Tricks of the Trade: Fear-Free Veterinary Strategies

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Kids learn about “stranger danger” when they’re young and similarly, our pets learn early on that those people in white coats that speak a language they don’t understand and then poke, prod and sometimes hurt them, are something they want to avoid. And while my cats couldn’t give a toss about the actual check-up, they run for cover each time the dreaded carrier is brought up from the basement. Of course, once in the car, the deep howling takes place along with stress-messing that leaves me apologizing to the vet as we attempt to extract a stinky kitty from an enclosure that she now deems her safe space. (More on what we can do to help de-stress our pets prior to leaving home, is included below.)

So, whether your furry companion is of the canine or feline variety, being handled in unfamiliar surroundings is a frightening experience for them and an unsettling one for us as caring pet parents.

Related: Research Finds that Fear and Anxiety Negatively Affects Your Pet’s Health

That’s where Fear Free veterinary care enters the picture. Clinics throughout North America are being trained and certified to deliver a less scary experience for our pets. It’s not just the veterinarian who receives training, but the technicians, receptionists and even the clinic itself that is made to be more welcoming for anxious clients of the four-legged variety. And it doesn’t stop there because this type of schooling can be delivered to animal groomers, trainers and even pet sitters who interact directly with your pet.

How does it work? Simply put, it’s a series of strategies that are used to calm your pet upon arrival to the clinic and during the examination process. But while you’ll see that many of these steps are easy to do and relatively inexpensive to put in place, not all clinics offer this type of support service. In fact, a Fear Free certified veterinary clinic will have had to complete 9 hours of related education with testing and annual updates via a continuing education program. So, you can rest assured that those handling your pet will always be on top of the latest research and calming techniques.

Now, you’ll be wondering what some of these strategies are so here are just a few:

  • Non-slip floor surfaces. That, or well-placed entry mats so your pet doesn’t do the splits the moment he enters the clinic. This is particularly important if you have a pooch that tends to tug and pull when on his lead. When he falls, he feels out of control and this is an instant stressor for dogs – particularly when in unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Pheromones. These pleasing aromas (typically plug-ins) can help to neutralize the many scents your pet is picking up as soon as he walks through the clinic door. From the stress of other animals to antiseptics and various cleaning solutions. Any of these smells can cause your pet to become highly reactive as he tries to make sense of it all.
  • Calming music. Dogs yipping in the back and cats howling from their carriers can cause unnecessary anxiety for your pet. Calming music that is specifically suited – and sometimes even created – for animals can be instantly soothing. Sounds such as a piano, cello or any single instrument that delivers a soft, lower tone will prove particularly relaxing.
  • Distractions during the examination process can go a long way in accomplishing the task at hand and prevent undue stress on your pet. I’ve never met a dog that won’t respond positively to a treat or maybe a little brushing behind the ears or along his favorite spot. It’s all about creating more positive than negative moments during your pet’s visit.

Related: Dog Music: Music to Soothe Your Pooch

And here are some tips for pet owners to help make the journey to the vet, more enjoyable.

  • Ensure your pet is hungry when you head out for his visit to the vet. No brekkie in the morning means that when you arrive at the clinic and he is handed his favorite treat (either by you or the vet), he’s connecting the visit with something positive and, dare I say, something he can look forward to?
  • If on arrival you have to wait, why not have your pet stay in the car (temperatures permitting) or ask to sit in the examination room with him so that unfamiliar stimuli are no longer present. For me, it also allows me a little one-on-one time with my pet to help reassure her that she’s safe as she sniffs and explores.
  • Space permitting, it can be a good idea to leave your pet carrier out for them to enjoy year-round. Especially felines, who consider it a safe, cozy place where they can snooze and watch the world go by. By making it available to them for pleasant past-times, you eliminate the negative association when it is suddenly appears from storage.
  • If your pet has to stay over night or for a longer period of time where you won’t be present, be sure to bring along his favorite blanket or even an unwashed t-shirt you have recently worn. His superior sense of smell will pick up on your scent and this will deliver that comforting, familiar smell of home that helps him feel safe.

For my crew, the veterinarian kisses the top of their head just prior to picking them up and taking them away for blood-work or x-rays. He does this for any procedure that will take them out of my sight (or me, from their sight). This simple gesture seems to bring them great comfort as they willingly disappear to places behind closed doors. My super-skittish Schnoodle – who was shaking uncontrollably while she sat on the examination table – was relaxed and wagging her tail on return from having tests done. Go figure.

Does your vet use fear-free practices when interacting with your pet? If not, it may be time to shop around.


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