Eight Ways to Help Your Cat Go to the Vet

If you struggle to take your cat to the vet, here are eight things you can do to help make it less stressful for your cat, including the right way to put them in a carrier.

Everyone knows that cats can find vet visits stressful. In one study, most owners said their cat was stressed at the vet and sometimes for some time after getting home (Mariti et al 2016).

After last week’s post about dogs at the vet, several people asked for tips on taking their cat to the vet.

Here are eight things you can do to help your cat with vet visits.

1. Pick the right kind of cat carrier

Picking the right cat carrier is important to ensure you have one that your cat can feel safe inside. One that is too open will mean the cat feels exposed, and one without many entry points can cause struggles when it’s time for your cat to go in.

Choose a cat carrier that:
  • Is made of sturdy plastic that is washable and easy to clean
  • Has a lockable door (to keep the cat secure) with holes in (to allow you to put treats through)
  • Has holes in the side to allow for circulation of air and for you to put treats through, but is not too see-through so your cat can still feel secure
  • Has a detachable lid that means the vet can remove the top and examine the cat in the base of the carrier
  • Has secure openings that won’t come undone if you pick the carrier up
  • Consider getting a carrier that also has a top-entry, which can be a useful extra access point 

2. Train your cat to use their carrier

It’s a great idea to train your cat to go in their carrier. If you don’t have time for this before your next vet visit, don’t panic. There are some tips for getting your cat in the carrier later in the post.

A recent study looked at the effects of training cats to use their cat carrier when they go to the vet (Pratsch et al 2018). One group of cats was trained to use a cat carrier while another was not, then they were all taken for a mock visit to a veterinary clinic. The results showed that cat carrier training reduces stress during the car ride and the veterinary exam, and the vet exam could be completed in a shorter time.

Obviously, it’s easier to start carrier training when you have a kitten (make a note for next time you get a kitten!). If you have an adult cat who is terrified of the cat carrier, this process is going to take longer, and you will have to work at the cat’s pace. That’s why I included this as a bonus item in my list of five things to do for your cat today.

It’s best to begin when you have plenty of time, but even working just a few steps in a carrier training plan will help.

First off, imagine the end point: A situation in which your cat enjoys lounging in their carrier in your home. Believe it or not, this is entirely possible.

You need to break the association between the carrier and a scary visit to the vet, and make new, positive associations with it as a place to relax and eat treats in. Find a place in your house where the cat carrier can live all the time and be a place that your cat might enjoy.

Before you get started, put a nice towel or fleecy blanket in the base of the carrier so that it will be comfortable.

As well, identify something your cat loves that you can use such as pieces of tuna, cat treats, or a short brushing session (only if your cat loves to be brushed).

It’s important to break the training down into very small steps. Proceed at the cat’s pace and don’t move on to another step until you are sure your cat is happy with the current step. If you have multiple cats, they may need to work at a different pace (as well as each needing their own carrier, of course).

Some of the training steps might be:
  • Go into the same room as the carrier
  • Approach the carrier with the top off
  • Go onto the base of the carrier (still with the top off)
  • Go into the carrier with the top on
  • Go into the carrier and stay there while the door is closed and then re-opened
  • Go into the carrier and stay there while the door is closed for a little longer
  • Go into the carrier, have the door closed, and the carrier picked up then put down
  • Go into the carrier which is put into the car and then come back in to the house
  • Go into the carrier for a very short car ride which ends back at home.
At each of these steps, reward your cat liberally with something they really love. If you are feeding treats, feed extra treats while the cat is in the carrier. For the car rides, you will need a helper to feed treats into the carrier during the ride (or to be your driver while you feed the treats).

It may seem like a lot of steps, but following a plan means you don’t go too fast and is more efficient in the long run. You may find that your cat breezes through each step, or that you advance a step and then have to drop back, but this is perfectly normal. Just like for us, learning takes practice!

Once the cat is happy to approach the carrier, you can add a bonus by leaving cat treats (or another nice food reward, or a toy) in the carrier for your cat to find. You will see them going to check out the carrier to look for a treat. (Make sure you keep replenishing as you don’t want them to be disappointed!).

If your cat is overweight, include any treats as part of their daily calorie count.

Eight ways to help your cat go to the vet. Photo shows the kind of cat carrier you should use - one where the top is detachable from the base
The top of this cat carrier is detachable, and it has top and front openings.
Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

3. Put your cat’s bedding in the carrier

Smell is very important to cats. Scent marking is one of the ways cats communicate. When your cat rubs her head on something, she is depositing pheromones from scent glands in her face. Pheromones are chemical signals, and although we are still learning about them, when cats facial rub on each other, it is believed they are creating a group scent.

So we can use scent to help by making sure to take something that smells of the cat to the vet with them.

If your cat already uses their carrier as a place to lounge, then it will already have bedding in that smells of them.

However, if this is not the case, instead of picking a fresh clean towel or blanket to go in their carrier, which will smell strange to them, use some of their existing bedding. They will feel more comfortable having something that smells like them, and like home, on the trip to the vet.

You can also take a towel to cover the carrier while you are waiting at the vet, so that if you have to wait in the waiting room, other animals won’t be visible and your cat will feel hidden.

Eight ways to help your cat go to the vet without stress. Take your cat's bedding with you. Photo shows cat relaxing in a cat bed
Put some of your cat's bedding in the carrier. Photo: ajlatan/Shutterstock

4. Pick the right vet – Cat Friendly and Fear Free

Although it is inevitable that some vet visits will be stressful for cats, there is a lot that veterinarians can do to make things easier. As pet owners, we can choose a vet whose clinic is set up for cats and who will use handling techniques that will keep stress low.

If you already have a vet you love, stick with them, because a good relationship with your vet is really important. But if you have recently moved or are looking for a new vet, there are some certifications to look out for.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine has an international program called Cat Friendly Practice (internationally, Cat Friendly Clinics) You can search their database to find a Cat Friendly Practice near you.

According to their website, a Cat Friendly Clinic will “understand the needs of cats and have made visits to the vet clinic more cat friendly.” If you love your existing vet and want them to become more cat friendly, they even have a form where you can leave their details and they will contact them with info.

Another certification to look for is Fear Free which “aims to take the ‘pet’ out of petrified” and “put the treat into treatment”. Fear Free veterinary professionals are trained to recognize signs of fear, anxiety and stress in your cat, and use techniques to make the veterinary experience as stress-free as possible.

You can use their directory to find a Fear Free veterinarian near you , and there are now some Fear Free certified practices too.

When you go to a vet, some of the things that will help cats are:
  • A separate waiting area for cats, or the cat is taken straight into the exam room, so they don’t have to spend time near other animals
  • A raised surface to put the carrier on in the waiting room e.g. a nice side table or shelf. Cats prefer to be high up, so try not to put the carrier on the floor; if you have to put it on a chair, ensure it is safe or keep hold of it as some chairs are not large enough and if the cat wriggles, the carrier might move or fall.
  • The vet takes their time over the examination and does not seem to be rushing your cat
  • The vet examines the cat in a place they are comfortable, which could be on a mat on the exam table, the base of the carrier (that's why the top should be detachable), or sitting on the vet’s lap

Whenever possible, see the same vet each time, as it means your cat is not meeting a new person every time they go. As well, it helps the vet get to know your cat.

Seeing the same vet each time is suggested in a study by Niblett et al (2015), who say,
“there is a marked benefit in building a veterinarian–patient relationship in addition to the traditionally discussed veterinarian–client relationship, provided low stress handling techniques are employed. This relationship is anticipated to translate into increased visits and increased thoroughness and accuracy of examination findings, leading to improved medical outcomes for the cat.”
Eight ways to  help your cat go to the vet without stress. Try to see the same vet each time. Photo shows cat being examined at vet.
Try to see the same vet each time. Photo: bmf-photo-de/Shutterstock

5. Train your cat to be handled

Did you know that it helps to train cats to be handled?

When I wrote about Dr. Chiara Mariti’s study on owners' perceptions of cats being stressed at the vet, I asked her what owners can do to help. One thing she said was, “familiarize kittens with manipulations, in a gentle, gradual and progressive way, associating any handling with positive emotions and stimuli.”

When you get a kitten, you should make sure they get used to being handled. You could gently look in the ears, lift the tail up, and get them used to being groomed or even to have their teeth brushed.

Remember to make sure it is a positive experience. Pick a time when the kitten is receptive to being handled, be very gentle with them, and include some petting in the areas where cats like to be stroked (around the head and face).

Keep each session very brief so the kitten does not get fed up.

Even though the kitten’s sensitive period for socialization has ended before they come to live with you, these early experiences can help your cat get used to being handled.

You can also train adult cats to be handled or to be groomed, but it may take (very) much longer, depending on the cat. Remember to go at the cat’s pace, ensure it is pleasant for the cat at all times, and be very generous in using treats and petting to keep the cat happy. Ask your vet or cat behaviourist for advice if needed.

Eight ways to help your cat to go to the vet. Kittenhood is the best time to train cats to be handled. Photo shows tortoiseshell kitten in a red gingham throw
Kittenhood is the best time to train cats to be handled. Photo: photos2013/Shutterstock

6. Use treats, petting and/or toys if your vet agrees

As well as taking your cat’s bedding to the vet, you can also take her favourite treats (unless the vet has asked you not to feed the cat). Remember to check with the veterinarian before offering treats to ensure that it is suitable.

You can also pet the cat during the consultation, so long as it does not interfere with what the vet is doing.

Some vets will give you a little time in the exam room in which your cat can wander around and settle in before the consultation itself begins, instead of asking you to wait in the waiting room.

7. Be kind and don’t scruff your cat

Sometimes you will need to restrain your cat, or maybe the vet will ask you to hold the cat while they do something.

In the past, you have probably seen people scruff cats, or maybe have even done so yourself. (I have to put my hand up here unfortunately). Scruffing kittens immobilizes them and it used to be thought it had this effect on adult cats too and that they didn’t mind.

Now we know that it is best to use the least stressful methods possible.

As International Cat Care explain,
“The act of scruffing entirely removes the option of retreat and sense of control for a cat. Therefore, it serves to escalate their feeling of stress, leading to distress, anxiety and fear. When a cat is experiencing anxiety or fear and is not able to avoid or retreat from the situation, they will commonly exhibit aggressive behaviour as a last resort. Thus, the act of scruffing can actually serve to provoke or escalate defensive aggression, therefore failing to protect those handling a cat, as well as being harmful to the cat’s welfare.”

They even have a scruff-free pledge. So don’t scruff your cat.

In a consultation, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. If your vet asks you to hold the cat (e.g. while they take the temperature) but you’re not sure what they expect you to do, ask them.

Compared to high restraint, when lower levels of restraint are used, cats show fewer signs of stress, and are less likely to try to leave the exam table when released (Moody et al, 2018). There may be times when the vet has to scruff your cat, but you should not do it.

As well, be aware that in some cases the veterinarian will suggest sedating your cat to make examination less stressful. Don’t be embarrassed if your cat is not cooperative in the exam, or if sedation is suggested. Listen to your vet, and make the decision that seems best.

8. Know how to get your cat in their carrier

So what’s the best way to get your cat in a carrier?

First, stay calm, because you’ve probably noticed that cats are good at spotting something is up and will run to hide.

Hopefully, your cat carrier is already out in its usual place, so it is not a tip-off that you are going to the vet.

Dr. Marty Becker explains the best way to pick up a cat:
“The best way to pick up your cat under normal circumstances is to spread your hand under his chest, and as you lift, slide your other hand and forearm under his hind end to support his weight. Then pull him against your chest for more support. Holding your cat this way makes him feel less vulnerable. Your grip should be loose, but with enough contact to feel any tension.”
If your carrier has a top entry, put the cat in that way. Open the top first, then pick up the cat up, holding both sets of paws together, and put them in.

If the carrier is front entry, you may find it easier to put the cat in backwards.

This iCatCare video demonstrates with different cats and carriers, starting by showing how cats resist. When Dr. Sarah Ellis picks up the cat to pop in the carrier, notice how she is gently holding the legs together. She also demonstrates putting the cat in a top-entry carrier with the head slightly lower than the body, and backwards into a front-entry carrier. (Incidentally, you can read an interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about training cats here).

The video also shows how to wrap your cat in a towel to put them in the carrier. Cat Friendly Homes suggest you wrap them in a towel “like a burrito – being careful not to pull the blanket too tight – and slide her into the carrier”.

Once you’ve trained your cat to use their carrier, remember to keep it as a cosy resting place with positive associations for your cat. Keep practicing the cat carrier training regularly so that your cat doesn’t forget.

Remember, if you need advice on your cat, ask your veterinarian. These tips will hopefully make it easier for you to get your cat there!

How does your cat find vet visits, and what do you do to help?

If you like this post, why not join over 2,500 animal lovers and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology?

Mariti, C., Bowen, J. E., Campa, S., Grebe, G., Sighieri, C., & Gazzano, A. (2016). Guardians' perceptions of cats' welfare and behavior regarding visiting veterinary clinics. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 19(4), 375-384. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2016.1173548
Moody, C. M., Picketts, V. A., Mason, G. J., Dewey, C. E., & Niel, L. (2018). Can you handle it? Validating negative responses to restraint in cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 204, 94-100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.04.012
Nibblett, B. M., Ketzis, J. K., & Grigg, E. K. (2015). Comparison of stress exhibited by cats examined in a clinic versus a home setting. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 173, 68-75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.10.005
Pratsch, L., Mohr, N., Palme, R., Rost, J., Troxler, J., & Arhant, C. (2018). Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 206, 64-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.05.025

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Companion Animal Psychology News April 2019

Cats that fetch, equine therapy, and the joy of dogs... the latest Companion Animal Psychology news.

Cats that fetch, equine therapy, and the joy of dogs... the latest Companion Animal Psychology News

Some of my favourites this month

“A tongue-in-cheek NPR.org headline comparing the fetching abilities of cats and dogs revealed a truth known by countless cat owners: Some cats do fetch.” All right, some cats do fetch at NPR by Matthew S Schwartz.

“I’m well aware that it just takes one second for trouble to turn into tragedy. In addition, let’s face it, I tend to be on the neurotic cautious end of the continuum.” Nothing to fear but fear itself by Patricia McConnell.  

Some tips for how to help dogs learn to use dog doors in Help! My dog won’t use the dog door by Sylvie Martin.

“If you’re a puppy parent searching for guidance on how to socialize your puppy, you risk coming across some concerning misinformation, even from professional trainers. “ In defense of puppy socialization by Kelly Lee at the Academy for Dog Trainers.

“All he asked was that we bury you in the garden.” A letter to Ruby, my son’s sorely missed cat by Anonymous at the Guardian.

“It seems that one of the consequences of regarding pets as family members is that as kids get older, family members—including canine and feline family members—play less important roles in their lives.”  Why do kids become less attached to pets as they get older? By Dr. Hal Herzog at Psychology Today.

The latest news from Companion Animal Psychology. Photo shows cat looking at laptop

“How do low-income households keep their pets fed when there is limited pet food in the home?” People on low incomes deserve to keep the pets they love by Linda Wilson Fuoco

“When my therapist wasn’t able to fit me into their schedule, I turned to equine therapy” Horses, depression and me: How riding changed my life by Mari Sasano at The Walrus.  

"There could be very good reasons why they don't want to interact with other dogs or various humans, and we should honor their choices and not force them to do so." Dr. Marc Bekoff asks, Do dogs hold grudges? at Psychology Today.

“I have a dog because I truly love everything about dogs.” The joy of a dog by Lori Nanan is a celebration of all things canine.  

In this podcast, the Thought Project talks to Julie Hecht about dog urine, that “guilty” look, and Fear Free vets.  

And the Smithsonian archives show famous people with their cats, by Jacqui Palumbo at Artsy.

Animal Book Club

This month the Animal Book Club is reading What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World by Cat Warren.

What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren book cover

"A firsthand exploration of the fascinating world of “working dogs”—who seek out missing persons, sniff for explosives in war zones, and locate long-dead remains..."

It’s fascinating. Are you reading it too? You can find a list of all the books and purchase via my Amazon store: https://www.amazon.com/shop/animalbookclub (I earn a small fee, at no cost to you, from qualifying purchases). 

If you’re more into general chit-chat without the commitment to reading a book most months, you can always consider the Animal Books Facebook group.

Upcoming Webinar

I’m delighted to say that I will be presenting a webinar entitled Debunk, support science, or tell a story? How to communicate about dog training and animal welfare for the Pet Professional Guild. If you liked my recent post on reasons to be positive, you will enjoy this webinar.

The webinar will be on Tuesday, 16th July at 11am Pacific/2pm Easter/7pm British Summer Time.

Anyone who signs up in advance will automatically receive a recording after the event. The webinar is open to the public as well as to Pet Professional Guild members.

Support Companion Animal Psychology

Companion Animal Psychology is open to everyone and supported by animal lovers like you.

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. Ko-fi does not charge fees, and you can make either a one-time or monthly donation.  

This month, I’d like to say a special thank you to Jill Bradshaw, Lorena Patti, and Rose B. Your support means the world.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

Companion Animal Psychology has a brand new look! You should find it easier to read and faster to download. Let me know what you think of the new design. If you miss the sidebar, click the  hamburger icon in the top left to see it.

Recently I was honoured to be included in LadyBossBlogger’s list of 240 badass female bloggers of 2019

This month I was quoted in an article about the responsible pet owner’s checklist for taking care of a pet, and  a review of the best dog toys of 2019.  

This month also sees the launch of the new magazine, Happy Paws, from Fear Free, and I’m thrilled to be quoted in an article in the first issue about understanding the canine mind.

Companion Animal Psychology News April 2019. Melina checks out the new magazine
My cat Melina checking out the new Happy Paws magazine.

Over at my Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures, I wrote about how to find a missing cat (including some tips to help prevent them going missing in the first place). If you're ever in the unfortunate position of having a lost cat, I hope these tips help (the most important thing is to look very carefully very close to home). I also wrote about how a viral video affected the perception of lemurs
One of my favourite posts of the last month is animal lovers on the books that changed their lives. I found it inspiring to learn about the books that have made a difference to people, and many people have told me they feel the same. So I will be putting together another version of this post. If you would like to contribute, email me on companimalpsych at gmail dot com and tell me which animal book changed your life, and why. Include your website if you would like a link back. I look forward to hearing about the books that are important to you!

Companion Animal Psychology turned 7 last month. Latest news.

This month I also looked at which dog breeds are the best alternative to the French Bulldog for people who are concerned about the welfare of this breed. Thank you to everyone who shared their suggestions with me.

I wrote about some research that shows smaller dogs live longer than bigger dogs – and just how much by, depending on breed. As well, I covered an important new review paper that investigates how we can make vet visits less stressful for dogs; the article contains lots of tips and a temporary link to download the paper for free.

Reasons to be positive about being positive in dog training looked at the lessons we can draw from research in psychology and communication. If you’ve ever wondered about the best ways to debunk an idea, or if you should focus on other messages instead, this article is for you (as is my upcoming webinar at the Pet Professional Guild).

At the end of last month, Companion Animal Psychology turned seven years old. It’s hard to believe I’ve been blogging this long and written so many words about science and our pets. As I said in that post, I'm very grateful to all of you for your support and encouragement.  

Pets in Art

This month’s pets in art shows an old woman with a cat by German artist Max Liebermann, from the Getty collection (open access).

The latest news from Companion Animal Psychology, including this month's pets in art: old woman with cat by Max Liebermann

I love the way the woman and cat are looking at each other. As well, I have to admire her skirt and apron.

Here are the catalogue details:
Max Liebermann (German, 1847 - 1935). An Old Woman with Cat, 1878, Oil on canvas.
 96.5 × 74.9 cm (38 × 29 1/2 in.), 87.PA.6. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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Making Vet Visits Less Stressful is Essential, and Here's What We Can Do to Help Dogs

Why we should monitor dogs for signs of stress at the vet, and the steps dog owners and veterinary professionals can take to help, according to a new review of the literature.

We should monitor dogs for stress at the vet, and here's how dog owners and vets can help, according to new research. Photo shows dog at vet having blood draw.

Many people know their dog is afraid of going to the vet. It’s not surprising because a vet visit is very different from the dog’s usual daily experiences, and yet it’s essential for them to get good veterinary care. A new literature review by Petra Edwards (University of Adelaide) et al examines the scientific literature to find out what helps dogs at the vet, and what we still need to know.

Making vet visits less stressful has several benefits, including increasing the likelihood of people actually taking their dog to the vet, making it easier for the vet to make the right diagnosis, and reducing the risk of the vet staff or owner being bitten. In addition, stress is bad for dogs’ physical health, just as it is for people.

Petra Edwards, PhD Candidate and first author of the paper, told me in an email,
“We had two main ideas that developed throughout the review process. One was: there’s likely not a simple, black and white reason for why dogs develop a fear of their vets or the clinic. Lots of different things can play a part (like their genetic makeup, their previous veterinary history or the sights, sounds or smells of the current vet environment).  As such, we suggest each dog might be sensitive in their own way and watching their body language will provide useful information on their specific needs during the current vet visit. 
We also found that continuing to improve dog welfare in the veterinary context can be the responsibility of the guardian (dog owner) and vet team alike. There are lots of common sense approaches to reducing a dog's fear or stress in the clinic. While some of these may not be proven as yet in the scientific literature, our understanding of how dogs learn is very well established and it’s logical to assume it will apply equally in the veterinary context. 
For example: guardians can reward their dog while being handled by the vet (if this is okay from a medical perspective) and veterinary staff can request guardians bring treats, toys or their dog's mat to the visits or have those options available themselves. We hope guardians and vet staff will be empowered to start the conversation and brainstorm strategies together to help dogs cope with their vet visits better or prevent fear in the first place.”
The review summarizes the existing research on dogs at the vet, which finds many ways in which dogs show signs of stress during real or mock veterinary visits, as shown by behavioural signs, physiological measures (such as cortisol levels), and the judgment of clinicians or dog guardians. At the same time, they note that the range of different measures and study designs makes comparing them difficult.

There are many factors that can influence the dog’s stress, including genetic make-up and other biological factors. It seems that smaller dogs are more fearful at the vet, but it’s not known to what extent this is due to genetic factors or the different ways in which people treat small dogs.

How to make vet visits less stressful for dogs, according to new research. Photo shows happy dog at vet
Photos: visivastudio/Shutterstock

A dog’s prior visits to the vet influence how they experience future vet visits, so a dog that has had many procedures may find vet visits more stressful than a dog that has only had routine appointments. Socialization of puppies, including for veterinary handling, and dog training can help the dog to cope better.

Previous research has shown that the use of punishment has risks for animal welfare, and the paper considers this within the veterinary context:
“Punishment to change unwanted behaviour should not be used or recommended within the veterinary context, and veterinarians treating dogs trained with these methods should be aware the dogs may be more susceptible to experiencing distress during their care.”
The scientists also point out that trigger stacking may occur if the dog experiences different aspects of the visit as difficult, which together become even more difficult, such as the car ride, being in a carrier, being in the waiting room, being on a table in the exam room, being restrained, and so on.

All of these different factors mean that each dog will experience the stressors of each vet visit differently, so it is important to play close attention to watch for signs of fear, anxiety, and stress, and intervene sooner rather than later.

The paper pulls together recommendations to help make visits to the veterinarian less stressful for dogs.

There are several tips for dog guardians to help their dog with vet visits:

  • Don’t feed the dog just before a visit so they will be more interested in treats offered at the vet
  • Bring the dog’s mat and/or toys as they may be of comfort during the consultation
  • Be there for the consultation
  • Train the dog to like riding in the car/being in their carrier in advance, and consider using pheromones
  • Train the dog to like routine handling/vet care, such as nail trims, ears being examined, tail lifted up, etc., and maintain regular practice, perhaps also at the vet.

This training may involve positive reinforcement or desensitization and counter-conditioning. As well, the guardian can partner with the vet in spotting early signs of fear or stress during a consultation (see how can I tell if my dog is afraid for some tips).

"We hope guardians and vet staff will be empowered to start the conversation and brainstorm strategies together to help dogs cope with their vet visits better or prevent fear in the first place.”

There are extensive suggestions for vets too, such as not wearing a lab coat, knowing about the different types of restraint (including sedation), and avoiding unnecessary entry/exit from the exam room once the patient is in there. Veterinarians will want to check the paper for the full list (temporary free access link below).

There is also a helpful list of recommendations for guardians and vets together, of which I highlight just a few:

  • Fearful or aggressive dogs should wait in the car, if possible, instead of the waiting room
  • Have a great supply of treats on hand e.g. roast chicken, squeeze cheese, peanut butter
  • Reward all of the behaviours that you like (so long as the vet says treats are okay)
  • Give treats during and after anything potentially scary such as injections and taking the temperature
  • Basket muzzles are better than nylon ones as they make it easier for dogs to pant, drink and eat
  • Muzzle train dogs in advance, and put peanut butter inside the basket muzzle before fitting it
  • Have the guardian present whenever possible; guardians should ask for this if the vet does not suggest it, but at the same time, understand that sometimes it is not possible
  • Be aware that sometimes sedation is the best form of restraint

The paper includes a table summarizing some of the certifications in low-stress handling techniques, including Fear Free certification for veterinarians, veterinary practices, and dog trainers, the Low-Stress Handling University, Better Veterinary Visits, and Ready…Set… for Groomer and Vet.

As well, the scientists draw on a well-known social psychological approach called the theory of planned behaviour. They point out that successful culture change will involve positive attitudes from both dog guardians and veterinary professionals, subjective norms that prioritize reducing stress, and the extent to which people perceive they have control over the veterinary experience for dogs.

This is an important paper that highlights ways for dog guardians and veterinary professionals to reduce stress for dogs at the vet, as well as the urgent need for more research in this area. Since going to the vet is a necessary part of dogs’ lives, it’s imperative to make it easier for them.

If you want to find a Fear Free certified professional or practice, you can search via their directory.

What works to help your dog feel less stressed at the vet?

Companion Animal Psychology is open to everyone and supported by animal lovers like you. If you like what you see, maybe buy me a coffee on Ko-fi?

You may also like why don’t more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs; this list of resources on how to have less stressful vet visits; and my interview with Dr. Marty Becker about Fear Free.

Edwards, P. T., Smith, B. P., McArthur, M. L., & Hazel, S. J. (2019). Fearful Fido: Investigating dog experience in the veterinary context in an effort to reduce distress. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2019.02.009
Free access via this link until 25 May 2019: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1YrItcF2OWo0j

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Reasons to Be Positive About Being Positive in Dog Training

Why debunking out-dated ideas can backfire, the importance of spreading quality information, and the best ways to counteract the misleading duds.

The importance of spreading quality information and the best ways to counteract misinformation in dog training. Photo shows child and parent training dog to shake paw for a treat.

Many dog trainers who rely on using reward-based methods feel passionately about the importance of using humane methods that don’t cause dogs to experience fear or pain. Thus, they feel it strongly when people use or share articles about methods that involve shock collars, dominance, pack ‘theory’, or any form of positive punishment, because they know aversive methods have risks for dogs

What are the best ways to counteract this kind of misleading information?

This is a question that preoccupies me (and many of you, I know) because it is such an important one for animal welfare. I’ve written before about the many factors that influence people’s choice of dog training methods (Todd, 2018) and in this post I want to look at some of those factors in more detail.

The importance of social norms in dog training

A social psychological approach called the theory of planned behaviour tells us that one of the factors that influences people’s behaviour is their perception of social norms. That is, the ways we think society in general believes people should behave.

When it comes to dog training, many of us have the belief that dogs should be treated with kindness, that our pets are treasured creatures who deserve to have choices in life and to be trained in ways that will provide joy and enrichment.

At least, that’s how regular readers of this blog feel. That’s one of the reasons I feel privileged to have such amazing readers. (Thank you!!).

But when we look at wider society, we can see that some people have quite different perceptions of social norms around dog training.

When we see TV programs demonstrating the use of shock collars and alpha rolls, bookstores selling dog training books that promote punishment-based approaches, and random internet people (or even celebrities or veterinarians) recommending trainers who use aversive methods, we can see a very different kind of social norm being created.

One way to counteract this is simply to spread (and keep on spreading) good quality information about the best ways to train dogs, effectively and with kindness.

But the way social media is designed can sometimes feel like it is working against us. Algorithms that promote posts that receive a lot of comments can make controversial posts spread like wildfire, which means that sometimes arguing against things on Facebook might backfire.

At the same time, it is important for there to be voices of reason and humanity, so the choice to engage or not is a personal one every time. Social psychologists know that even one different voice in a sea of similar opinions can make a difference.

Lewandosky et al (2017) write,
"People should be encouraged to make their voices heard, not just to directly persuade, but also to influence people's perceptions of norms and the prevalence of opinions, so that false-consensus effects do not arise. Even a few dissenting voices can shift the perceived social norm (i.e., the perceived range of acceptable views), thus legitimizing opposition and encouraging evidence-based discourse."
We can put those social media algorithms to good use when we see material we like. Positively reinforce the author by leaving a nice comment, and then again by sharing the post, and we’re telling those algorithms that this is the kind of content we want to see more of.

How to counter misinformation about dog training, and the  importance of spreading good quality information. Photo shows dog hi-fiveing a person.
Stick to positive messages that will reinforce social norms that it is important to treat dogs with kindness. Photo: Rohappy/Shutterstock

Countering misinformation about dog training

Sadly the world is full of erroneous information about dogs (and many other topics too).

The problem is that countering misinformation is a tricky thing to do (Chan et al., 2017; Lewandowsky et al., 2017; Schwartz et al., 2016). We often hear these days that countering arguments with facts won’t change people’s minds. Actually it’s kind of complicated, and something we need more research on (if any communications scholars would like to take on the dog training world, there’s plenty of material here).

But one really important thing to remember is that repeating misinformation – even in order to correct it – can have a different effect to the one intended, in part because it causes that misinformation to feel more familiar and gives it the illusion of truth. This is called the illusory truth effect: repeating lies makes them seem more true.

This is one reason debunking false information can backfire.

If you must repeat the misinformation, at least preface it with a warning (e.g. “Some people still believe in the outdated notion that…”). And then give some correct information to take its place (e.g. “Your dog is growling because she is afraid”, mention the body language signals that demonstrate this, tell them what to do to make things better).

Schwarz et al. (2016) write,
"Overall, behavioral research shows that often the best strategy in the fight against misinformation is to paint a vivid and easily understood summation of the truthful message one wishes to impart instead of drawing further attention to false information."
The best ways to communicate about rewards-based dog training, and why debunking outdated ideas can backfire
Tug is another dog training topic where there's been a lot of misinformation, but it's a great game to play with your dog (and a good idea to let them win). Photo: Jasmin Awad/Shutterstock

Setting the agenda and sticking to it

Another reason not to repeat misinformation becomes obvious when we think about how dog trainers talk about punishment. One of the problems with using punishment to train dogs is that it only teaches a dog what not to do; it doesn’t teach them what to do instead.

Similarly, if we keep repeating misinformation in order to correct it, we are not spending that time teaching people what they should know instead.

Don’t let aversive trainers set the agenda.

We want to keep the conversation on our terms, and that means talking about the benefits of reward-based training and the technicalities of how to do it (because it is complicated and people often need coaching to do a great job of it).

Now maybe you’re thinking that I linked to posts on dominance and punishment and so on at the top of this article. Yes, I’ll put my hands up, I have written on those topics (although not necessarily in the way you’d expect).

In my defence, I spend most of my time writing about evidence-based ways to care for our pets. Luckily for me, this is where my interests lie.

If someone really wants to get into an argument, send them to the science to find out for themselves. You’ll find a list of scientific articles on dog training on my website.

Why debunking erroneous information about dog training can backfire, and the best ways to get the message about reward-based training across. Photo shows Australian shepherd with violet bandana
This is just eye candy, but photos help people stay engaged with posts. Photo: Lisjatina/Shutterstock

Being wrong can sometimes be an identity threat

Sometimes people are very invested in ideas that are wrong (that they don’t know are wrong).

Imagine someone has been told by a dog trainer that in order to be a good dog owner, they must follow some kind of outdated method of dog training.

Because the person loves their dog, and because they trust their dog trainer, their own beliefs about being a good dog owner might be tied in to using the methods the trainer recommended.

In this case, when we tell someone that the idea is wrong, it’s possible they will perceive it as a threat to their own beliefs about being a good dog owner – in other words, a threat to their identity.

This can sometimes make them hang on to that idea even harder. So again, telling them the idea is wrong may have the opposite effect to the one intended.

It's better to put cognitive effort into correct ideas not misinformation

If the person then comes up with reasons why they think their idea is right after all, psychology tells us the view will likely become even more entrenched. When people think about reasons for the misinformation, it can make it harder for them to change their minds. Chan et al (2017) found that,
"people who generate arguments supporting misinformation struggle to later question and change their initial attitudes and beliefs."
If people are going to put cognitive effort into understanding something, it's best to encourage them to put that effort into thinking about the correct ideas rather than the wrong ones.

I think this idea will resonate with dog trainers, because we're used to telling people how important it is for the behaviours we want to be rehearsed many times, and to remove the opportunities for the wrong behaviour to be rehearsed. So there's an analogy that makes sense here.

Why de-bunking outdated ideas can backfire and the best ways to spread good quality information about dog training. Photo shows dog thinking about bones.
We want people to put cognitive effort into the correct ideas, not into misinformation. Photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock

Research also shows that it is important to support people and build their confidence in using positive reinforcement if they are to use it in the future (Willams and Blackwell, 2019).

Education makes a difference

Helping people to understand why something is the case can help to counteract misinformation.

For dog lovers, this includes helping people to evaluate the credentials of dog trainers so that they can choose a good trainer. It means talking about the benefits of reward-based training methods, and how we know that they are humane and effective.

It means talking about cooperative veterinary care, low-stress handling, and Fear Free vet clinics. (One of the many things I love about Fear Free is that Fear Free vets know the importance of referring to reward-based trainers).

And it means finding ways to engage people and encourage them to participate, such as by scrutinizing claims or asking questions, as well as helping people trouble-shoot any issues they are having (such as helping them understand the need to use good dog training treats instead of kibble).

Why de-bunking outdate dog training ideas can backfire, and to do instead. Photo shows white German Shepherd playing in a pond.
Photo: anetapics/Shutterstock

Spreading the good news

Misinformation can be hard to counter, and it takes valuable time and resources away from spreading the messages that we do want to get across. This is why it is so important to be positive about reward-based dog training and good animal welfare.

It’s one of the reasons I like to share great posts by others in my monthly newsletter, and to discuss good books in the Animal Book Club.

There are many people producing great content about dogs (and cats). Every time we share these articles, we are helping to contribute to a perceived social norm that the treatment of animals should be humane and in line with principles of good animal welfare. (And we are encouraging those trainers and authors to produce more such material too).

When TV companies or other organizations promote dog trainers who use outdated methods, we can let them know why that's a problem.

Other tactics we can use include recommending (or giving) good dog training books to friends when they get a new dog or are having issues with their pet. And we can simply talk about what we’ve learned about how to train our dogs, the struggles we’ve faced, and the resolutions we’ve found.

Changing behaviour isn’t just about individuals; it’s also about building a society that supports and encourages people to behave in good ways. There are many ways to do so, and I would like to thank you for what you are doing to promote good animal welfare.

It matters to every dog or other animal in our lives, because it affects their welfare. Dog training should be fun and make dogs happy.

Happier pets means happier people. It’s a great thing to aim for.


  • Repeating misinformation (e.g. about dominance) can make it seem familiar and therefore true.
  • If you must repeat it, give a warning about it first, and then provide new information to take its place.
  • Even a few voices can make a difference to the perception of social norms. 
  • Focus on the message you want to get across, and say or write it as clearly as possible.
  • Help educate people on how to evaluate dog trainers’ credentials and information about dog training.
  • Comment on and share good quality information to make it accessible to people and to show that the misinformation is not the norm.

If you're interested in this topic, you might like to know that I presented a webinar for the Pet Professional Guild entitled Debunk, Support Science, or Tell a Story? How to Communicate about Dog Training and Animal Welfare on Tuesday 16th July. The recording is available for purchase.

What do you think are the best ways to teach people about dog training methods?

Companion Animal Psychology is open to everyone and supported by animal lovers like you. If you like what you see, maybe buy me a coffee on Ko-fi?

Chan, M. P. S., Jones, C. R., Hall Jamieson, K., & Albarracin, D. (2017). Debunking: A meta-analysis of the psychological efficacy of messages countering misinformation. Psychological science, 28(11), 1531-1546. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617714579
Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 353-369. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.07.008
Schwarz, N., Newman, E., & Leach, W. (2016). Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), 85-95. 10.1353/bsp.2016.0009
Todd, Z. (2018). Barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 25, 28-34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.03.004
Williams, E. J., & Blackwell, E. (2019). Managing the Risk of Aggressive Dog Behavior: Investigating the Influence of Owner Threat and Efficacy Perceptions. Risk Analysishttps://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13336

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Companion Animal Psychology Book Club April 2019

"A firsthand exploration of the fascinating world of “working dogs”—who seek out missing persons, sniff for explosives in war zones, and locate long-dead remains..."

The Companion Animal Psychology book club choice for April 2019 is What the dog Knows by Cat Warren

From the back cover,
"Cat Warren is a university professor and former journalist with an admittedly odd hobby: She and her German shepherd have spent the last seven years searching for the dead. Solo is a cadaver dog. What started as a way to harness Solo’s unruly energy and enthusiasm soon became a calling that introduced Warren to the hidden and fascinating universe of working dogs, their handlers, and their trainers. 
Solo has a fine nose and knows how to use it, but he’s only one of many thousands of working dogs all over the United States and beyond. In What the Dog Knows, Warren uses her ongoing work with Solo as a way to explore a captivating field that includes cadaver dogs, drug- and bomb-detecting K9s, tracking and apprehension dogs—even dogs who can locate unmarked graves of Civil War soldiers and help find drowning victims more than two hundred feet below the surface of a lake. Working dogs’ abilities may seem magical or mysterious, but Warren shows the multifaceted science, the rigorous training, and the skilled handling that underlie the amazing abilities of dogs who work with their noses."

You can find this book (and all the book club choices) via my Amazon store: https://www.amazon.com/shop/animalbookclub

Will you be reading What the Dog Knows too? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Which Dog Lives the Longest? Smaller Dogs Have Longer Lives

Being mixed breed versus purebred, spay/neuter status, and regular dental cleanings at the vet, are also linked to lifespan.

What kind of dog lives longest? Small dogs live longer than larger dog, and mixed breeds live longer the purebreds, this study found. Photo shows mixed breed dog.
Body size is the most important variable in predicting life span, but mixed breed dogs live longer than purebreds. Photo: Lunja/Shutterstock

A study of over 2 million dogs attending veterinary clinics in the US answers some recurring questions about lifespan and dogs. The research, by Dr. Silvan Urfer (University of Washington) et al., analysed data from over 169,000 dogs in this cohort that died or were euthanized within a three-year period.

In all size groups (small, medium, large, and giant), mixed breed dogs live longer than purebred dogs, although the difference is not that large. The study found that, on average, a mixed-breed dog lives for 14.45 years compared to 14.14 years for a purebred dog.

For purebred dogs there was some variability in lifespan according to the breed. For example, amongst the breeds the scientists classified as giant, Great Pyrenees live longer (11.55 years) than Great Danes (9.63 years), with the mastiff, St. Bernard, and cane corso in between.

Small dogs had a longer median lifespan at 14.95 years than giant dogs at 11.11 years. Medium size dogs lived 13.86 years on average, and large dogs lived 13.38 years. (N.B. This study used a four-point size classification, compared to other studies that use a five-point scale).

The dog’s body size was the most important variable in predicting life span, more important than whether or not the dog was purebred. Small purebred dogs live longer than large or giant mixed breed dogs.

The dachshund is the longest lived at 15.2 years, and the Great Dane has the shortest median lifespan.

The shih tzu and Chihuahua also live longer than 15 years on average (median lifespan 15.08 and 15.01, respectively).

America’s most popular dog, the Labrador retriever, has a medium lifespan of 13.27, while the golden retriever has a medium lifespan of 12.93. Also in the large breed category, the German shepherd dog lives until 12.46 on average.

The study also found that, up until the age of 15 years, there was a lifespan advantage for dogs that were spayed or neutered. This was particularly the case for female dogs, who lived for 14.35 years compared to 13.77 if sexually intact.

For male dogs, the difference was much smaller, although still statistically significant: neutered male dogs lived until 14.15, compared to 14.09 for a sexually intact male. For dogs that lived longer than 15 years, spay/neuter status made no difference.

Another finding is that regular dental cleanings (under anaesthetic at the vet) were associated with an increased lifespan for dogs over 2 years old. The scientists say that one dental cleaning was associated with an almost 20% reduced risk of death.

There could be a direct association between good dental health and good general health, but this may not be the full story. It could also be that the kinds of dog owners who get their pet’s teeth cleaned also have other behaviours that may affect their pet’s lifespan.

There was a small association between the frequency of anal gland expression and lifespan. This was unexpected and the reason is not clear. but again may reflect the owner taking care of the dog's health.

The researchers had expected frequent vet visits to be associated with a longer lifespan, but instead the reverse was the case. This suggests that frequent visits are more often associated with health problems than with preventive health care. This does not seem surprising since a healthy dog may only be taken to the vet once a year.

Given the very large number of dogs in the study, the researchers took steps to avoid the risk of spurious statistical findings, including restricting the analysis to a few hypotheses they had developed in advance and using a conservative significance level.

Although it is not a representative sample, because the data included dogs who were not insured as well as those that were, the results are probably a good reflection of the general American dog population.

For mixed breed dogs, the analysis of the effects of body size could only include those for whom a breed was listed (e.g. ‘Labrador cross’), in order to classify them. This means that mutts for whom no breed was obvious were excluded from this section of the analysis.

As well, it is not possible to infer causal relationships from this data. For example, we do not know why smaller dogs tend to live longer than bigger dogs.

The data used records from a large veterinary chain, Banfield Pet Hospitals, across the United States, hence the size of the sample. The use of a large dataset like this is very promising for research on canine health.

The results are broadly in line with earlier studies, although an advantage for neutering in male dogs has not always been found.

Another recent study (with one co-author in common) found that being overweight has a significant effect on dogs’ lifespan.

Although most of the factors looked at in this study (body size, type of dog) cannot be changed, dog owners can take care of their dog's teeth. More research is needed because this study cannot show causality, but tooth brushing and dental scalings as recommended by the vet may help prolong your dog's life.

Do you brush your dog's teeth?

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You might also like: Which dog breeds are the best alternatives to the French bulldog and the best dog training treats.

Urfer, S. R., Wang, M., Yang, M., Lund, E. M., & Lefebvre, S. L. (2019). Risk Factors Associated with Lifespan in Pet Dogs Evaluated in Primary Care Veterinary Hospitals. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. https://doi.org/10.5326/JAAHA-MS-6763

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