As pet owners, we all want to ensure that our four-legged companions feel safe, secure, and loved—especially at home. One significant aspect of our pets’ well-being is minimizing stress and anxiety during routine care tasks. In this article, the Veterinary Behavior Solutions team will explore some simple, low-stress handling techniques that you can use daily to create a more positive, enjoyable, and comfortable environment for your pet.
1: Pair tasks with rewards to create a positive emotional response for your pet
Conditioned emotional responses (CERs) allow you to control or change how your pet feels about an unpleasant or previously stressful task, such as nail trimming, ear cleaning, or any activity that causes anxiety. Induce a CER by breaking the task into small steps and rewarding your pet with a high-value treat (e.g., dehydrated meat, spray cheese, peanut butter, tuna juice) at each step. For example, steps for nail trimming would include:
- Showing your pet the nail trimmer
- Touching your pet’s paw with the nail trimmer
- Using the nail trimmer to “trim” a piece of dry pasta
- Placing the nail trimmer to one nail
- Applying pressure around the nail
- Clipping one nail
Spending several sessions or more on each step will ensure success. This is a slow process, but the time spent conditioning a positive emotional response will make your pet’s lifelong care simpler and more enjoyable.
2: Use non-threatening body language around your pet
Dogs and cats communicate nonverbally through physical postures and gestures, and you can increase your pet’s cooperation and decrease undesirable stress, anxiety, and fear by understanding their body language.
Some simple examples include:
- Present the side of your body, instead of facing them, to coax your pet toward you. Avoid approaching your pet head-on, which can trigger their flight response.
- Reach under, not over, your pet. Overhead movements can be perceived as dominant or threatening gestures.
- Move slowly and smoothly and avoid rushed or jerky movements.
- Handle your pet gently rather than applying pressure (e.g., patting, grabbing, or thumping).
- Ensure your pet has an escape route (i.e., don’t corner or trap them in a small enclosed space, because they may panic and increase injury risk to you and them).
3: Provide non-slip surfaces to help your pet feel safe
Smooth or slick surfaces, such as tile, linoleum, plastic crate pans, and table tops, can upset pets and lead to frightening slips or falls. Increase your pet’s cooperation, confidence, and sense of safety by performing care tasks on non-slip surfaces. You can take care of husbandry tasks on carpeted areas, or you can create a pet-friendly care area with temporary interlocking foam tiles or a yoga mat. Small dogs and cats can be lifted on couches, beds, or pet-friendly training platforms to ensure stable footing and increase mutual comfort and to avoid towering over your pet while caring for them.
4: Lift and restrain your pet using even and gentle support
For many pets, being lifted or held threatens their freedom and independence, and they feel insecure. So, support them gently but firmly, with proper hand and arm placement, to ensure that their weight is evenly distributed and their body secure. This is particularly important for older pets or those with mobility issues or chronic pain. Gradual and gentle lifting and handling, along with positive reinforcement and soothing verbal praise, can enhance your pet’s comfort and trust and reduce their stress and fear.
5: Enhance your pet’s emotional comfort with predictable routines
Like people, pets can be uncomfortable and fearful in unfamiliar situations, so try to perform your pet’s care tasks the same way each time. A consistent pattern and presentation can increase your pet’s comfort—especially if they associate each step with positive emotions and rewards—and their compliance or tolerance by helping them feel more aware and in control of the task.
You can also create a consistent experience by:
- Placing all necessary tools and treats within reach
- Moving in the same manner, at the same speed
- Rewarding your pet at appropriate intervals (i.e., don’t skip the treats!)
- Allowing your pet to take breaks if they become overwhelmed
- Ending the session with something positive (e.g., going for a walk, playing with a favorite toy)
Low-stress handling is all about reducing fear, anxiety, and stress through clear communication, positive conditioned responses, and prioritizing your pet’s physical and emotional safety. Pets who are introduced to and handled with low-stress techniques enjoy better health and more happiness, because they are easier to care for and are less stressed and anxious over their lifetime.
If you would like to help your pet learn or re-learn to be more cooperative at home and in the veterinary clinic, schedule a consultation at Veterinary Behavior Solutions.