The importance of preparing animals for the vet

Veterinary Technician Brittany Dreier checks t...

Until recently, it was believed that animals didn’t feel pain or that they felt it differently than we do. In the past decade, research has shown that this simply isn’t true. Our pets definitely feel pain! We have stress when thinking of going to the dentist. Our canines may not be able to build up anxiety to the thought of an upcoming appointment to the vet, but their stress levels may rise as they walk towards to the vet’s office. From his perspective, this is a place where, he’ll be carried, restrained by strangers and poked with needles, without any understanding that this is for his benefit. With a little preparation, we can help our dogs live through this experience with little to no stress and pain.

There was a time where animals were considered so different from humans, that many thought it unnecessary to treat them for pain. Even post surgical pain was considered a benefit as it kept the animal from moving around, thus opening wounds. With human and animal’s neural pathways and general brain structure being so similar, it’s now recognized as highly probable that animals of all kinds feel pain and experience emotions the same way we do. Veterinarians now consider pain assessment and management as a critical part of quality and compassionate animal care (Hellyer & al., 2007).

I’m certainly preaching to the choir here as I have no doubt that as animal lovers, this isn’t anything that we didn’t already know, even intuitively. However, few of us consider preparing our pets to medical care as part of our routine. Yet, it doesn’t take much to desensitize them to the different types of procedures. Knowing that stress and struggle, will increase the level of pain and trauma, we can teach them to relax. Along with the better ways that veterinarians have developed, we can also help by better preparing our dog, thus minimizing even further the physical as well as the the emotional impact of the visit.

Half arabian pintoPreparing an animal for medical procedures struck me as a necessity when I first started working with my horse. Restraining a dog or a cat can be difficult, but when a 1000 lb. animal is set in a panic at the sight of a needle, the situation can quickly get dangerous for all involved, including the animal itself. So, following the advice of horse experts, in anticipation of inevitable veterinary procedures, I carefully prepared my horse to relax when manipulated in any kind of way and even when poked with a needle. My horse was an Arabian, so for all those who know a little about horses, this breed is said to be hot blooded, in other words, they are hot tempered and quick to react in fear. Instead, this horse would calmly allow the vet to poke her neck with needles and the chiropractor to pull on her legs and apply pressure to different sore spots with no sign of stress or resistance. When injured once right above the eye, the veterinarian only used minimal local anesthesia to stitch her up. The entire procedure was quick and easy for both doctor and patient.

With dogs, preparing them for the different procedures could make a difference between a peaceful and pleasant visit to the vet or a traumatic experience that could compromise any future care of the animal. Surgery is an obvious source of pain, but other more routine procedures can also generate pain and discomfort, such as ear cleaning, anal sac expression and shots. Even physical restraint is very stressful. If we’re lucky these procedures will only be required once a year, but accidents and disease strike without warning. Unless we have desensitized the animal when no medical procedures were needed, it’s too late once they’re necessary.

With a little patience, a few special treats and a little technique, it’s fairly easy to desensitize a dog to manipulations. Many dogs are uncomfortable with restraint of any kind, even loving hugs can induce stress in dogs. Like every other form of desensitization, it’s important to stay below threshold. In other words, to touch or restrain the dog in places that are very comfortable at first, give him a treat, then let go.  Just like any other form of training, sessions need to be short and as stress free as possible.

In horse training, some use a technique of approach-retreat , where the animal is encouraged to approach a scary object as close as it feels comfortable, then walk away, then repeat this sequence over and over. Little by little, the horse will get closer and closer to the object. A similar technique when desensitizing a dog to being touched in sensitive places is to touch him where he appreciates the touch, then stroke him gently towards the areas that he doesn’t like, then back to where he’s comfortable. So if he doesn’t like his paws touched, for instance, you can start at his neck or shoulder, then move your hand down towards his elbow, then back up to the shoulder. You can then keep stroking him this way as you gradually get closer and closer to his paw. When applying this technique, it’s important to watch for signs of tension or stress as you move closer to the sensitive areas and not cross over the threshold. It’s also critical to act as naturally as possible. If we’re overly cautious when doing this (or any desensitizing technique), the dog will respond to our perceived stress instead of relaxing. This should feel like a massage, not a creepy attempt to touch him in places he doesn’t like being touched.

Getting the dog used to having his ears cleaned or anal glands extracted is very similar to getting him used to the nail clippers or tooth brush. We can grab his ear, give him a treat, lightly put our finger in his ear, give him a treat, show him a cotton ball, give him a treat. Touch him with a cotton ball, give him a treat, touch his ear with a cotton ball, give him a treat, etc… The idea is to create a positive association with the manipulation.

Family Vet Visit

The same technique applies to preparing the animal to other medical procedures, such as being poked by a needle. Just like with the cotton ball, we can start with a pen or other pointy objects, then transition to an empty syringe. Once the dog is completely relaxed with the instrument approaching and touching him, it’s time to teach him to accept the poke. Gently grab a fold of skin in his neck area, just like the vet would do, let go and give him a treat. We’ll repeat this process until the dog is quite indifferent to a firm pinch. We’ll then softly poke that fold and give him a treat and repeat until we can apply a firm poke without any signs of stress from the dog.

It’s also really helpful to take the dog to the vet when we don’t have an appointment. By giving him plenty of treats and attention, we help develop a positive association with the vet’s clinic which will help alleviate the anxiety build up as the animal approaches the door to the clinic.

We often take for granted that dogs should accept any form of manipulation from us. What happens from his perspective can be very different and he often needs a little extra help to develop the trust that nothing life threatening is going to happen. When words cannot explain a situation, gradual and pleasant exposure can make a difference between a traumatic experience and a neutral or even pleasant one. The time we take to help our pets learn what to expect in a particular situation really pays off in the long run. for all parties, the vet, the owner, but most importantly, for the dog.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.



Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Educational, News, Positive Animal Training, Resource, science
12 comments on “The importance of preparing animals for the vet
  1. Wes Anderson says:

    I do take my dog to the vet without appointments and plenty of treats. My vet lets us go in the “back room” with our treats too which good practice.

  2. Laurie Luck says:

    Love this article. So well written, lots of good points. Looking at things from the dog’s perspective can be really enlightening! Thanks for a great article!

  3. Amanda says:

    I agree with you Laurie!

  4. Angie says:

    I do the same Wes. Our vet is within walking distance, so we put backpacks on the dogs and away we go. 10 minutes later we are at the vet, weighing the dogs, eating nummy treats, getting spoiled by the staff, and even playing ball in the clinic. We hang out for awhile, and then we go home. Going to our vet is like a doggie party.

  5. Wes says:

    Here’s another great article on using the clicker with vet procedures …

  6. Wes Anderson says:

    This is a good resource to find vets with special behavior training….

  7. Taking dogs to the veterinarian is a struggle, they can be so uncooperative and behave very poorly. I had no idea that you could prepare them to go to the vet and use treats to give them a positive association with the process. You did a great job explaining how to make that positive association.

  8. I like how you said that you can help prep your animal for the vet by giving them treats while showing them things that they might see at the doctor’s. We just bought a puppy not long ago and we really want him to be happy and healthy, but he is pretty anxious. Doing something like this to help him feel more comfortable would probably be a really good thing to do.

  9. My friend just got a puppy, so she has been wondering how to prepare it for the vet. I really loved the idea to poke them in the ear then dab them with a cotton ball, so they get use to getting shots. This article will be a great read for my friend, so thank you for sharing!

  10. Millie Hue says:

    My favorite part of this article is when you talked about how incorporating treats and attention will make the vet visit a positive experience. I will share this tip with my best friend because I heard that he needs to get his pet vaccinated this weekend. It will be their first time to go to the vet, so this tip will help him prepare the pup and also will help the pup to be relaxed during the visit. Thanks!

  11. Sherry Gajos says:

    I really liked what you said about how important it is to prepare an animal for medical procedures ahead of time. My uncle is buying a horse, so we’re looking to learn how to take care of it and prepare ourselves as best we can to have a veterinarian give the horse its usual treatments. Thank you for the information about training your horse to relax when being handled or upon seeing a needle.

  12. I liked that you said that it is important to prepare your dig before going to the veterinarian. I would imagine that going to the doctor is stressful for a dog. I will be sure to take treats with me the next time I take my dog to the Veterinarian. this will help lower his anxiety.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "The importance of preparing animals for the vet"
  1. […] stimulus with certain events that are likely to be otherwise unpleasant, such as a vet visit (see related blog), nail trimming, grooming, crating, grabbing of the collar, strangers, other dogs, etc… It’s […]

  2. […] Prevention: No living being likes to be restrained. We can help our dogs develop more tolerance with systematic desensitization. For more information about how to do this, visit “The importance of preparing animals for the vet”. […]

  3. […] When it’s your own dog, take the time to desensitize your dog to unavoidable restrains. Grab the collar for instance, and give the dog a treat. Grab the dog’s paws, tail, ear, etc… and give a treat. For more information on how to desensitize the dog to potentially unpleasant manipulations, you can refer to the blog ‘The importance of preparing animals for the vet‘ […]

Leave a Reply