Nobody likes going to the dentist. Sitting still in a chair, enduring uncomfortable and sometimes painful procedures is not something anyone looks forward to. Go to the dentist we must though, if we want to maintain good oral care, or if something is troubling us and we need it fixed. We understand this. But what if you didn’t understand why you had to go to the dentist, you were just brought there and forced to endure scary procedures, without any means of asking them to stop or take a break. Further more, if you tried to move or resist, you’d just be held down and restrained! What kind of horror movie is that? Unfortunately, this is a common reality for our pets when they need to go to the vet.

Generally, our pets do not start out afraid of the vet. It is through experiences like described above that they learn to become fearful, and that fear is not likely to resolve on it’s own. In one study, the 10% of puppies who were fearful on the exam table at 8 weeks were still fearful at 18 months of age. Nobody enjoys seeing their pets in distress. In fact, fear, anxiety, and stress is the number 1 barrier preventing owners from accessing veterinary care. So how can we help? Our animals need medical care, and as their guardians it is our job to provide it. One way we can do so in a way that minimizes anxiety is through cooperative care. 

Cooperative care is a relatively new phenomenon in companion animals, but is quickly gaining traction. Zoo animals and their trainers have been engaging in cooperative care for some time now, as these are potentially 1000lbs animals that cannot be restrained as dogs and cats can. The main feature in cooperative care is that the animal is given a choice to take a break or say no. By providing agency and a voice, it gives the animal an option to say “I’m not comfortable with this” without having to use their claws or teeth. This is typically done with specially trained behaviours that indicate the animal is ready for handling or a procedure. Often called ‘start button behaviours’ these can include stationing behaviour (sitting on a mat or table), targeting (resting a chin on an owners lap), or even eye contact with a particular object. If the animal breaks position or stops the eye contact, handling is paused until they reset themselves. Here is an example of Chirag Patel, one of the world’s leading trainers for animal husbandry, demonstrating a start button behaviour with The Bucket Game. 

Another way that cooperative care is gaining recognition is through Fear Free Pets. Fear Free Pets is an organization that provides educational courses to veterinary and pet care professionals, as well as resources for owners. Put together by various veterinary behaviourists and animal trainers, the Fear Free mission is to alleviate the stress and anxiety that pets face during medical care through a multifaceted approach, including but not limited to: education on body language, gentle restraint techniques, considerate approach, preventative care, cooperative care, and medication. 

While cooperative care is the gold standard for stress free veterinary care, there are other ways you can incorporate fear free ideas into your routine vet visits. Here are a couple: 

  1. Ask to be in the same room as your pet. For routine procedures like vaccines and blood draws, most vets will accommodate you if you ask for your pet to stay in the room with you, as long as you yourself are calm and not aggravating your pet’s anxiety. Studies show that dogs, much like toddlers, form something called a secure base to their humans. I’d imagine the same is true for cats, though there are yet to be studies on this. This means that they look to us for safety and comfort. Your pet may be better behaved away from you, but make no mistake this is likely due to fear. By being there, you can provide comfort in the form of food or affection, as well as advocate for them should they feel scared. 
  2. Make visits fun, and visit often. Most of the time, pet owners only visit their veterinarian when something is wrong with their pet. This means potentially painful or scary procedures. But what if you incorporated a fun trip to the vet, maybe before a visit to the dog park if that’s something your dog enjoys? By visiting every now and then with the sole goal of making it a positive experience, your pet is much more likely to enjoy going. Use lots of tasty food, toys, and positive social interaction with staff if your pet is outgoing to make it a rewarding experience.
  3. Plan ahead. If your dog trembles in the waiting room, or your cat is terrified of the inevitable dog that will approach it’s carrier, ask if you can call from your car to check in, and bring your pet straight into the exam room once they are ready for you. This eliminates the stress of waiting, and can drastically reduce anxiety, especially if your dog or cat dislikes other animals.
  4. Train at home. One of the best things you can do at home is to train your pet to be comfortable with various handling procedures. Don’t wait until you’re already at the vets, by then it’s too late! Your pet will be too afraid to learn much of anything. By taking initiative and teaching them handling is rewarding and fun, routine procedures become an opportunity to earn rewards instead of something to be feared.
  5. Pre-Visit Medication. People often dismiss medication as a last resort, but the difference it can make in a pets level of stress can be drastic, and most anxiolytic medications are safe for healthy pets. If a pet was in pain after a surgery, we would give them pain medication, so why not consider anti-anxiety medication for emotional distress? Don’t be afraid to ask your vet about this option and find out what works for your pet. 
    These are just a few simple tips you can consider to help make your vet visits less stressful for you, your pet, and your veterinary care team. To learn more about other ways to incorporate fear free protocols into your daily life, visit Fear Free Happy Homes where you can find tons of resources and ideas available for free. If your pet becomes aggressive or is showing signs of fear, anxiety, or stress at the vet, don’t hesitate to contact a Certified Fear Free Professional to help set you on the right path to fear free care. 

Written by

Allie Lum, KPA-CTP

Fear Free Certified Professional


Fear Free Pets,

Introduction to The Bucket Game Part 1,

Owners as a secure base for their dogs,