When a person is in a stressful situation, anxiety can manifest itself a lot of different ways: shaking, pacing, fidgeting, blushing – the list goes on. Similarly, animals also exhibit signs of stress, but they often vary from human behaviors.

When exposed to a potentially anxiety-inducing situation – like a visit to the veterinarian – it’s important to know how to recognize the signs of a nervous pet, and how to help qualm your pet’s fears. If your pet is stressed at the vet, diagnosis and treatment can be difficult because stress behaviors can mask symptoms of an ongoing medical issue. If an animal is really worked up, it can interfere with the veterinary staff’s ability to deliver care to your pet.

“The biggest benefit of keeping your pet calm is that it helps us make better diagnoses and provide care, plus it helps them receive treatment better when they’re not anxious,” said Shawn Thompson, orthopedic surgical technician at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “Overall, it’s a win-win. It only benefits your pet.”

Recognizing signs of stress

The first step to ensuring a low-stress visit to the veterinarian is to know how to recognize when your pet is anxious. Different species express stress differently, so observing and understanding your own animal’s behavioral tendencies is crucial.

“The first thing to do is to recognize when a pet is anxious or has fear-associated stress,” Thompson said. “Learn how to read their body language so you have a better understanding of where they’re at.”

Signs of stress for dogs

  • Pacing: Just like humans, dogs are prone to pacing when they’re in an uncomfortable environment. In an effort to avoid the situation, your dog may walk or pace around the room instead of standing still.
  • Wrinkled brow: Wrinkles on the forehead or a wrinkled brow can indicate concern.
  • Panting, salivating, yawning, or licking lips: If your pet is displaying oral behaviors more often than usual, especially if there is no apparent physical reason for these behaviors, they’re likely nervous. Some dogs may even display what’s called a “spade tongue,” which is when the end of the tongue gets really wide or curls up.
  • Sniffing: If there isn’t anything to sniff but your dog is trying to suss out a scent anyway, they’re trying to calm themselves down; sniffing is a calming behavior. Keep in mind that in a more typical environment – like while on a walk – it’s natural for your dog to sniff, and you should let them sniff around.
  • Vocalization: Barking or whining can also be a sign your dog is stressed.

Signs of stress for cats

  • Hiding: If your cat seeks out a small space in an effort to make themselves scarce, it’s likely they’re trying to avoid an uncomfortable environment.
  • Grooming: It’s true cats like to clean themselves, but if they’re doing it obsessively, they’re probably not at ease.
  • Urinating or defecating: When a cat doesn’t leave it in the litter box – or has an accident in their carrier or the car – take it as a sign your feline is feeling nervous.
  • Vocalization: Growling or hissing is a sign your cat is stressed.
  • Eyes, ears, and tails: Watch for dilated pupils, tucked back ears, and a twitching or swishing tail; all can be signs your cat is unhappy with its current situation.

If your pet is displaying any of these behaviors, there’s a good chance they’re not at ease at the vet. With proper preparation and intervention, you can help your pet feel more comfortable during their veterinary visits.

Tips for easing stress

While the vet visit itself may contribute to causing stress for your pet, oftentimes the nerves hit before you even arrive at the clinic. Creating a comfortable environment starts at home, so be prepared to keep your pet at ease before, during, and after their appointment.

  • Buckle up: Not all pets are comfortable in the car, and trying to keep an animal calm at the clinic can be challenging when the stress starts on the ride over. If possible, it’s best to place dogs in the far back of your vehicle rather than in the back seat. When the back seat is necessary, consider placing a cover over the space below the seats so your pet doesn’t fall in. Cats and small dogs should be transported in a carrier.
  • Keep your distance: The unfamiliar smells, sights, and sounds that come with new faces and spaces can be overwhelming for pets. Try to stay away from other owners and animals while at the clinic, as unwanted attention can cause stress for pets.
  • Be a good role model: Animals can sense and pick up on our own anxiety, so if you’re stressed, chances are your pet will be, too. Keep calm and show your dog or cat that there’s nothing to worry about.
  • Consider medication: If a veterinarian has assessed your pet and prescribed an appropriate anti-anxiety medication, follow your veterinarian’s recommendations. The best time to give your pet their meds before an appointment is at home, where they’re comfortable. That way, the medication has time to set in. If anti-anxiety medication is administered when a pet is already anxious, the animal’s stress response can override the medication, rendering it unhelpful.

Sometimes your pet needs to go to the vet for more than just a run-of-the-mill annual exam. If your pet needs any diagnostics – like a CT scan or MRI – or treatment, including surgery or chemotherapy, more specialized preparation can be necessary. Sedation may be required to keep your pet calm during longer procedures. Ask your veterinarian if you have questions about your pet’s procedure preparation plan.

Calm animal handling at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital

No matter the reason for your pet’s visit to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, our clinicians and staff – and even our veterinary students – are specially trained in gentle animal handling, so you can rest assured we will do all we can to help keep your pet as calm as possible during their visit.

Fear Free® training is offered to all of our staff, and in general, the veterinary world is embracing calm animal handling practices,” Thompson said. “Incoming fourth-year veterinary students are getting that training, too, so whichever service your pet is seeing at the hospital, our students are there to help.”

Our hospital was designed with animals in mind, creating a more pet-friendly environment to help keep your fur baby at ease. Some service areas have hidey holes for cats so they have a place to hide when they feel stressed, and non-skid surfaces so they don’t slide around on the counter. Separated enclosures help keep animals of all species and sizes separated from each other, so prolonged eye contact with a new face doesn’t invoke stranger danger. Plus, we have plenty of treats on hand to promote positive reinforcement when appropriate.

Preparing your pet can be a significant time investment – for you and for their veterinary care team. But it’s worth it in the long run, because it means better care and comfort for your animal.

“Sometimes it’s a commitment on behalf of the owner to work at those behavioral changes, and sometimes vet visits take longer because we’re doing things at the pet’s pace,” Thompson said. “But in the end, it’s better for the patient. It’s all about providing a better experience for pets.”