort.

Even if the fear isn't completely eradicated, it's possible to ease a lot of your dog's anxiety. In time, you may even be able to get your dog to love the vet. The following tips can help make your dog's next annual check-up a lot easier on both of you:

  • Make several social visits to the veterinarian's office. Often the only time dogs see the vet is when they are sick or when it's time for an annual exam. Try to make arrangements with your veterinarian's office to stop by several times for nothing more than a social call. Ask the receptionist to give your dog a few treats and some friendly petting, and soon your dog may look forward to visiting the veterinarian.
  • Don't force your dog. It's best if you can practice going into the vet's office on one of your social visits, as when you have an exam scheduled you will have to be there at a specific time. Rather than dragging or carrying your dog into the office, give your dog time to get comfortable on his own. Give him lots of treats and praise as he gets closer to going through the door.
  • Practice exams at home. Part of what makes visits to the veterinarian so scary is that your dog isn't used to being handled the way he is during an exam. You can get your dog used to this type of handling by practicing at home. Spend some time each day checking your dog's ears, restraining him, looking at his teeth, and holding his paws. Be gentle, and make sure your dog gets lots of praise and some treats during the practice exams.

Managing Your Dog's Fear of the Vet

For some dogs, using the tips above are not going to be enough to alleviate their fear. There may be some things you can do to manage your dog's fear in these cases.

  • Find a veterinarian who makes house calls. There are more and more veterinarians who are willing to come to you. You may be able to ease your dog's fears by having him comfortable in his own home during examinations.
  • Consider medication for anxiety. Although a last resort, some dogs are so fearful of the vet that medication is the only option. Your vet may be able to prescribe an anti-anxiety drug that you give at home before visits to the vet. You can also use this as a tool to practice social visits and handling.
  • Use a muzzle. If your dog's fear is so strong that it results in aggression, you may want to consider using a muzzle during trips to the veterinarian to prevent a dog bite. Get him used to the muzzle slowly at home well before a scheduled visit to your vet. Have him wear it regularly at home with lots of praise. NOTE: If you wait until you are about to leave for the vet's office before introducing your dog to the muzzle, he may quickly associate the muzzle with the veterinarian, and develop a fear of the muzzle. This can quickly turn into problematic behavior at home when he sees the muzzle, so make sure you introduce the dog to the muzzle slowly and gently. Make the experience as positive as possible.

As with any fear or phobia, it's important to understand that most dogs will immediately not get over a fear of the vet. Use patience and be consistent. Talk to your vet for help with this situation. The vet and staff want to help you and your dog. Communication with your vet is essential. If you and your vet cannot get your dog past the fear, it may be time to get help from a dog trainer or behaviorist.

Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT