Research Article: Investigating risk factors that predict a dog’s fear during veterinary consultations

Date Published: July 22, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Petra T. Edwards, Susan J. Hazel, Matthew Browne, James A. Serpell, Michelle L. McArthur, Bradley P. Smith, Carolyn J Walsh.


Attending the veterinary clinic is an integral part of the physical welfare of every companion dog. However, some dogs experience their veterinary visits negatively, which poses a risk of injury to the veterinary staff, their guardian (owner) and themselves. It may also influence the regularity of non-urgent veterinary appointments. To date there have been conflicting reports relating to the proportion of dogs that show fear during their veterinary visits. In this study, we explored the risk factors associated with fear during veterinary examination and in novel situations (including first time at the veterinary clinic) from 26,555 responses in the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire database. According to their guardians, 41% of companion dogs displayed mild to moderate fearful behaviour when examined by a veterinarian, and 14% exhibited severe or extreme fear. A similar trend was observed with dogs responding fearfully when in unfamiliar situations, including the dog’s first time at the veterinary clinic. Chi-squared tests showed every bivariate relationship between fear and the environmental and demographic factors measured was significant (p < 0.05). The most important predictors of fear in a veterinary examination were, in order: the dog’s breed group (27.1%), their history of roles or activities (16.7%), where they were sourced (15.2%), their weight (12%), the age of other dogs in the household (9.5%) and dog owner experience (6.3%). However, combined these risk factors only explain a total of 7% of variance of fear observed during veterinary examination. This suggests that fear exhibited during veterinary visits is common in dogs, but that the environment or human-animal interactions are likely to contribute more to prevalence and severity of this problem than the demographic factors measured here. We conclude by highlighting opportunities for future research aimed at facilitating less stressful veterinary visits for dogs and their guardians.

Partial Text

Visits to veterinary clinics are integral to maintaining and improving the health and welfare of domestic dogs. However, the veterinary experience can also be stressful for them. It is currently estimated that between 10% and 78.5% of dogs become stressed or fearful in the veterinary clinic [1–14]. For example, Doring et al. [4] identified 13% of dogs refused to enter the veterinary clinic, Stanford [1] reported that 70% of dogs were unwilling to enter, and Mariti et al. [9] found 29% of dogs displayed ‘extreme’ stress in the waiting room, according to their guardians (owners) and a behaviourist assessment. Mariti et al. [11] found guardians reported only 36.4% of 906 dogs tested were calm in the waiting room, while the majority displayed signs of fear, excitement (37.6%) and/or aggression (3.4%). Such disparity in prevalence is likely a reflection of the methodology employed. For example: variation in the behavioural and physiological measures used to assess stress or fear; the person taking the measurement (e.g. investigator, guardian, veterinary nurse, veterinarian); the locations within the veterinary clinic where stress is measured (e.g. waiting room, examination room or kennels and cages); and the context (e.g. guardian present/ absent, mock/real examination). This makes an accurate estimate of the prevalence of stress or fear in dogs visiting veterinary clinics difficult to ascertain.

The sample of 26,555 valid responses was evenly distributed by dog sex (51.79% male; Table 1), and the mean dog weight was 22.78kg (±14.57kg; median 21.60kg). The mean dog age was 4.52 years (±3.49 years; median 4.00 years), mean neuter age was 0.84 years (±1.55 years; median 0.48 years) and mean age acquired was 0.77 years (±1.49 years; median 0.21 years). The majority of dogs were healthy (84.63%), neutered (75.67%), and purchased as companions (70.97%), with no specific sporting or working role. The most common reasons for neutering were birth control (25.85%), and required by breeder (23.72%). Dogs were most commonly acquired from a breeder (41.38%) and shelter or rescue (31.03%), while the least common source for dogs was a pet store (3.47%), followed by those bred by their guardians (4.08%). The majority of guardians were experienced dog owners, having had dogs previously as adults (81.82%) and/or as children (80.11%). Just over half of dogs (62%) were from multi-dog households. Mixed breeds or dogs of unknown breed were the most commonly reported (27.75%), followed by working breeds (16.41%) and gundogs (15.77%).

A large sample size of companion dogs was used to explore the proportion and characteristics of dogs that show a fearful response when visiting a veterinary clinic and in unfamiliar situations. According to their guardians, 41% of dogs experienced mild to moderate fear when examined by the veterinarian, while one in seven dogs (14%) exhibited severe or extreme fear in the same context. Likewise, 47% of companion dogs exhibited mild to moderate fear in new situations, including the first time at the veterinary clinic, while 11% exhibited severe-extreme fear. These figures fall within the broad estimates of previous cross-sectional studies [1, 2, 4, 5, 8–12, 14] and arguably provide a more realistic rate of global prevalence of fear of the veterinarian in dogs. In contrast, the touch sensitivity and non-social fear subscales demonstrated a smaller proportion of companion dogs exhibiting fear in some capacity (35% and 37% respectively).

The results from the present study indicate that around half of companion dogs are experiencing some level of fear when receiving veterinary care, including one in seven dogs that show severe or extreme fear. The dog’s breed group, the roles or activities they have been involved in, where they were purchased from, their weight, the age of other dogs in the household and the guardian’s level of experience owning a dog accumulate to predict approximately 7% of the variation of fear observed during veterinary examinations. The same factors group together to predict 5% of fear of unfamiliar situations, 9% of touch sensitivity and 8% of non-social fear. While these factors play an important role in determining dog experience in the veterinary context, it is likely that other influences, such as the environmental set up of the veterinary clinic, history or past experience at the clinic, and the human-animal interactions (of guardian and veterinary staff), determine whether a dog shows fear at the veterinary clinic. It is important that the cause of fear in dogs visiting veterinary clinics be explored in more detail. For example, determining whether fear is a response to a previous negative experience in a clinic, or whether veterinary clinics are inherently stressful will help inform strategies that reduce distress during veterinary visits. Further investigation of how an individual dog’s background or the current veterinary environment combine with these risk factors is essential to bettering our understanding of a dog’s veterinary experience and in contributing to the continual improvement of dog welfare in the veterinary context.




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