The Fear Free Certification Program was launched in March 2016 by Dr. Marty Becker to help veterinary professionals eliminate fear, anxiety, and stress in pets, and to create a more advantageous veterinary experience for all involved. The program is available to all veterinary team members, including veterinarians, veterinary technicians and nurses, practice managers, and client service representatives. There is also a significant amount of education available on the Fear Free website for interested pet parents. Participants can access educational modules to learn techniques that encourage pets to willingly participate in their health care, and to help pet owners deliver calm pets to the veterinary hospital.
At Ethos, we are committed to ensuring our pet patients receive optimal veterinary care, and we believe that Fear Free certification can significantly enhance the practice of providing quality medical care. Ethos currently has an initiative with the eventual goal of all Ethos hospital veterinary team members completing the course, and every Ethos hospital to be Fear Free certified. The Fear Free concept has many benefits for pets, owners, and veterinarians.
Fear Free methods decrease a pet’s fear, anxiety, and stress
Numerous pet owners report that, because their pet fears the veterinarian, they dread upcoming appointments. Veterinarians have accepted for far too long that a pet’s fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) are unavoidable during a veterinary visit, yet uncontrolled FAS causes physiological responses that can harm a pet.
Veterinarians and pet owners must understand that the pet’s fear is real, whether or not their fear is justified. Neglecting FAS in a pet can cause increased respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels, and delayed wound healing and stress colitis. In addition, FAS can skew laboratory results, hindering diagnosis and treatment.
Alleviating FAS is paramount to ensure a pet receives the best possible veterinary care, and a pet who willingly accepts veterinary attention in turn causes owners and veterinary professionals less stress.
Fear Free environments promote calm for pets and their owners
Fear Free practices ensure their facilities promote a calm environment for pets. Sight, sounds, and smells can trigger a pet’s FAS response, causing a negative association before the veterinary professional enters the room. Techniques used to mitigate these issues include:
- Sight — When possible, pets do not interact with, or see other pets. In addition, the lighting and color palette is muted, and pets are provided with toys, to help engage their minds.
- Scent — Species-specific pheromones are infused to help naturally calm pets, and odor-free disinfectants are used, out of consideration for their sense of smell.
- Sound — Voice levels are kept muted, to ensure a pet’s sensitive ears aren’t affected.
Fear Free professionals learn fear, anxiety, and stress signs in pets
The Fear Free program teaches veterinary professionals how to read a pet’s body language, so they understand the pet’s communication and willingness to participate in the exam. This ensures the pet won’t be forced to participate in an uncomfortable situation and decreases the risk of a veterinary professional being bitten or scratched. The FAS scoring spectrum used to evaluate pets includes:
- FAS 1 — Pets are alert, excited, and potentially mildly anxious.
- Dogs — Dogs stare at a concerning stimulus, keeping their mouth closed. Typically, the dog’s pupils will be slightly dilated, their brow intense, and the hair on their back and tail slightly raised.
- Cats — Cats avoid eye contact, turning their head away without moving their body, and keeping their tail tucked close around their body.
- FAS 2 — Pets are moderately anxious, but not upset.
- Dogs — Dogs hold their ears to the side or slightly back, keep their tail down, may be unable to settle, pant with a tight mouth, and have moderately dilated pupils.
- Cats — Cats hold their ears to the side, have moderately dilated pupils, hold their tail tight to their body, and they stay in a crouched position.
- FAS 3 — Pets are anxious, and starting to be upset.
- Dogs — Dogs refuse treats, or take them slowly, and may hesitate to interact.
- Cats — Cats stare at the concerning stimulus, keep their whiskers back, and slowly move their tail.
- FAS 4 — Pets are extremely anxious.
- Dogs — Responses vary, including panting excessively, running away, and tucking their tail, or becoming extremely tense to the point of freezing.
- Cats — Responses vary, including attempting to escape, dilated pupils, and a bushy tail, or a flattened, tense, immobile body.
- FAS 5 — Pets are extremely upset and may lash out.
- Dogs — Some dogs may lunge forward with bared front teeth, raised hackles, and tail up, while others may bare all their teeth, and crouch with their tail tucked.
- Cats — Cats may stare and growl, leaning forward with their ears and whiskers forward, or put their ears back, bare their teeth, hiss, and swat.
Fear Free tips to improve your pet’s veterinary experience
Fear Free veterinary practices employ “Happy Visits” and “Victory Visits” to help acclimate pets to accept veterinary care, and as a pet owner, you can take steps to improve your pet’s veterinary experience. Tips include:
- Be prepared — On the day of your pet’s appointment, be prepared so you aren’t stressed or running late. Your pet picks up on your anxiety, and they will assume they have reason to be upset, making them stressed before they reach the veterinary office. Stay as calm as possible when transporting your pet to the veterinarian.
- Drive carefully — If you take sharp turns and make sudden stops, your pet can be thrown around the car, increasing their anxiety.
- Handle your pet’s carrier appropriately — When transporting your pet in a carrier, keep them stable and upright so they feel secure. Place the carrier on the floor behind the driver’s side or passenger seat so that the carrier doesn’t slide around, causing the pet distress.
- Schedule your appointment early — Veterinary clinics tend to be less busy in the morning, and scheduling your pet’s visit first thing helps ensure your appointment won’t be delayed if unforeseen circumstances occur during the veterinarian’s day. The waiting room will also be less crowded.
- Notify the veterinary team — If you know your pet doesn’t handle veterinary visits well, notify the veterinary team in advance so they can be better prepared to lessen your pet’s anxiety.
- Request a particular veterinarian — Some pets respond better to a male or a female, and you can request a particular veterinarian if you feel your pet will be more comfortable in their care.
Fear Free methods may include sedation for pets
Despite the veterinarian’s and pet owner’s best efforts, some pets never acclimate to veterinary care. In these cases, sedation may be necessary to appropriately diagnose and treat the pet, as well as keep the pet, owner, and veterinary professionals safe. If sedation is needed, the safest drug at the lowest possible dose is used. Sedating an extremely anxious pet saves them from unnecessary stress and facilitates their veterinary care.
If you know your pet has anxiety, fear, or a stress response to veterinary visits, talk to your veterinarian about premedication prior to your next veterinary visit. Administering a calming medication or light sedative can help your pet relax before the visit, and prevent them from becoming anxious during the car ride. This is preferable to using heavier sedation to alleviate anxiety once it is already present. With premedication, your pet may not become stressed, and lighter sedation is typically sufficient, which provides more accurate exam readings. If your pet has severe anxiety that overrides their premedication, additional sedation can be administered by your veterinarian, and their dose can be adjusted for the next visit.
Fear Free Certification helps veterinarians provide their pet patients with optimal care, and Ethos plans to ensure their veterinary team members are equipped with this important knowledge.