The Fear Free Initiative

Have you ever gotten the dreaded email reminder from your pet’s veterinary office that your pet is due for his or her yearly checkup and vaccines, and shuddered at the thought of having to take them into the office, even though you know it’s necessary. Stress not — you are not alone, and there is recent good news on this front.

The Fear Free Initiative was created by Dr. Marty Becker, a well-known small animal veterinarian, in order to reduce fear and stress in pets in the veterinary environment — to “take the ‘pet’ out of petrified.” This program provides educational resources to veterinary team members, emphasizing stress-free handling and calming techniques in order to provide the most positive experience for pets (and their owners too — since it’s stressful to us as owners to see our pets anxious or stressed).

Fear-Free certified professionals have undergone a series of training programs emphasizing calming techniques, low-stress handling, recognition of symptoms of FAS, as they refer to the trifecta of fear, anxiety and stress, and the use of pharmacologic aids when indicated.

Stress can have deleterious physiological effects such as delayed wound healing, increased blood pressure and even hypersensitivity to other stimuli such as pain. Additionally, a fearful, anxious and/or stressed animal is more likely to accidentally injure themselves, their owner or the veterinary team working with them.

Knowing how to read an animal’s body language, and understanding what physical signs of fear or stress look like is important for both pet owners and veterinary staff. Animals who are stressed will often start panting, licking their lips, yawning, turning away or avoiding you, trying to hide or sometimes “freezing,” or becoming very still. Most of these behaviors are quite subtle, and they do not always outwardly seem to be signs of fear, but they are all signs of stress.

The best approach when dealing with a stressed pet in a veterinary hospital setting (as well as a grooming, training or any other type of handling situation) is often to temporarily stop and reevaluate the immediate need for the procedure being done — do we “need” to do this, or just “want” to do this procedure? For example, blood work in a sick patient may be a “need,” whereas a nail trim in a healthy patient is a “want.” In some cases, it’s as simple as giving the patient a minute to relax, or increasing the desirability of the food reward being offered as a distraction; other times, the patient may already be so wound-up with fear, anxiety and/or stress, that no matter what type of gentle handling techniques are employed the procedure will not be able to be safely performed. In these cases, the suggestion may be made to reschedule the visit.

If rescheduling is recommended, it is important to ask ourselves what can be done differently for the next visit. In many cases, a low dose of an anti-anxiety or mild sedative drug given several hours prior to the visit can have a significant effect in relaxing the patient — making the veterinary visit much more relaxed and safe for all involved. Other things that can help ease fear, anxiety and stress include acclimating your dog to the car (preferably with some type of safety restraint), and your cat to the carrier. Any music played in the car should be soothing; and, since our pets pick up very easily on our own emotions, the less rushed and anxious you are the more that will carry over to your pet. There are also calming pheromones (we especially like Feliway for cats, and Dog Appeasing Pheromone for dogs) that can be sprayed on carriers, towels and beds prior to the visit.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, some patient just aren’t able to get to a point where they are calm enough for us to safely work with them. In that case, rather than cause further stress, it is often best to more heavily sedate them (with injectable drugs), enabling us to do an exam, draw blood and perform small procedures without causing a major meltdown. This is safer (and less traumatic) for both the pet, owner and veterinary staff.

Food is an extremely powerful motivator for most dogs, so we try to use it as often as possible in during exams and treatments. If your pet has a known food allergy, be sure to bring their own tasty treats to their appointment, so the staff has something to offer them! Using high value treats like cheese or hot dogs can sometimes help keep their attention better than regular kibble or dry treats. (Our personal favorite are cans of EZ-Cheese, which we keep stocked in every exam room — cats and dogs BOTH love it!) Because treats are such a great distracting and calming agent, we recommend bringing your pet in on an empty or semi-empty stomach.

Lastly, we recommend asking your veterinarian to make notes in your pet’s chart about which handling techniques work best and which treats they like best. And, if you know your pet likes certain veterinary staff, don’t hesitate to request them when you make your appointment!

To find a Fear-Free certified professional near you, click here! (We are working toward having all our assistants, technicians and veterinarians certified - currently Dr. Ungerer, Dr. Gloor, Alex Leslie (LVT) and Samantha Hunley (LVT) are certified).

For a refresher on general tips for a successful veterinary visit, check out our previous post from earlier this year, “10 Tips for a Successful Veterinary Visit.”