“She’s in the spare bedroom, hiding under the bed,” the owner said when we arrived on our house call. A recently adopted rescue from down South, this 40-pound bundle of terrified canine is a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog. I had to look that one up. The breed is purportedly descended from crosses of wolves, Native American dogs, and the dogs of Spanish conquistadors. Some say Catahoula is derived from Choctaw, a regional tribe. As for “leopard,” some have spotted markings, though they actually come with many coat colors and patterns. The Catahoula is the official state dog of Louisiana, and has been widely used to hunt game — everything from bobcats to wild hogs to bears. Knowing timorous Rachel, it’s hard to imagine her hunting bobcat. Today our mission was to give a Lyme booster and trim her toenails without totally freaking her out. “Can we just lift the mattress and work with her on the floor where she is?” her mom suggested. “We can try,” I said dubiously.
When your pets needs to see their doctor, whether at a clinic, mobile facility, or at home on a house call, let’s face it. Some animals get nervous. Others get downright terrified. Let’s talk about ways to lessen the stress on Fraidy Cat and Panicky Pup. If you think Panicky will do better at home, ask your veterinarian about house-call options, but most folks travel to the vet’s office, so let’s start there. Be sure Pan has a comfortable, well-fitted collar that he can’t slip out of. Harnesses and head collars are ideal. Occasionally dogs trot up to our door, then put the brakes on and back right out of their collars when they realize where they are. Happily, most run right back to their cars, but occasionally we end up with the dangerous situation of a frightened runaway dog.
For cats, use carriers. Period. I know. Fraidy hates the carrier. You can fix that. It’s called desensitization and counterconditioning. Choose a well-ventilated carrier with enough room for Fraidy to stand up and turn around. Take the carrier out. Now. Not the day of your appointment. Now. Leave it on the floor with the door open. Let Fraidy explore. Feed her nearby. Gradually move the food bowl closer and closer to the carrier. Put special treats and toys in or near the carrier. Eventually see if she will eat inside, with the door open. It may take months, but once she is adjusted, leave the carrier out and continue feeding occasional meals or treats inside. You have now turned the carrier from a terrifying instrument of torture to just another fun place to hang out.
So you arrive at the clinic. Now what? In cool weather, anxious pets may do better left in the car until the doctor is ready for you. Check with the receptionist. Larger practices may have separate waiting rooms for dogs and cats. Boy, would I love that. The best we can do at my place is good traffic control, keeping cats and dogs apart as much as possible. If needed, we bring certain pets in through the back door. It kills me when a client exclaims “Oh, my dog loves cats!” as their Rottweiler sniffs Fraidy’s box in the waiting room. Well, the feeling ain’t mutual. Keep your animal away from others at the vets, please.
In the exam room, we try to greet pets quietly and help them acclimate. Treats. Pats. Soft, soothing tones. A slow approach. You can help by also staying calm. Owners often use the right words but the wrong tone.”You’re OK, Pan!” they shout repeatedly in a loud, anxious voice. That doesn’t help. Relax. If there is a chair provided, sit. Some behaviorists think that seeing you or the doctor seated tells Pan that he, too, can relax. Feeding treats throughout the visit helps too. Of course, most dogs are not used to standing on tables, so the exam table can be daunting. This brings up the question of when to work on the floor versus the table. Usually the advantages of having Pan on the table outweigh the disadvantages. The assistant can use proper restraint techniques that are safe and gentle. The doctor has optimum lighting and easy access for a thorough exam. On the other hand, certain dogs do so much better on the floor, it’s worth the logistical challenges. Discuss it with your veterinarian. (And help me up off the floor. )
For cats, once they’re in the office, we need to help them out of the carriers thoughtfully. For most, it’s fine to simply reach in and take them out gently, but if Fraidy is hissing and cowering in the back of the box, she’s not bad. She’s scared. Having a carrier that can open from the top or otherwise disassemble easily is helpful. If we take the top off and let Fraidy stay in the bottom half, often that makes her feel safe enough we can proceed. Because of liability issues, and because we don’t want anyone hurt, it’s generally not smart to have owners restrain their own pets while we work, but sometimes it’s good to let cats and small dogs acclimate first for a while by sitting in their owners’ laps.
If Fraidy or Panicky are still basket cases, talk to your veterinarian about antianxiety drugs or sedatives to give at home prior to future appointments. It can take a while to find the right medication and the right dose, but our goal is always to have your pet have the most positive experience possible. As for Rachel, it was immediately apparent we couldn’t hold her safely on the floor. Instead, we stayed in that bedroom, where she felt a little safer, and her mom scooped Rachel up in her arms. We added a soft muzzle, so the people would be safe too. While my assistant gently held her head and her mom patted her and made quiet, soothing sounds, I did my vet thing.