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Several years ago, I endeavored to take our four cats (my two own cats and my two “step cats”) and newly adopted dog, an exuberant standard poodle, to the vet for their annual exams. Even though I’m a licensed veterinarian, I’m a pathologist who looks at tissue under a microscope, so I feel more comfortable having my pets examined and cared for by a veterinarian who has more experience performing physical exams.
At any rate, it seemed most convenient for me to schedule the appointments on the same day. It seemed easy enough to ferry everyone over in one trip before work, and then leave them at the veterinarian’s clinic for the day so that the exams could be conducted at the veterinarian’s convenience. The day of the appointment rolled around and I could only locate three cat carriers. No problem: two of the cats were brothers and didn’t mind riding together, I reasoned. I had wasted some time searching for the fourth carrier, during which time the cats had gotten wind that something was afoot. I was only able to locate one of the cats, and after I shoved him into the carrier he commenced yodeling. I continued racing around the house pulling cats from under beds and behind bookshelves until all four were stuffed into carriers. I then crammed the carriers into the car, having to double-stack one since the backseat couldn’t accommodate all three arranged in parallel. Finally, I loaded the dog into the front seat of the car where she uncomfortably wedged herself between the floorboard and seat. Off we zipped down the street, a hissing, yowling, barking barrel of fun. So. Much. Fun. (Not)
Looking back on my “plan” for that first combined vet visit for the Gunn-Christie household, I’m horrified. I designed a visit to the vet that was entirely based on my own convenience without any regard for the comfort or emotional well-being of the pets. While they weren’t physically hurt by this little exploit, they were unnecessarily stressed. When we returned home, one of the cats urinated on his bed, an action he often resorted to when stressed or upset. Another cat hid under the bed for the rest of the day. The step cats wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. Not cool. Not cool at all.
I can see many ways that I could have helped a usually stressful experience go more smoothly. For instance, I could have spaced out scheduling of appointments and taken the cats on different days so that I could have devoted more time and attention to comforting each one. I’ve since begun taking the cats to an excellent feline practice in our area, and even I (as a human) can tell how much more calming the environment is where excess noise is kept to a minimum ― no barking dogs! Alternatively, I could have a mobile veterinarian come to the house and perform the exams in a familiar environment free of scary sounds, alien smells, and unknown animals. Regardless, I should have begun preparing for the visit in advance of that morning. It would have been helpful to have located the carriers and ensured that they were clean and lined with fresh bedding.
Transporting cats is stressful for the them. Some owners advocate the use of synthetic facial marking pheromones sprayed on the bedding for its calming effect. I’ve heard of owners who use herbal supplements for their cats such as flower essences, but haven’t tried them on my own animals because I couldn’t find strong scientific evidence indicating that they work. Still, I wouldn’t be opposed to trying them because the ingredients are safe and even a placebo effect resulting in a decrease in my stress would be worth it.
That brings us to my next thought: Although much attention is directed at mitigating the stress experienced by animals during veterinary visits, the owner’s stress often receives less consideration. Time constraints, financial anxieties, and worry for the well-being of their animals contribute to the apprehension many owners face when it’s time for a visit to the V-E-T. Do you think your animals can sense this mounting tension? You betcha. And do you think that the stress associated with the event causes owners to procrastinate making preparations for the veterinary visit? In my unscientific study of myself, this query holds water. Making certain that I have allotted ample time for a scheduled appointment (I try to avoid the “drop and run” if at all possible, at least with the cats) and have money set aside for routine and unforeseen veterinary expenses, helps maintain my emotional stability when it comes to veterinary visits.
Although I like to think of myself as an optimist, the lens through which I view the world is colored by what passes across the stage of my microscope. Most samples I examine have been collected from animals who are affected by some disease or other. I usually don’t see animals who have routine wellness checks unless I’m looking at a blood smear as a component of the screening process. Consequently, I tend to worry about all the possible things that could be discovered during a veterinary visit. But as the old adage goes, “Worry is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere.”
That worry can easily flow into my feelings about vet appointments. I worry that some of the serious things I see at work will happen to my pet, so I can get a bit tense before an appointment. That stress flows right into my pets. I’ve found that the same techniques I use to combat the stress of daily living can help maintain my rationality when priming myself for a visit to the vet, so I have figured out that I need to lessen my stress before my pets sense it.
A nice walk or jog, preferably solo and outdoors, helps ground me. In particular I’ve found that the same techniques I use to combat the stress of daily living can help maintain my rationality when priming myself for a visit to the vet. In particular, I can see the normal cycles of life play out in the scenery I pass. Sometimes I’ll read an inspirational quotation before embarking on my walk or jog. I find that I turn it over in my mind and, in this way, engage in a “moving meditation” whose benefits stay with me far beyond the activity itself. Other times, I’ll sit quietly and gently focus on my breathing. Through this focused awareness, my physical body naturally relaxes and the breath moves more freely. The tension that I store in my neck and shoulders dissipates, and I feel calmer. If my mind is so agitated ― as when I’m worried that one of my pets is seriously ill ― that I find it difficult to sit still, repeating a word or simple phrase in time with the breath lulls me into immersing myself into the present moment. Two of my favorite phrases are “be present” and “So Hum/I am.” A quick online search will reveal myriad articles and videos on meditation techniques, such as guided meditation. When I find myself in a stressful situation, intentionally deepening my breath helps my mind relax so I can concentrate on the matter at hand instead of worrying about all possible outcomes.
I'm older and wiser (or maybe just older?) but these days I don’t make V-E-T visits more stressful than they need to be. The more stressed I am when I prepare, the worse things go for all of us. I prepare, I’ve found a feline only practice for the cats, the exuberant dog doesn’t have to sit on the floor in the front seat barking, and I have never again attempted to bring all five to the same appointment.
September 30, 2016
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.