Cats Dogs Fears & Anxieties Veterinary Care

Sedation for Your Pet is Safer Than You Think

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Have you ever felt embarrassed or concerned about your pet’s behavior at the veterinary clinic? Many pets feel fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) at the vet because of past stressful experiences or unfamiliarity with clinic staff and routine veterinary procedures. Although it may seem obvious to you that the veterinary staff is there to help, your pet can feel threatened in unfamiliar situations.

Fear Free® veterinary care focuses on changing a pet’s perception of the vet clinic by replacing negative associations with positive experiences. Fear Free Certified® Professionals use a variety of handling techniques, environmental modifications, training principles, and other tools to reduce stress during veterinary visits, which often includes pre-visit medications or supplements and in-clinic sedation. Although you may hesitate to sedate your furry pal, the benefits usually outweigh the minor risks.

Why do pets become stressed at the vet?

Recognizing that pets are experiencing involuntary FAS at the vet clinic—rather than misbehaving or acting defiantly—is an important distinction to understand. When pets act oddly at the clinic, their brains and bodies are simply responding to stress or recalling past negative experiences, and they have no control over their reaction. Similar to a human panic attack, no amount of reason or reassurance can calm down a pet who has reached their anxiety threshold.

Using sedation for a Fear Free® veterinary visit

Fear Free Certified® Professionals use a rating scale to determine how calm or fearful your pet feels during their visit, and that can change during different stages of the exam or procedure. Pets at the low end of the scale (levels one and two) often respond well to minor adjustments in handling and non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as soothing music, pheromone sprays, or anxiety wraps.

Once pets approach or reach a level three out of five on the scale, they can become a danger to themselves or veterinary team members. If the procedure or task causing the pet to reach this level is non-essential, vet staff can abort the mission and try again on another day, this time with additional fear-alleviating techniques. However, if the task is necessary to maintain or restore your pet’s health, sedation is the next step.

Sedation is often used in conjunction with a long-term behavior modification plan. Nail trims, ear cleanings, imaging procedures, grooming, and sometimes blood or urine collection are common procedures that can be upsetting for pets. A training technique called desensitization and counterconditioning is often used to help pets learn to accept these procedures, but it can take weeks or months to make progress toward that goal. In the meantime, sedation ensures that pets receive vital care without forcible restraint that can worsen the fear response and prevent a behavior modification program from working.

Benefits of sedation at the veterinary clinic

Sedation is a valuable tool in the Fear Free Certified® Practice’s toolkit. With many different drugs and drug combinations available to accommodate varying pet needs, sedation is far safer than most pet parents assume. Historically, sedation has been reserved for use with invasive procedures and pets experiencing extreme fear that can lead to potentially dangerous interactions, but we now know that sedation can result in better outcomes by preventing the pet from forming additional negative associations.

When veterinary teams recommend sedation for your pet, they are doing so to avoid putting your pet through a stressful experience. Sedation doesn’t mean your pet is bad or that you haven’t trained them properly. It simply means the veterinary team is acting in your pet’s best interest.

Pet sedation risks and safety

For most pets, the risks of sedation are minimal compared to the risks of a stressful veterinary visit. Acute and chronic stress has physical and emotional consequences, including immune system depression, infections, altered vital signs, vomiting, diarrhea, appetite changes, behavior problems at home, and worsening fear during vet visits. Holding a pet down to complete a procedure while they panic and struggle is far more detrimental to them than a low dose of an injectable or oral sedative given under veterinary supervision. Many sedative medications are reversible, which means your pet will be sleepy for their procedure but can go home quickly afterward.

Sedation is a powerful tool that ensures your pet has a positive experience each time they visit the veterinary clinic. The next time your veterinary team recommends sedation, consider it a kindness to your pet and a step toward a Fear Free® future.

Brought to you by our friends at Dechra.


This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

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