Understanding Your Pet’s Fears and How We Handle Them

Understanding Your Pet’s Fears and How We Handle Them
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Elgin Veterinary Hospital is committed to low-stress handling techniques to ensure your pet has the best experience with us. It is very important to do everything possible to help reduce a patient’s stress and there are ways that you can help once you understand the fears he or she may have. Anytime your pet feels threatened, whether that threat is real or imagined, changes occur immediately within his or her body to prepare for fight or flight. These changes occur because your pet’s nervous system releases a variety of stress hormones that have profound effects across many different systems in the body.

The release of these stress hormones results in the immediate availability of energy and oxygen intake and decreases blood flow to areas not critical for movement. This can also inhibit digestion, growth, immune function, reproduction and pain perception. When your pet is under stress, the memories of any events occurring during that time will be very powerful, and how your pet is handled during veterinary visits may have long-standing consequences for our future ability to handle him or her. This is why we choose lower stress handling and also recommend some patients be sedated for visits. We want everything to be pleasant and safe for our family members!

When stressors are unremitting and the stress response continues, virtually every system within the body can be pathologically affected to varying degrees – cardiovascular, metabolic, reproductive, gastrointestinal, immune and integumentary (skin). The results can include myopathy (muscle disorders,) fatigue, hypertension, decreased growth rates, gastrointestinal distress and suppressed immune function, with subsequent impaired disease resistance. Chronic stress can even lead to structural and functional changes in the brain, and when extreme conditions persist, permanent damage can result. This is also why we recommend some anxious pets go on long-term anti-anxiety medications. The dangers of the hormonal response to fear or stress can be severe and we do not ever want our pets to have to live with increased anxiety when there is something we can do to help.

At times we may stop a visit ask you to return later, after giving sedation prior to the visit. This is due to the fact that when pets show subtle signs of fear or anxiety during a veterinary visit, if we proceed without attempting to ameliorate the stress, we may not change the pet’s behavior at that time, but the animal will learn from the experience and will likely behave in a more fractious (aggressive) or stressed manner at the next visit. Anything we do to relieve the stress of a visit will pay off in future visits by being less scary or difficult for your pet. Remember that frequent, distressing experiences can negatively impact an animal’s overall health and well-being. Also, by continuing with a procedure when an animal is showing signs of anxiety, we are teaching the animal that the normal means of communication that the pet is using are meaningless. If we do that, what recourse might that animal have but to develop other less tolerable means of communicating its discomfort, such as becoming aggressive? To avoid this scenario, as soon as we identify signs of fear – especially during elective procedures or visits – we may stop the visit and ask you to return at a later time after your pet has received “happy pills” or sedatives/anti-anxiety medications. We always want our family members to have good experiences!