I attended a lecture by Dr. Marty Becker in November 2015. I walked out and called my wife and told her my life has changed. The lecture was on Fear Free Veterinary Care. This new concept resonated with me. I knew it would be a lot of work, that not every one of my employees or clients would embrace. But it seemed that regardless of the obstacles, this is the right thing to do and I resolve to do it.
Fear Free veterinary care means that we are paying attention to the emotional well-being of our patients as well as their medical, surgical, and dental needs. I would say that veterinarians, myself included, are veterinarians because we love animals. I would also say that we as a group have tried to be compassionate to our patients. However, I now think that going forward we can do better, a lot better. For example, in the past if we needed to draw a blood sample or clean an ear or cut nails and the pet objected we would just hold them tighter while we did the procedure and not pay much attention to their objections. Now those days are gone for me. I think that if our patients are frightened or anxious or stressed by what we are doing then let’s approach the whole matter differently and get the job done stress free and clean those ears without my patient, my beloved patient, being overly anxious or afraid. This is possible. This is not necessarily easy but it is the right thing to do. It is the better thing to do.
According to some experts and behaviorists “emotional pain” is the worst pain, a social species like a dog or person can experience. When our human soldiers go to battle and then come home frequently their physical injuries like broken bones heal but it takes a very long time to recover from their emotional scars. If each time our pets come into a veterinary office and have a negative or stress producing experience on subsequent visits to us they are more likely to build up more and more anxiety and fear of the veterinary visit. To the extent that as a doctor I can’t accurately evaluate my patient whose heart is racing and who is panting and tense to my touch. It’s hard enough trying to understand what ails our furry friend considering they can’t talk. Add in fear and its effect on the psyche and body just makes it so much harder.
Fear is stored in our brain in a part called the amygdala. Once fear is in there it is not easy to forget it. This means that for pets already frightened of the veterinary office or frightened of an injection we will have to work hard to calm them, reassure them, distract them, and replace the bad experience with a good one.
Every puppy comes in happy and open, we must make each visit positive with plenty of treats and petting and playing. So that when our 6 pounder is 60 pounds he will still be wagging his tail and pulling on his leash to hurry his people into our office because he has had a positive experience with us. I would rather see this than a stressed dog trying to get back out the door and home.
What I say for dogs goes double for cats. Cats generally are not happy to be placed on a carrier to go for a car ride to the vet. Statistically 50% of the cats get stressed coming to the vet. We can change that; we can do better. In fact, we have and we are doing better at our office every day.
My staff and I have attended Fear Free courses in Connecticut, San Diego, and Austin, Texas. We have taken and been certified in an extensive course and as of now we are the only practice certified in Connecticut and with the exception of 2 doctors in upstate New York we are the only others in New York State to be certified.
We use a great many techniques to reduce the fear, anxiety, and stress in our patients. Among the many things we do is make sure the car rides to our office are enjoyable. We have many dogs coming in for “happy visits” where they drive over to us and get a bunch of treats and go home. We use food treats and distraction techniques, we use pheromones that make our pets feel safe, we do exams on our tables or on the floor, maybe on the chair, in the client’s lap, wherever our patients are most comfortable, we sometimes use thunder-shirts, we play soft dog/cat music, we have warming pads for our cats, we offer natural calming products as well as pharmaceutical “chill pills” for very nervous patients. If a pet should object to a procedure, we listen to them and try to accommodate their concerns.
Fear Free veterinary care is quite a revolution on how veterinary care can be delivered in the 21st century. Fear Free takes the Pet out of Petrified. Fear Free makes pets and their people feel less stress during the veterinary experience. Fear Free takes more effort by the veterinary team but Fear Free is the right thing to do and it is what we do!