In March 2020, my Bullmastiff began limping. Stay-at-home orders delayed Bravo’s diagnosis of osteosarcoma. For a year we endured an emotional rollercoaster of multiple visits with specialists while navigating the new normal of COVID-19.
Vet visits during covid weren’t easy. We tried to make vet visits fear free for Bravo, and for ourselves. Read this post about why vets take pets to the back.
Handouts Help Preparedness for Pets, Vets, & Pet Parents
Pre-visit notes and resources from our general practice vet and specialists provided a welcome guide for us to help Bravo. Handouts especially help dog and cat owners during COVID-19 challenges to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) in pets and the people who love them. Lord knows, my husband and I felt stress over Bravo.
Veterinarians can prepare an online downloadable handout for clients. When possible, that can be emailed to the client ahead of the visit. And pet parents can ask their veterinarian for resources, too — if they don’t have their own, they can often direct you to online materials. Here are more suggestions to consider.
Previsit Pharmaceuticals for Pet Vet Visits Reduce Stress
The extra turmoil of new vet visit protocols means medication offers an important way to mitigate FAS. Used in conjunction with training, PVPs (pre-visit pharmaceuticals) help reduce FAS during the veterinary visit. I reached out to Dr. Robin Downing of the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management for her insight.
“FAS is a monolithic barrier to my being able to do my job as a doctor,” says Dr. Downing. Pets experiencing FAS interferes with an accurate examination when terrified pets want to escape handling or restraint, respond with fear-based aggression, or “freeze” so their rigid posture interferes with accurate feedback from their physiology.
“It would be impossible to honor our ethical obligation to our fearful patients without the help of PVPs,” she says. They completely transform the fearful pet’s experience, and that in turn transforms the pet owner’s experience as well.
While every pet and vet practice is different, Dr. Downing shared her go-to list of PVPs she uses in her practice. Even when restrictions lift and COVID goes away (or we learn how to keep it at bay!), the stress of vet visits continue. Veterinarians have their individual preferences, so don’t hesitate to ask your vet team what works best for them, and how you can help best address FAS in your cats or dogs.
PVPs for Dogs
Trazodone is Dr. Downing’s preferred first step in canine patients. “If trazodone alone does not seem to get the job done, we add gabapentin. This combination has been a big “winner” for some of our patients who particularly resent having their feet handled and their toenails trimmed.” A good measure of success is a patient who is willing to take treats when benefiting from PVPs. It’s also important that pet owners deliver the PVP two-to-three hours before their appointment.
Dr. Downing notes there are other PVP options for dogs. “We had inconsistent results when we employed alprazolam. That does not mean it could be effective for another practice, but we have had such consistent results from trazodone, +/- gabapentin, that we have narrowed our focus accordingly. I do not have personal experience with clonidine yet and may use it in the future.”
PVPs for Cats
“For cats, we rely most often on gabapentin at 100mg per cat (no matter the size of the cat), with the occasional cat requiring 200mg. Timing is critical, so two-to-three hours ahead of the scheduled appointment is optimal,” she says. “I have occasionally used trazodone in cats, but I find that the “smoothness” of the gabapentin experience for most cats has narrowed our focus. I do not yet have personal experience with lorazepam but have an open mind about the potential for future use.”
These medications do not “drug” or sedate the pet, and instead alleviate FAS that can interfere with effective treatment. They tend to act quickly with an hour or two, and then leave the system within about twelve hours. Because they are used off-label, it’s a good idea to learn how the medication acts on the individual pet in a home trial. Here’s another good resource to share.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Considerations
During COVID, many businesses mandated both personnel and clients to wear PPE. As health care providers, veterinary professionals have an acute understanding of potential disease transmission. Yet they still strive to provide the best possible care for furry patients. Pet parents can help by working with required PPE considerations and helping to prepare pets.
Some dogs may react poorly to face coverings, in the same way that they may fear Halloween costumes. Pets used to sniff a hand may be concerned when they encounter gloves.
By now, most pets have seen their human wearing a mask. But if not, wear masks around your pet a day or two in advance of the vet visit. Speak to the pet and reward calm behavior with something he loves like treats or a game. Drilling with tricks the dog knows can engage his brain so he thinks less about being concerned. Perhaps also offer special treats while wearing gloves or scent them with something pleasant. Bravo always suggested bacon.
The type of safety restraint can make a difference in the pet’s FAS level. That also impacts the technician’s ability to safely retrieve your cat or dog from the car. During COVID, most clinics don’t allow the owners to accompany their animals, with few exceptions.* That certainly increased MY stress!
Always ensure a secure leash contains your precious dog. Bravo loved his clinic staff but I still took him out of the car first. Many dogs object to a stranger (in a mask!) opening the car door and reaching for them.
Leave your own leash attached while the technician places the clinic’s slip-lead. Then, you can remove the pet’s personal leash, if asked. Bravo had a slip lead with the oncology clinic’s phone number on it, so I generally used that during vet visits to avoid any need for a leash swap.
Fear Free Carriers
Cats should safely transport in a carrier rather than a leash. Small dogs also may do better in a confined carrier. Leaving carriers out in the home all the time helps them become positive experiences. Toss in favorite toys and treats for the pet to discover. Turn the place into a fuzzy warm cave for cats to nap (take the door off the carrier while at home). Our new young dog Shadow eats all his meals inside the crate, including treats, so he BEGS to go inside. Learn more crate training tips here.
Ramp up the carrier “love factor” by placing a treat or toy inside that the pet ONLY gets when closed inside. Shut the carrier door—with the treat inside, and the pet locked out. Wait for the pet to beg to go in and get the treat, and gently shut the door for increasingly longer intervals. Pets busy munching won’t mind the shut door.
Carriers with top openings, sides that collapse down, or bottoms that slide out with the base work well for frightened cats. That way, your shy cat won’t be forced inside, or dragged out–which increases FAS–but can be treated while still comfy on the familiar-smelling bedding. Using pheromone products inside crates and carriers also can help reduce FAS.
Some dogs feel calmer when they wear a basket muzzle that takes teeth out of the equation. When needed, ask your veterinarian for specific how-to tips on selecting an appropriate muzzle and how to teach dogs to accept these.
I like to turn the basket muzzle into a treat bowl. Feeding the dog treats through the muzzle while holding it (aerosol cheese, for example) can associate wonderful things with wearing this protection. Only ask the dog to wear the muzzle after he accepts placing his face inside to get treats on a regular basis.
Calm Car Rides
Associate car rides with all-good-stuff for the pet. Start by feeding inside the car (without it moving) for a week. Next, feed treats in the car and turn the car on but don’t move. Finally, drive around the block if the pet has previously remained calm. Gradually increase the duration of trips, perhaps stopping at a fast- food drive to purchase a healthy pet treat.
Once the car starts moving, use only tiny, tasty tidbits if the dog is prone to get car sick—perhaps use ginger snap cookies, which also help settle the tummy. Bravo used to get car sick, so adjust to the individual pet.
Have you visited the vet this past year with your furry wonders? What was your experience? Do tell!
*Addendum: Our clinic made an exception for us to accompany him into the clinic when Bravo’s fight had come to an end. Because of the way the veterinary team loved and cared for him–and for us–he had no fear, anxiety or stress, and wagged on his final visit into the clinic. We whispered our love into this good-dog’s ears as he traveled from this world of pain to that place where cancer doesn’t exist, and where all pets are again made whole.
This article first appeared in another form on the FearFreePets.com site, and has been edited to be inclusive of a pet parent audience.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!