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- Schedule a visit when nothing's wrong. Stopping by with your pet to say hello, get a treat, or just weigh in can make him less nervous on future visits, says Elizabeth Bradt, a veterinarian at All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem, Massachusetts. When booking your appointment, ask the receptionist about the quietest days and times so you can get in and out of the office quickly.
- Prepare your pet. A large part of your dog's or cat's anxiety comes from being handled in unfamiliar ways. "To prep your animal for what will happen during a vet visit, practice stroking her in less obvious places, such as in between the pads of her feet, on her lips and around her tail," suggests Grey Stafford, PhD, director of conservation and communication at Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium in Litchfield Park, Arizona. Praise her for remaining calm as you do this and she'll get used to the process -- and hopefully breeze through the exam when it's her veterinarian's turn to do it.
- Bring treats or toys. A chew toy or some treats -- even a favorite blanket -- can make your pet feel more at home in his strange new surroundings. Guerrilla tactic: If you have a yoga mat at home, tote that along as well. "Exam tables are stainless steel for sanitary purposes, but the cold, slippery surface can be disconcerting for pets," explains Jessica Vogelsang, a small-animal veterinarian in San Diego. "Laying a yoga mat on top of the table will warm it up and give them some extra traction."
- Make sure your pet is secure. That means large dogs should be on leashes and cats and small dogs should be in carriers. "You may have the sweetest, most docile pet in the world, but the veterinary office can feel strange and scary and you have no control over who else might be in the office with you," says Dr. Vogelsang. And if your pet is a biter or scratcher, tell your vet ahead of time. "We don't mind," she says. "We just appreciate being prepared."
- Never approach other animals. Just because an animal has a cute face or is the same breed as your pet, don't assume that she's friendly, says expert Nikki Moustaki, author of Pocket Pups. And since pets in pain can be extremely sensitive and cranky -- and sick animals may be contagious -- save the socializing for the dog park.
- Come with questions. Taking a list with you helps cover a lot of ground efficiently and thoroughly and can open up a dialogue with your vet, says Liz Devitt, a veterinarian at Ark Animal Hospital in Santa Cruz, California. "Questions about how your cat's weight gain might affect her arthritis could lead to a discussion on heart problems or diabetes because your veterinarian knows an overweight animal is more at risk for these serious health issues," she explains.
- Ask about alternatives. When your vet recommends a treatment, speak up to learn about all your options. "Your dog might have knee surgery instead of taking anti-inflammatories, for instance, or get an MRI to check for injuries that don't show up on X-rays," Dr. Devitt says. Armed with that information, you can decide which course of action makes the best sense for you and your pet.
- Be honest. If you fib about feeding your dog table scraps or are embarrassed to admit that your cat got into the trash, your vet may order the wrong tests or take longer to diagnose the problem, says veterinarian M. J. Hamilton, of Fifth Avenue Veterinary Specialists in New York City. Also, bring any supplements your pet is taking along with the labels from regular food and treats. The doctor can use this information to assess whether you're feeding your pet properly for his age, weight, and activity level.
- Do it every year. Animals age faster than we do, so their diseases sometimes progress more rapidly. An annual exam gives your vet a chance to find things like dental disease, arthritis, and heart conditions before they get too advanced. "Pets can't tell us when they're hurting," Dr. Vogelsang says. "We see things like rotting teeth, degenerating hips, and ear infections in pets who seem just fine. Owners often come back after we treat their animal for something they didn't even know was there and say, 'Wow, it's like he's 5 again!'"