One of PetLvr’s readers, Sandy, recently asked the following question: “When I take my dog to the vet, he wants to fight every other animal in the waiting room. It’s out of character and the last few times, we have been put into a room on our own, away from everyone else…Do you have any ideas [as to why this occurs]?”
This is a wonderful question! And unfortunately, this is not uncommon. At all. This aggressive behavior is the result of fear and stress.
Dogs can become absolutely unhinged by fear — this occurs with every dog, though the circumstances that cause fear and the amount of fear required to “unhinge” the animal varies among individuals.
All it takes is one bad experience at the vet’s office — thereafter, they associate the veterinary clinic with fear and discomfort. The presence of other fearful animals can make the situation even worse. As pack animals, dogs are extremely adept at “reading” other dogs; when your pet sees and hears other dogs who are stressed and frightened, it causes your dog to become stressed and frightened. And as pack animals, your dog feeds off others and he will match his mood to that of the other dogs in the room. This is more true for stronger, more intense emotions. If you’re in the room with a content dog and a terrified dog, your dog is more apt to feel frightened, since it’s the more intense emotion.
The sheer terror that many dogs experience results in an adrenaline rush; this activates the animal’s fight or flight instinct. Once this is activated, your dog may lash out (or flee) from any perceived threat — it may be another dog, a human or an object.
There is little you can do to solve this problem, especially since most pets don’t go to the vet clinic frequently, so it’s difficult to e re-condition the animal so he views the it as a non-threatening location. But you can take precautions and you can do your best to make the fearful experience as brief as possible.
We have a pit bull named Cooper. Like many dogs, he gets very upset at the vet clinic. As a young dog, he was attacked by an unleashed dog while we were on a walk. He was left with a large gash in his cheek that required 20+ stitches. They tried to clean and stitch him while he was awake; this was an extremely traumatic experience and ever since, he has been terrified of the vet’s office. (In fact, for months after this incident, he was scared of being examined in any way. For instance, if I were to look inside his ear, he would start trembling.)
Cooper — who is normally a very confident, friendly dog — turns into a shivering, vomiting-and-peeing-due-to-fear shadow of himself who will snap at any human or animal that makes him feel threatened. It’s a defensive behavior that can occur in even the most friendly dog. Fear and pain are the two things that can make any dog aggressive (this is true for any animal, really).
These are instinctual reactions and it’s important for pet owners to remember that instinct always, always overpowers training. (This is true for humans too. For instance, we are “trained” to avoid being naked in public. But if your clothes are on fire, instinct may drive you to strip them off — even if it means being unclothed in public! So indeed — instinct can always overpower training, social norms and other learned behaviors.)
To ensure the safety of our dog and the vet clinic staff, Cooper is always muzzled before he steps into the building. We do not bring him into the waiting room; we stay in the car or walk around the clinic’s grounds. This keeps him fairly comfortable and relaxed. When we arrive at the clinic, I will alert the staff to the fact that we’ve arrived. The secretary waves us in from the window when it’s time for his exam.
Limiting the amount of time that is spent inside the actual vet clinic is key for Cooper. As is true for most dogs who fear the vet, the longer he’s inside the vet’s office, the more anxious and fearful he becomes; this means he’s more likely to lash out due to fear. It’s a crescendo of fear, so we make every effort to make the experience as brief as possible.
We have many special needs animals, so we visit our vet on a weekly basis to pick up medications, fluids/IV supplies and prescription foods. So on these trips to the vet clinic, we take Cooper along for the ride. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of fear and anxiety that he experiences, since more often than not, his visits to the vet’s office are a positive one — he gets pets, attention and praise from the clinic staff, they give him delicious homemade treats, and after each visit, he gets a vanilla ice cream from the ice cream shop down the street. These benign (dare I say “enjoyable”?) experiences at the vet clinic have served to reduce the amount of fear and anxiety that Cooper experiences, as he has been reconditioned to view the vet as less threatening.
I strongly recommend this strategy to anyone who has a dog who is extremely fearful of the veterinary clinic. But if you do not have reason to visit the clinic on a regular basis, it’s best to take measures to reduce the amount of stress that the pet experiences by waiting outside or in the car until the vet is ready to examine your pet. I strongly recommend muzzling your pet if he/she is extremely fearful (e.g., shivering, urinating and exhibiting fearful body language — head down, tail between the legs and so forth). Even the most friendly dog can and will bite if she is placed in the right situation.
Dogs cannot speak; and sometimes, they communicate with their teeth. This doesn’t make your dog is “bad” or “mean” — it means your dog is a dog! Fearful body language, along with behaviors such as growling or showing teeth, are the dog’s way of saying, “I’m scared. Please back off. I’m warning you, I will defend myself if the need arises.” Nipping or snapping is dog’s way of saying, “Back off! I’m going to defend myself. This is your last warning.” The meaning of a bite is crystal clear — “Get away! You’re scaring (or hurting) me!”
I should also note that our dog Cooper has a history of severe neglect and physical abuse — he is a former fighting dog who didn’t make the cut; he was kept as a “bait dog,” which means he was a chew toy for the “real” fighting dogs. We rescued him at about 2 years of age. He now lives with our five other dogs and 14 cats, so he does extremely well with other animals. Like most dogs, he’s extremely friendly with people in general.
But his history of abuse at the hands of a human means he’s s a bit more likely to lash out when he’s placed in a fearful situation. He is also quite prone to experiencing anxiety, which only exacerbates the problem. Like many dogs who are rescued from a extreme abuse or neglect, he bonded very, very tightly with us — the people who treat him with kindness. He bonded so intensely that he started experiencing separation anxiety when we as much as left the room. Years of training and medication have solved this issue, but the anxiety re-surfaces when he’s placed in a stressful situation.
As Cooper so aptly illustrates, dogs with a history of abuse, neglect, anxiety and dogs who are fearful of humans are most prone to experiencing fear-induced aggression at the vet clinic. But this is an issue that can arise in any dog, at any age and with any temperament. Some dogs are simply more prone to developing this problem.
Fear at the vet’s office is totally normal. Aggression often results. The key? Keep the dog calm for as long as possible; this may mean waiting in the car or walking around outside. Anticipate aggression and, if necessary, keep your pet muzzled to ensure his safety (fearful dogs have a tendency of picking fights with much larger dogs — a fight they can’t possibly “win”) and the safety of other pets and humans. And finally, if possible, work to neutralize the experience of visiting the veterinary clinic. If your dog realizes that not every visit results in an exam, pain or discomfort, his stress level and fear will be reduced.
One final tip: Don’t be afraid to tell others that they cannot pet your dog. Often, fellow animal lovers will try to pet your dog in the waiting room; this places them at high risk of sustaining a dog bite. Therefore, it’s generally best to avoid contact with strangers who may inadvertently elicit aggression in an already-fearful/stressed dog.
For more pet care tips, stop by PetLvr’s archives.