This “new normal” is confusing and stressful for pets, their owners, and veterinary teams as well. Over the past few months, I’ve seen this stress get the best of us all -- on countless occasions -- one of which happened recently.
As we are still practicing “COVID-19 protocols” with socially distanced-curbside service, when a client comes for an appointment, a veterinary technician goes out to their car to retrieve their pet, taking the pet inside for their exam while the owner waits in their car. One such pet retrieval did not go so smoothly last week.
When the tech took the Chihuahua mix, “Star”, from her owner’s arms, Star became agitated -- pulling on the leash, nipping at the tech. This behavior was unusual for Star, which was of course very upsetting to Star’s mom. Fortunately, once inside, Star calmed down almost immediately, and the process of collecting vitals (weighing on the scale, rectal temperature, measuring heart rate, and respiration) went fine, without issue. However, Star’s mom didn’t see the change that took place inside of the building, which caused a level of anxiety and stress that was too much for her to ignore.
Hearing that Star’s mom was increasingly upset, I walked outside to reassures her. “Give me back my dog!” she bellowed as she saw me. She exclaimed we were “trying to kill” her dog (which was not the case, of course) and demanded that Star be returned to her “RIGHT NOW” (all in front of a parking-lot full of other clients). I can typically calm these confrontations down to a manageable level, but I had my work cut out on this day because Star’s momma wasn’t having it. She was terrified, after all. I got that. I mean, how could she know that Star’s anxiety level dropped significantly once inside the hospital?
As I tried to console her, she repeated over and over that Star had never reacted in such a way, despite having been to our practice a few times over the last few years. I tried to remind her that this different method of veterinary care, with pets inside and away from their owners, is as different and stressful for pets as it is for their owners. I explained that Star usually comes into our lobby with her, then into the exam room with her, able to see her and feel her presence as he’s going through his annual visit. On this visit, as he was removed from her arms, he knew this was unusual -- and it was scary for him.
The way Star reacted is not uncommon. We’ve seen that type of behavior many times in the past few months.
The changes we’ve had to implement due to COVID-19 can cause a level of nervousness that can make a typical veterinary visit anything but. It is something that the vet team takes into account since stress and anxiety can actually affect the exam: It can increase a patient’s heart and respiratory rate, body temperature, even blood work results. Cats, in particular, can have spikes in their blood glucose, as well as spikes and dips in their blood cell counts, which could lead an inexperienced clinician in the wrong diagnostic direction of diabetes or anemia. Like humans, stress and excitement can increase the release of hormones, particularly adrenalin, which can absolutely affect examination results. More than once, I’ve had an owner bring their dog in, with a complaint of limping for a number of days, only to find that the limp has disappeared in the exam room. This is where we must use our expertise to determine if, in fact, there is actually some reason for discomfort. Otherwise, the dog goes back home, and after calming down, the limp returns … followed by the owner’s frustration.
Here are a few ways that you can decrease anxiety -- your pet’s and your own -- when heading in for a vet visit:
- Remind yourself that the protocol for this visit is going to be different than in “normal” times.
- Breathe, stay calm, be patient. Your pet can sometimes detect, and feed off of, your anxiety.
- Send a shirt, blanket -- something with a familiar scent (yours or another family member) -- with your pet as they enter the hospital. It can be quite calming.
- Anticipate a wait; bring a book, a tablet to watch an episode of your favorite series, or your most recent knitting project.
- Keep in mind that your veterinary team understands how different vet visits are in 2020 and that they are doing their best, for all parties involved.
- If your pet is especially prone to distress and anxiety, contact your vet prior to the visit to discuss whether your pet needs medication to decrease their stress and anxiety levels. Some pets do much better with the support of a prescribed medication (i.e. Trazodone, Gabapentin, even Xanax).
- If your dog has a canine companion at home, it can help to bring them along for the visit. It’s supportive for the patient, and also good company for you in the car as you wait.
We as veterinary health care providers know that these new COVID-era protocols are hard on pets and owners. And, it’s not great for us, either. However, we are doing the best we can to help ease the levels of anxiety and doing our best to make the experience as smooth, productive, and stress-free as possible.