Storms, vacuum cleaners, skateboards, having their nails clipped, being groomed or going to the vet – modern pet dogs face a myriad of stressors in their lives that they all respond differently to. A range of experts shared their knowledge at the booked out Modern Pet Dog seminar held on Sydney’s Northern Beaches this week.
This first installment of the topics covered will focus on how to recognise and then reduce stress in dogs, particularly during visits to the vet.
Stress escalates with obvious signs
Louise Colombari of Pittwater Animal Hospital says dogs experience similar physical signs as we do when we’re afraid – increased heart rate, sweating (through their paws), raised blood-pressure and shutting down of non-essential systems such as digestion.
There are plenty of signals that dogs show when they are uncomfortable, uncertain or getting increasingly stressed – in the categories of freeze, fiddle, fight or flight – including:
- The whale eye (eyes rolling to the side and the white showing) or a tucked in tail over a rounded body shape
- Lifting an paw
- Blinking a lot or squinting
- Lip licking when not eating, yawning when not tired, scratching when not itchy or shaking off when not wet
- Actively trying to move away from the stressor
- Having tense muscles and a tense mouth
- Increased panting
- Excessive vocalization such as crying or whining
- Increased pacing or sniffing the ground
- Excessive licking, digging or chewing
- Not eating, vomiting or having diarrhea
- Growling and lunging.
These signs usually occur long before the worst-case scenario of a dog bite and it’s important that dog owners learn to recognise these and also teach others. This is a useful graphic showing the stress escalation ladder in dogs – from low levels of stress to complete communication shut down and the dog taking action such as biting:
This is a great cartoon showing a typical stress response of a dog in a park – which is unfortunately a familiar sight.
Dogs take trauma snapshots
Dr Heather Chee & Dr Amanda Cole, the dog psychiatrists from the Vet Behaviour Team see a lot of dogs in the stages of freeze, fiddle, fight or flight in their daily work. They focused their talk on reducing stress during vet visits. They say it’s accepted as normal that dogs are scared or even petrified to go to the vet but they believe it doesn’t need to be this way. “We’re fixing their bones but breaking their brains,” Amanda says.
Reducing stress during vet visits matters for three good reasons:
- Welfare – negative impacts on the dog based on the cumulative effect from repeated bad experiences. They take a ‘trauma snapshot’ of everything in the room and will develop ‘new’ fears of e.g. stainless steel tables or the smell of cats. Some dogs that Heather and Amanda treat have suddenly become fearful of men after a visit to a male vet. They call it “white coat syndrome”.
- Safety – dogs on an adrenalin rush can be pretty powerful. They can be aggressive to other dogs, vet staff or their owners. Sometimes even hurting themselves in their angst of ‘flight’ with reports of dogs jumping out of windows in fear.
- Misdiagnosis – if you can’t examine an animal you can’t diagnose it. We want a vet to be able to touch it. Also, symptoms of fear can mask or mimic real symptoms e.g. panting can look like a respiratory disease or dilated pupils may indicate toxins. I know when I take my dog into the vet for a limp he’s suddenly bouncing around with adrenalin with no sign of pain anywhere.
Making happy photo memories instead
The Vet Behaviour Team gave some useful tips to help hardwire dogs that the vet is a good place to visit, regardless of them having to tolerate pain or being exposed to new sights, smells or surfaces. These include:
- Feed them high quality treats (kibble isn’t going to cut it) while at the vet – chicken, cabanossi, cheese, bacon – whatever they love. They will then associate the vet hospital as the place where they get the best treats regardless of what’s happening to them there. Feed them in the waiting room, in the examination room or when the procedure is taking place, if they are able to eat.
- Take them to the vet for “dummy visits” where they go in, say hello to the receptionists or vet nurses and get treats but don’t stay long or have anything done to them, so they build up a photo album of nice memories versus trauma snapshots at the vet.
- If your dog is uncomfortable on the cold and slippery examination table, as the vet to assess them on the ground or your lap – wherever they are most relaxed.
- Habituation to handling as a puppy – lots of massage, touching paws, ears etc. while feeding them treats. Works for older dogs too but take it slow.
- Redirect their behaviour to something that is more rewarding. I get my dog Zac to do his tricks in the waiting room and give him lots of treats for those, rather than let him focus on what’s going on in there. Watch him ‘go up-pie’ onto the scale and sit for weighing like it’s a game where he gets treats. Nothing bad happening here!
- Crate training – create a safe haven that travels with them.
- Car rides – don’t make going to the vet the only time they go somewhere where they experience pain and stress. Take them to fun places.
- Adaptil collars release a dog-appeasing pheromone that works well to reduce stress.
- Thundershirt – a compressive jacket providing consistent pressure. However, can cause some dogs to freeze rather than pace or shake – make sure it’s not just changed how they show the stress.
- Call ahead to your vet to see if the visit is necessary. Some vets do home visits.
- Leave the animal in the car until your turn is called – no need to have them in the waiting room if it stresses them.
- Let them take their favourite toy with them if it comforts them.
- Use medication under guidance of your vet if necessary and give them a relaxant a few hours before you go the vet to take the edge off the experience for them (just like humans who are scared of flying do before getting on a plane).
The next Modern Pet Dog Seminar is all about having fun with your dog on 21 July. Email email@example.com to register or find out more.