Training Your Pet to Visit the Vet

Your dog or cat may not be a sea lion, but looking at the sea lion at the zoo may help you and your pet with the next veterinary visit. How? Repetitive training. The behavior of a sea lion at a training session is not innate, and no animal instinctively rolls over or hands you their paw. Similarly we cannot expect a dog or cat to be fear-free in a veterinary environment without training and positive reinforcement. You can take a number of steps with your pet to make veterinary visits smoother and less stressful.

Start basic training with your friend on the day they arrive home. Most pets have a fear of their feet being touched, causing anxiety when nails need to be trimmed. This can be readily overcome by playing with their feet on a regular basis. Continue the training by performing a mock exam several times per day. Look in their ears, lift the tail, examine the webbing between the toes, comb their fur, and so on. Give praise and small treats frequently. 

For possibly painful or uncomfortable procedures, consider sea lion trainers again: they perform a similar action many times but in a rewarding environment and without the painful stimulus. Consider gently pinching your pet on the thigh and shoulder so they will be used to touching in these areas, which are where vaccines are most commonly given. Thus, when the real procedure needs to be performed the dog or cat is already accustomed to the handling and methods being used. This is all part of counterconditioning – getting your dog or cat used to certain actions so that they react minimally to them. As one friend puts it, your pet should be completely “ho-hum” about being touched. Such training takes only a few minutes per day and will make everything, from vet visits to bathing and grooming, much easier.

Your pet may be used to being handled but not accustomed to traveling to the veterinary office. The veterinary hospital has other animals and myriad smells present. For some dogs or cats this can be anxiety-causing. Again we turn to positive training. If your pet only experiences unpleasantries at the vet, they will resent going there. Therefore, visit us socially, play in the lobby, have the staff give treats, walk your dog onto the scale, make the visits fun. If there is availability ask if your pup can visit an exam room, play in there for a few minutes tossing a ball or playing catch, and then go home. We are happy to provide treats and encourage such visits!

Once your pet is accustomed to the doctor’s office, remember to continually reinforce the good behavior by performing the above exercises on a routine basis. Just like us, you either use the skill or you lose the skill.

Frequently clients tell us that they have difficulty getting their cat into a carrier. Consider keeping a carrier open at home, place treats inside, and make it a comfortable place for the cat. In an emergency you will need to immediately get the cat into the carrier. We also encourage you to take your dog and cat into the car and make short trips. Make the car a routine place too.

Preparing for a visit to the veterinary office is essential. Know what you feed your pet – the amount, brand, and variety. We will ask you this important information. Answering dry or canned food is not acceptable. Unless it is a routine visit you may find it useful to call ahead and ask these questions: Can I feed my pet before coming? Do you need a stool or urine sample? Is there anything else I should bring? If your pet is afraid of other dogs or cats kindly request that a room be made available in advance of your arrival. 

Sometimes your veterinarian may request your pet be fasted before the visit. Recently ingested food can result in there being a large amount of triglycerides or fats in the blood. These fats can then cause blood tests to be inaccurate. Pack a small baggie with your pet’s favorite treats and bring it with you, especially if your pet is on a restricted or special diet. 

If your vet approves, play with your dog for at least 30 minutes prior to visiting the office. This makes them expend most of their energy, and as we know a tired dog is a good dog. Use caution if you have an older dog or if the pet is unwell or is in need of special diagnostic testing. 

Upon arrival always have your dog leashed and your cat in a closed carrier. If you have a small dog that is comfortable in a carrier, it may be safest for them to come to the office in the carrier. Find a place in the waiting room away from other pets, and if your pet is uncomfortable or too excited request it to be placed into an exam room. Most of the time this is possible. 

Once in the exam room with the doctor or assistant, you, the client, need to be prepared as well. Your behavior and actions are key to a successful visit. Many people have their own hesitation visiting the doctor’s office and may shrink back in the presence of needles. The cat or dog will pick up on your cues and may be nervous as well. Be brave and do not let the pet know you are nervous. This is even the case when the pet is ill and you are worried about their health. Remain calm, speak clearly, and provide support to yourself and the pet. 

Your friend isn’t a sea lion, but the same training techniques used by the professionals at the zoo can be applied to make your pet more comfortable at the vet’s office. And we all appreciate a happy, low stress visit. 

Dan Teich, DVM, is at District Veterinary Hospital, 3748 10th St. NE, Washington, DC 20017; 202-827-1230 and