Assessing the stress of a trip to the vet

Lind, A-K., Hydbring-Sandberg, E., Forkman, B., & Keeling, L.J. (2017). Assessing stress in dogs during a visit to the veterinary clinic: Correlations between dog behavior in standardized tests and assessments by veterinary staff and owners. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 17, 24-3.

Visits to a veterinary clinic can be extremely stressful for pets. This study examined the levels of stress exhibited by dogs during visits to an animal hospital, and correlated these effects with subjective stress assessments carried out by the people in contact with the dogs.

Between February and July 2005, 233 dog owners visiting the Animal Hospital at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences completed a voluntary questionnaire. The questionnaire asked general questions about their pets, as well as an estimate of whether their dog was stressed or in pain. For each dog, four types of people answered this questionnaire: the dog’s owner, the test leader, the veterinarian, the veterinary nurse, and occasionally a veterinary student.

Of the 233, 105 dogs were randomly selected to be involved in three behaviour tests, which were a social contact test, a play test, and a treat test. The social contact test was comprised of three sub-tests that assessed the reaction of the dog to a stranger. The sub-tests were greeting, cooperation and handling. The play test assessed the dogs’ willingness to play with a stranger, covering three subsets of play: playfulness, grabbing and tug-of-war. The treat test was performed after each play test, and measured the reaction of the dogs to being given a treat. Both the play and treat tests were carried out twice, both inside and outside of the clinic. This was done to see if the location had an impact on the results.

Social contact tests proved the most effective

The dog owners and test leaders held similar views about how stressed each dog was, as did the veterinarians and veterinary nurses. The veterinarians and veterinary nurses determined that the dogs had higher stress levels, but this could be due to where the assessment took place. The results from the social contact test were significantly correlated to how stressed the owner or test leader thought the dogs were. The dogs were less likely to play with or take a treat from a stranger inside the clinic, which may reflect a negative response to being there.

Overall, the social contact test was regarded as the most accurate in comparison to the play or treat tests because those were largely affected by the dog’s relationship with their owner, as well as certain dietary requirements that some of the pets had. Furthermore, the social contact test could be adapted to be used as a preliminary screening for dogs to prevent possible harm to veterinarians.

World Animal Protection’s view

We believe research such as this is important to help better understand the psychological impacts of bringing dogs to the vet, and how owners can alleviate stress caused by this. It is also important to assess if owners and veterinarians can accurately identify when dogs are stressed.