Choosing the right veterinarian

Choosing a veterinarian may be one of the most important things you will do for the long-term health of your puppy. A good veterinarian will be a helpful resource for all of your dog’s life. A not-so-good veterinarian could end up causing you a lot of behavior issues.

In the past, veterinary medicine focused more on just the physical health of the animal. Over time however, savvy vets, dog trainers and behaviorists began to see how bad experiences at a vet’s office could have long-term consequences for the pet. Not to mention, dogs that don’t have a good experience at the vet can become fear biters, which makes keeping them healthy a problem for both the vet and his or her staff and for the dog.

Luckily, thanks to the work of Dr. Marty Becker and the late Dr. Sophia Yin, veterinarians now have ways to learn how to handle animals to minimize the fear and stress the animal feels when it enters the veterinary practice. Research has shown that stressed animals can have skewed lab results, they can mask pain more and a really scared animal is going to try and escape which could include biting at the veterinarian or the vet techs.

Veterinarians can now get certifications in low stress handling techniques or fear free veterinary practices. When choosing a veterinarian for your new pet; ask if the vet or his/her staff have taken any low stress or fear free classes. If the answer is “what?” you may want to keep looking. Veterinarians who have taken these classes learn how their movements; the smells in their clinics, the surfaces animals must stand on and the way the animals are restrained all play a part in how that animal will perceive its veterinary experience.

I know several veterinarians who have certifications in either fear free handling or low stress techniques. One practice has a separate entrance and waiting area for dogs and cats. Cats can become highly stressed when seeing dogs and dogs can become over aroused when seeing cats. A separate waiting area and entrances calms everyone down. One of my vet friends has separate exam rooms for dogs and cats so each species doesn’t have to smell the other species in the room. The cat rooms are sprayed with Feliway (a product the mimics a stress relieving cat pheromone) and the dog rooms are sprayed with ADAPTIL, a product that also mimics a stress reliving dog pheromone.

In one practice the furniture was removed from the dog exam room so dogs would not feel trapped and the walls were designed to be washed as they are constantly smeared with peanut butter and cheese whiz to give dogs something to lick while they are having an exam. In the cat rooms the cats are given a platform to climb so they can be up higher where they feel safer.

One veterinarian I know even has an outdoor dog exam room for dogs that just get too stressed to come into the clinic.

A great resource is Canine and Feline Behavior for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses by Julie Shaw and Debbie Martin. Ask your if anyone on your vet’s staff has read the book.

Of course your veterinarian can be awesome without all of those certificates. I went to a vet for 20 years who was great with my pets and he never took any fear free classes. He just had a nice manner and did his best not to force pets into uncomfortable situations.

I wanted to find a new vet when I got Falcon. The vet I loved for many years had retired; the vet I was taking Skywalker is getting ready to retire.

All of the great vets I know who are certified as fear free or low stress are more than an hour’s drive away from me. I wanted a vet near where I live not only for convenience but in case of emergencies as well.

I did find a veterinarian who I like and while he admits to knowing very little about behavior; he does understand what the fear free movement is and he is friends with some of my friends who practice fear free techniques.

When he examines Falcon he lets me feed treats to the puppy and we just have a nice relaxed chat rather than him coming in and getting straight to examining the puppy. I think if the vet or vet tech talks to the client and just has a real conversation then it helps everyone relax.

Signs that your veterinarian has an idea about stress free handling include exam rooms with jars of peanut butter or cans of cheese whiz. If all the exam room has are hard dog biscuits, that isn’t going to cut it. You want a vet or vet tech who understands the motivating power of cheese whiz. Ask your vet tech if he or she can only loosely restrain the dog (if restraint is even needed).

If you have a pet that is super stressed at the vet and may bite or snap at the staff; talk to your veterinarian about alternative ways to treat the dog.

Before I sign off; I do want to add that being a veterinarian is difficult and dangerous. Your vet does not mean to cause your dog fear. He or she is most likely relying on past experiences in which a dog has bitten or tried to bite. Dog owners also have to step up to the plate and make sure their pets are trained to handle veterinarian exams.

I taught Skywalker a chin rest so he has a job to do while he is being examined. He is fearful of strangers, so going to the vet is not fun for him. I will also muzzle him rather than have the vets be worried. Skywalker is fine being muzzled as I trained it with him. I have never actually had to muzzle him; but I offer the vet that as an option to make the vet feel better.

falcon on mat
You could teach your puppy to lay on his side to make an exam more fun and less stressful or give your puppy something to do such as play with a toy so he or she isn’t stressed waiting for a vet visit.

Falcon has gotten a lot of treats while going to the veterinarian. I make getting up on the scale fun; I made sitting in the waiting room fun and we did some “sits” while waiting in the exam room so he had something to do.

If your dog is worried about the veterinarian’s office; ask your vet about happy visits. Most vets will allow you to come into the lobby and just give your dog some treats and then you leave again. If you go to the vet and just doing something fun and get a treat and leave your dog won’t always associate the visit with something stressful happening. There are also vets who have trainers on board who can help train your dog to have a more fun experience in an exam room.

A good vet relationship is important. Many people get stressed by their pet’s behavior at the vet and may decide to just not go for annual checkups. Your pet’s long life and health are dependent on a great relationship with a good veterinarian. There are many great vets out there. So, keep looking until you find just the right one for you and your pet.


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