Treating a fear of the veterinary clinic using desensitization and counter-conditioning

Treating a fear of the veterinary clinic using desensitization and counter-conditioning

Fear of a specific place, such as the veterinary clinic, can be treated using a desensitization and counter-conditioning (DSCC) programme. In simple terms, your pet must be exposed to the fearful stimulus in such a way that he/she sees there is nothing to fear, and settles down. If the association with the stimulus can be turned into one that is positive, your pet may actually develop a positive attitute to the occurrence.

  • This programme generally involves multiple and controlled visits to the clinic, starting with visits involving no direct manipulation and only positive reinforcement of calm behaviours, followed by simulations of visits when the fear response is no longer present. It is therefore important that owners and the veterinary surgeon work together on this problem and agree on times for training.
  • Prevent the pet from experiencing the triggers except during training sessions.
  • Avoid taking your pet to the clinic unless it is part of the structured training programme or, of course, a medical necessity. Setbacks may occur if the pet is suddenly in need of medical attention, but its welfare must not be compromised by delaying such a need.
  • Encourage calm and relaxed behaviours in the absence of the fear-inducing stimuli.

Expose your pet to the place of which it is afraid, starting at a very low level of exposure

  • Gradual desensitization is the key. It is important to establish a gradient of the stimuli to be presented. During gradual exposure to these stimuli, it is important that they are only presented below the threshold at which the fearful behaviour is triggered.
  • Take your pet on trips to the clinic but only expose him/her to a point where he/she remains calm and comfortable.
  • For example, you may need to stay in front of the clinic door, or even in the car on the first few trips.

Try to change your pet's perception by associating the place with something positive

  • Make sure you know what your pet's most favoured rewards are and save these for the training sessions. For some pets, food is the strongest reinforcer, while others may be more responsive to a favoured play toy or social contact.
  • The reward should be presented to your pet for non-fearful responses, such as a relaxed "sit", along each step of the training gradient.

Strengthen the resilience of your pet

  • As your pet's response improves, encourage him/her to accept more intense situations, such as staying in the waiting room.
  • It is important to reward calm responses, such as a relaxed "sit", along each step of the training gradient.
  • Advance along the gradient very slowly. If the pet shows even the slightest fear response he/she should be removed from the situation and the intensity of the next exposure must be reduced to one that remains below the fear threshold.
  • Gradually you should be able to enter the examination room with your pet remaining calm.

The information supplied on this page was kindly provided by the BSAVA (British Small Animal Veterinary Association).

Please Note

These factsheets are provided as guidelines only. If you are at all concerned about the wellbeing of your pet then please call Hope Veterinary Surgery immediately by using our phone number 01782 657788.

Click to view all factsheets