White Coat Syndrome? 5 ways to ease your dog's anxiety at the vet

white coat syndrome - anxiety at vet

I walked into my clinic on a cold January day dodging the icy raindrops with a piping hot americano in one hand and a (full of guilt) high calorie blueberry muffin in the other. After all, I needed energy to get me through the morning and what better way to do that than a freshly baked pastry full of sweetness! We began rounds: walking through the day’s schedule and discussing the needs of different patients and clients. I hear my team member say, “ ‘Captin’ Oliver at 10:00 to update vaccines. ‘Captin’ is a caution! Do not attempt to touch him on your own. Please put Mrs. Oliver in the exam room and then find Dr. Hofmeister” Captin was a 120 pound Golden Retriever. Good thing for the muffin...


Do any of you have dogs that have a hard time at the vet’s office? 


Having a dog (see separate blog post on cats) who is stressed at the veterinary clinic is not an easy situation for you or the veterinary staff. It breaks my heart when animals do not enjoy their visit with me, but more importantly it takes away from my ability to completely examine the animal, it creates more negativity in the animal’s mind, and it is a stressor for you! So, what can you do? How can you help your dog to have a positive experience? 


1. Set your dog up for success.

If you don't remember anything else, remember this! Try to determine the exact moment the anxiety begins for your dog. Does your dog only get car rides when it is time for a nail trim or vaccines? Start taking your dog for short car rides around the neighborhood (and always reward with a small treat). If he is reluctant to get in the car (large dog) or carrier (smaller breeds) try a food reward and create a food path from the house to the car. Maybe your dog loves the car ride but starts to tremble as soon as your tires roll into the gravel parking lot of your neighborhood clinic. Start bringing Buddy for short visits to the clinic. Drive up- treat, walk into the clinic - treat, have him sit and stay on the scale - treat, walk out of the clinic (sit and stay by the door) - treat, and finally back into the car - treat. Find out the exact moment when your dog begins to show stress and anxiety and start just a few steps before that to create an environment where he will succeed! Many veterinarians are encouraged by owners who want to help their dog see the clinic in a positive light and are willing to do exams outdoors, in the car, or even house calls as needed.


2. Reward good behavior.

Most dogs are food motivated - especially if it is human food. Yes, that’s right, I am a licensed veterinarian who just told you to feed your dog human food. Find something that your dog truly loves. Hot dog? Lunch meat? E-Z cheese? Whipped cream? Rotisserie chicken? Now, he will only be getting an itty bitty pinch of the treat for each reward. I am not telling you to give half of a cheeseburger to your dog for jumping into your SUV. Hotdogs should be cut into slices and he can have ¼ of a round slice as a reward. Just a taste is enough to create a positive experience. Whichever treat you choose, it should not be given any other time except when at the veterinary clinic or when working on behaviors to get him to the veterinary clinic. *Please understand this applies to healthy dogs without any food sensitivities or disease conditions which involve diet restriction. You should always consult your veterinarian about what a good reward would be for your dog.*


3. Feeding.

If your dog is food motivated, it makes choosing a high value treat fairly easy. However, if you have a dog that is on the picky side, it will make the training a bit more difficult. If your animal has no underlying health conditions (ex: diabetes), I would recommend you skip his morning meal (or give about ½ the amount you normally would) on the day he has a vet appointment. Being hungry increases his motivation and focus, ensuring he will take the treats that are offered. Whenever possible, bring the treats with you to your appointment. Most veterinary hospitals have treats of their own but often aren’t delicious enough to encourage picky eaters. And remember, they should be getting a high value treat - one they do not get any other time!


4. Exercise.

In addition to being hungry, it helps if your dog has been on a walk or jog the day of his appointment. Dogs need exercise everyday, but especially on days they are coming in to see me! It helps to calm them down and allow them to focus. A well-exercised dog is a totally different patient than a dog who hasn’t left his yard in days!  


5. Communicate.

You would be surprised how many times I have lifted a dog’s lip to perform an oral exam and was told “Wow, she must really like you. She usually bites!”  If you are worried about your dog’s behavior during her appointments, talk to your veterinarian. Call or email them for suggestions on how to work with the doctor and staff to improve your animal’s particular situation. 


As it turns out, Captin was a new member of our clinic. After spending some time talking with Mrs. Oliver, it became apparent to me that Captin’s behavior was likely due to underlying medical issues. We sedated Captin at a later time, took some x-rays and ran bloodwork. Mrs. Oliver made a commitment to change Captin’s diet, increase his exercise, begin joint supplementation, and start pain management for arthritis. Today, Captin is a trim 75 pounds and has no problems coming to see me! I like to think he even enjoys it. Maybe it’s the weight loss, the pain management, the essential oils I have diffusing in the exam room….or maybe it’s the little piece of blueberry muffin Mrs. Oliver keeps in her pocket. Because we can all use a bit of freshly baked encouragement!

Leigh Hofmeister, DVM, Blog Signature – Leigh Hofmeister, DVM

Leigh Hofmeister