Zoe, our family’s border collie, used to love car trips. That’s generally because they meant adventures to the beach and getting to hang out with her favorite humans. But somehow she always knew when we were making that turn towards the vet clinic. We would still be miles away from the clinic but suddenly her attitude would change. She would hide behind the driver seat with her tail between her legs and head cowered down. Zoe’s veterinarians were lovely and she was always met with lots of pats and treats. But that didn’t stop her from conjuring up those terrifying memories of needles, overnight hospital stays or surgeries.
All of this pales in comparison to one of our client’s recent experiences, when an attempted trip to the vet left her cat traumatized. After attempting to wrestle her cat into the cat carrier, the cat bit her on the mouth and scratched her face and neck. Not only did the cat hate being confined to a small carrier against her will, she also hated the car trips.
Why stress happens: the fight-or-flight stress response
Most of the reactions we observe when we see that our pets ‘hate going to the vet’ are a result of the fight-or-flight stress response. This reflex has its roots back to the days when animals (including humans) needed to defend themselves from dangers in the environment. For our pets, it is often induced when they feel they are threatened, have no control, or are scared for what is about to happen - such as going to the vet clinic where they have had previously traumatic experiences. Experiences at the vet that can be traumatic to pets include being handled by strangers, having procedures like vaccines and blood tests performed on them, being kept overnight in a strange environment, and/or having surgeries where they may wake up disoriented or in pain.
When this stress response is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system releases a cascade of stress hormones (catecholamines), especially norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline). This helps animals prepare for either fighting (a cat biting their parent’s lip) or fleeing (Zoe whimpering with her tail between her legs).
This stress response has secondary effects which can make performing a physical examination more difficult, too. An increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, panting, hyperglycemia (increase in blood sugar), digestive disturbances (such as release of bowel and bladder contents), and pupil dilation can all interfere with our interpretation of a patient’s symptoms and physical examination, meaning we may not be able to appropriately diagnose a disease.
What to do
The two main approaches you want to take are: reducing the triggers that cause the stress response and increasing your pet’s sense of control of their situation.
Reducing stress triggers:
- Use a calming pheromone spray (such as Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats). These are natural products that help pets to feel more safe in their surroundings.
- Keep noise to a minimum.
- Consider bringing the vet to you! House calls can be a great alternative to going to the clinic.
Help your pet to feel more in control:
- Desensitize them to the experience of car travel and going into the clinic by slowly introducing them to the idea. Start by leaving your cat carrier in the house for a couple of weeks, then place treats inside to encourage them to explore, then leave them to sit inside, get comfortable and maybe even sleep inside the carrier for a couple of weeks. Make multiple trips to the clinic where all you do is give them treats once you arrive. This builds up positive associations so that they are more excited to go in the future
- Stay calm yourself: our pets pick up cues from us, and the calmer you seem about the experience, the calmer they will be