By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
We have all been there. The embarrassed client who pokes her head in the door and asks if we have a hose to clean her dog off. The carrier with the yowling cat and the fetid odor with an owner who is embarrassed and says her cat “might need a little cleaning and could the carrier be cleaned too?”
Even before you work on the stress aspects, think about how to physically minimize chances of stress diarrhea. Ideally these pets are scheduled early in the day for their office appointments. That way the owners can skip the pet’s morning meal – and maybe even the evening meal of the night before if need be. Less in means less out. Obviously doing this depends on the health of the pet and how the owner manages feedings but it might be a solution.
There may be dietary changes that help with a specific pet. Think plain canned pumpkin for fiber to help keep stools firm. Advise owners to avoid any special or extra treats for a day or two before the appointment.
A careful history can enlighten you about the cause. Is it the car travel? Some pets just don’t handle car rides well. Or is it only when the pet actually senses and anticipates a veterinary visit? Sometimes it is both factors. The important thing to realize is that Fear Free procedures must be instituted ahead of the veterinary visit to help these animals.
If it is the car travel, consider dispensing anti-nausea medications ahead of the visit (yes, vomiting often accompanies stress diarrhea). Look at calming combos that help with travel anxiety such as Travel Calm, an essential oil combo for dogs who get carsick. Send clients home with canine or feline pheromone products—wipes or sprays—that the owner can use in the carrier and car to and from the clinic. For patients who have a history of travel-related diarrhea, offer to prescribe PVPs—pre-visit pharmaceuticals—such as gabapentin or trazodone to help them relax.
Encourage families to give the nervous dog an extra-long walk and possibly some playtime early on the morning of the appointment to try and stimulate bowel emptying before the dog gets in the car or enters the clinic. Playtime at home for a cat might help as well.
Long term, especially if the diarrhea is specifically associated with arriving at the veterinary clinic, you can try some counterconditioning techniques to help put a stop to loose stools. Encourage owners to take their pet for short trips ending up in the parking lot of the veterinary clinic. Then dogs can get out and get some special treats or, even better, some playtime with a favorite toy such as a tug. Cats can get favorite treats. Then happily turn around and take them home. Pets will come to associate trips, even trips that end up at the dreaded vet clinic, with some good things.
As pets deal with a clinic utilizing Fear Free practices, the fear and panic they previously showed when traveling to or arriving at the clinic should subside. As fear and anxiety decrease, so should episodes of stress diarrhea. Everyone will be happier!
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.