Stressed Pets at the Vet

By Michael Balas, DVM

When food isn’t enough to keep a pet happy, other options can be considered.

Our veterinary practice prides itself on our commitment to fear free visits for your pets, and many of our staff members have undergone special training to make the hospital a more relaxing environment for our patients. There are multiple non-pharmaceutical techniques we utilize to help make your pet’s visit to the hospital a happier experience. Occasionally however, some pets will become so stressed they can become a danger to themselves or others and your veterinarian might recommend an anti-anxiety medication prior to visits. This does not mean your pet is being naughty or cannot be managed. It means that we have noticed your pet has a level of stress that we can potentially help with. There are a variety of pharmaceutical options that can be used to help with hospital- based anxiety. Two of the most commonly used medications in veterinary medicine are trazodone for dogs and gabapentin for cats.

Dogs who are prone to reactivity at the vet (like barking or hiding) may be less fearful using a combination of positive reinforcement and medication.

Trazodone helps increase serotonin levels within the brain which reduces anxiety. Given a few hours prior to an exam, it can lessen fear-based behaviors such as reacting to being approached or examined, cowering, and barking. It also aids in treatments such as blood draws and vaccinations, and increases comfort with gentle restraint. Overall, a visit to the vet becomes a more relaxed experience for owners and pets alike. Most dogs tolerate trazodone very well but they may be a bit sleepy for a few hours after their visit.

Cat getting chin scratches by a veterinary assistant on an exam table.
Gabapentin can help a frightened cat become a lot more comfortable being handled for medical care.

Gabapentin has been studied extensively in cats and the results on anxiety levels speak for themselves. Many of us have had to chase a cat around the house for thirty minutes just to get ahold of them to put in a carrier. Once you travel to the clinic, their pupils are dilated, they breathe faster, their heart pounds, and they curl up in a defensive ball.   A majority of these cats become quiet and try to hide. Others are a more vocal or attempt to swat or bite. Gabapentin is not only for those cats that are a bit spicier, but for all ranges of anxiety in cats. Gabapentin is often given 1-2 hours before a visit and can be easily administered in a blob of canned food. We have seen a large reduction in the need for injectable sedation since starting the use of gabapentin. The overall benefit is a cat that is more likely to come out of the carrier, is easier to hold, and is more tolerant of medical care. Similar to trazodone, the biggest side effect with gabapentin is a bit of sedation, which will usually wear off within 1-2 hours.

Your pet having a positive experience visiting the office is important to us!

If you feel that your pet could benefit from an anti-anxiety medication, please discuss this with your veterinarian at your pet’s next exam.