Fear Free is a philosophy that focuses on animals’ mental health and stress in addition to their general health. For many years, most veterinarians believed that animals were simply going to be scared at the vet and there was not much we could do about that. Fear Free challenges this notion and aims for each pet to have the most pleasant experience possible.
To become Fear Free certified, a veterinarian must complete nine hours of virtual training. Elite Fear Free veterinarians have completed 35 hours of training. These courses focus on gentle handling, anti-anxiety medication protocols, and specific situations such as nail trims or hospitalizing pets.
What does Fear Free look like when practiced?
A Fear Free appointment begins before the animal steps foot in the building.
Vet Tip: Pet parents should fast their animals for at least several hours before the appointment so that they are hungry and willing to accept treats from the veterinary staff. This allows the animal and staff to bond and helps pets view veterinary offices as a safe space.
Veterinary staff will also review an animal’s prior medical records to see if there are medications, supplements, or special ways of handling that have reduced a pet’s stress in the past.
When inside the office, pets are greeted in a friendly manner, offered treats, and moved into an exam room as quickly as possible. Calming music is played throughout the front end of the practice. Calming pheromones (scents that help animals communicate) such as Adaptil and Feliway are placed in each area of the hospital.
Once a pet is in an exam room, they are encouraged to explore the area. Amenities such as dog beds, scratching posts, and cat perches help pets feel comfortable. While a staff member gets a patient history, they gently interact with the pet and offer treats to further calm them.
When a veterinarian performs their physical examination, animals are gently handled in the least stressful way possible. Instead of rough restraint, pets are calmly coerced into the proper position with treats. If pets are not amenable to this, we try to maneuver them in a way that is disguised as petting. For example, if a pet needs to face the veterinarian, an assistant will often put their arms along each side of the pet’s body to box them in place, but rub their cheeks or ears to make them think the purpose of the restraint is to pet them.
How Fear Free Appointments Help with Anxiety
A key component of a Fear Free appointment is separating what is truly needed at that visit from what is simply wanted. While we always aim to do a thorough physical examination and accommodate each pet parent’s requests, a pets’ stress sometimes precludes this. For example, if a pet is highly stressed by nail trims, this may need to be skipped and done at a later time if the nails are short and a patient is anxious. Another example is when Vets are trying to get rectal temperature. When an otherwise healthy pet becomes stressed by a rectal thermometer, we may instead take a less accurate axillary (armpit) temperature.
When pets become very anxious, a Fear Free-certified veterinarian will do everything possible to get the pet back to a calm state. This can include trying different gentle restraint techniques with towels or blankets and taking breaks to offer food. If these fail, Fear Free veterinarians always keep in mind that pets are not “being bad.” They simply do not understand what is happening and are essentially having a panic attack. To help these anxious pets, calming drugs and supplements are usually discussed.
Depending on how anxious a pet is, different treatments are recommended. Some pets respond well to simple supplements such as milk-based Zylkene. Others need true medication such as Gabapentin, Trazodone, or Alprazolam (Xanax) given at home before the appointment. Highly stressed pets may need injectable sedation at the clinic. Fear Free encourages starting with simple things such as supplements or low dosages of at-home medication. We then gradually increase the medications used based on how a pet responds.
While Fear Free appointments can take slightly longer than routine visits, they provide a far superior experience. Pets are handled gently and with respect. It is not uncommon for pets that were fearful at routine practices to leave a Fear Free appointment accepting treats and wagging their tail.
To see which Vets are Fear Free Certified, click here.