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Easing Dogs’ Stress During Veterinarian Visits
Interactions with guardians offer some relief

Veterinary examinations are stressful for dogs, and being stressed is counterproductive to general well-being. We don’t want our dogs to suffer, especially when the purpose of seeing the veterinarian is to help them. Another issue is that the effects of stress—both the behavioral and physiological responses—can make it harder to examine the dog thoroughly and properly diagnosing the dog becomes harder as well.

A recent study examined the effects of contact with the guardian during veterinary exams on the stress levels of the dog. The basic conclusion of the study was that it is beneficial to dogs for their guardians to interact with them with physical contact and verbal communication. Dogs were less stressed by several measures when their guardians interacted with them compared with just having their guardian present in the room.

Every dog was studied during two visits to the veterinarian—one in which the guardian talked to and had physical contact with the dog, and one in which the guardian was present in the room but did not interact with the dog. The canine behaviors observed were panting, vocalizing, attempting to jump off the exam table, struggling, lip licking, yawning and paw lifting. The physiological measures were heart rate, cortisol levels, maximum ocular surface temperature and rectal temperature. All behaviors and physiological measures are associated with stress in dogs.

When guardians were allowed to talk to and pet their dogs (the “contact” condition), the dogs attempted to jump off the table less often and vocalized less than dogs whose guardians were present but not interacting with the dog (the “non-contact” condition). There were no differences in any of the other stress-related behaviors. On the physiological side, dogs in the “contact” condition did not have as large an increase in heart rate or maximum ocular surface temperature as the dogs in the “non-contact” condition did. There were no differences between the two conditions in rectal temperature.

This study offers some encouragement about our ability to make a difference to our dogs’ stress levels when at the veterinarian. The results suggest that interactions with the guardian may be more effective than just the physical presence of the guardian, but the effect is not striking. By many measures, there were no differences. The behavioral measure that did differ—vocalizing and trying to jump off the exam table—may do so because both of those behaviors could be an attempt to make contact with the guardian. Dogs do often vocalize as a response to separation, and dogs who try to jump off the exam table may sometimes do so as an attempt to make contact with their guardians.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

photo by Ilmicrofono Oggiono/Flickr

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