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A beautiful, yellow-eyed cat receiving treatment. Doug Hall feeding a well-loved client.

Paws for thought- Article 3

14th March 2019

Reducing Nervous Behaviour at the Vets


With the growing success of our Puppy Pre-school (run by our head nurse Sam and receptionist Annie) we are seeing that our new puppies are building a really positive relationship with us all at Cape Vets. The relationships that we have with our patients are very important- both for the animal's welfare and in order to be able to provide them with the best level of care. We therefore thought it might be useful to send out an article to all of our clients to discuss behavioural signals that your pets may display at the vets when they are not so happy here, and how to deal with these signals.

Canine and feline behaviour is complex, and often signals are misunderstood or reinforced by a human responding inappropriately. We try really hard to make the trip to the vets as stress free as possible for both you and your pet, but we understand that some of them will get stressed here. Like in humans, stress is exhibited in different ways in each individual but we will try and explain the most common signals that are sent to us and what to do when you notice them.


Signs that your dog is getting nervous:

Lip licking or drooling

Excessive licking of the person making contact with them

Showing the whites of the eyes

Cowering or hiding


A stiff stance


Averting gaze

Tail carriage low or tucked underneath

Ears flat to head


Signs that your cat is getting nervous:


Ears back and flat whiskers

Cowering or hiding

Vocalisation- purring is not always a happy noise, it is also used to try and comfort themselves.

Arched back

Tail swishes


These signs can sometimes be subtle or mis-read, especially in brachycephalic (short-nosed breeds) or dogs with shorter tails. When we miss the signals that our pet is trying to convey to us, they are forced to give a stronger signal so that they can tell us they want to escape from that stressful situation. This is sometimes referred to as The Ladder of Aggression


The 'aggressive' behaviour is actually just a normal part of canine and feline communication, although it is seen as inapproriate and sometimes frightening by humans. Animals don't speak our language and this is the only form of communication they have to express how they're feeling to us. When the signals escalate to 'aggressive' behaviours, it is much more difficult to reverse the effects and turn it into a positive experience. Fear aggression is the most common cause of aggression, and reading those signals from the start and trying to stop them from escalating, can prevent serious behavioural issues.


So what should you do when you see these signs?


It's difficult to get the balance between comforting your pet and not reinforcing the belief that they are right to be scared. If we see these signs, we will try and stop whatever we are doing that might be causing the behaviour and take the time to make them feel comforted before proceeding. If you're seeing at home that your animal seems to be going straight for growling or biting already, it is probable that these earlier signs may have already been missed and it may then be time to think about seeing a qualified behaviourist.


If your pet is in for a routine or non-emergency procedure, we may suggest delaying the procedure and spending time on de-sensitising them to the practice. This invoves coming in regularly for positive experiences at the vets. When they are happy with this, we can then gradually start to introduce the trigger in a controlled way, without provoking a reaction. This takes time, perseverance and sometimes they do need help from a behaviourist.


Unfortunately, in the nature of a veterinary setting there are some situations were your pet may be ill and we don't have the luxury of time to try and correct these behaviours. In these cases, sedation is sometimes used so that that they don't remember the experience and escalate next time. We always use gentle and appropriate handling and will never use physical correction of behaviours, as this is outdated and completely inappropriate, for example we do not agree with scruffing a cat or forcing dogs into positions as a training technique.


Annie Steer Bsc (Hons) in Applied Animal Behaviour

Catherine Hannah BVSc MRCVS