Why Fear Free? Behavior Expert Steve Dale Shares His Thoughts

Have you ever felt you are about to die? I mean that literally, like you’ve been held up at gunpoint or held out a window by your suspenders 30 stories up?

I’ve suggested for years that too many of our pets at the veterinary clinic feel like they are being held up at gunpoint or are about to be thrown out a window – that they are about to die.

No wonder the flight or fight response kicks in for many pets in an exam room; they feel like they’re fighting for their lives and there’s no way out. Other animals freeze – becoming so still and quiet that sometimes owners and even veterinary staff don’t recognize how terrified they really are. Sometimes animals are so petrified that they lose control of their bladder or bowels, shake so hard they are physically vibrating or salivate so excessively there’s a pool of drool on the exam table.

A few years back my old friend Dr. Marty Becker told me about his idea to remove that fear from veterinary visits, an initiative he was about to launch called Fear Free.

I’ve certainly witnessed the terror many pets (likely most pets) feel visiting the veterinarian, even in some of my own pets over the years. As a certified animal behavior consultant, I realize that emotional wellbeing is as important as physical health. The two are inexorably linked.

I asked Dr. Becker if I could be a part of the solution. No one wants pets to feel fear, anxiety and stress at the veterinary clinic, let alone be alarmed at the mere thought of visiting the veterinarian. And that happens.

Our pets may not be privy to our Outlook calendars, but many clearly know when it’s time for a veterinary visit. The carrier appears and the cat disappears. Dogs happily jump in the car, and out of the car, but hit the brakes when they realize, “Uh, oh, I’m here.”

Nearly a third of dog owners (28 percent) say going to the veterinarian is stressful, and 38 percent suggest their dog feels stressed out. It’s even worse for cats. Nearly 40 percent of cat owners call vet visits stressful, and 58 percent suggest their cat gets stressed at the veterinary clinic.

This data doesn’t include a not so insignificant percent of pet owners who have stopped going to the veterinarian altogether for various reasons, from costs to not understanding the importance of checkups, as well as because of the expectation of emotional discomfort. For some (particularly cat owners), it’s just impossible to catch the kitty and stuff her into the carrier.

That’s not to say that there aren’t lots of pets  – millions of them – who enjoy the veterinary visit. And I suggest they get a better exam than a fractious cat or an aggressive dog.

The terms fractious cat and aggressive dog are descriptive of what veterinarians and pet owners see, but they suggest the cat or dog is “bad” or “lashing out in anger.” Those terms are not descriptive of what the pets are feeling. In fact, the pet is petrified. Instead of punishing or blaming frightened dogs and cats, Fear Free seeks to find and fix the cause of their fear.

While there’s no way to prove it, I believe animals who tolerate or even enjoy a veterinary visit may live longer lives. Certainly they live longer than pets who never see a veterinarian.

Just over 80 percent of cats see a veterinarian in their first year with people.  That sounds impressive, but it means that millions of cats don’t receive any medical care even in that first year. Far more problematic, the majority of cats don’t see a veterinarian after that unless they become so ill or injured that there is no other choice.

We know that dogs and cats benefit from preventive care. But even the best veterinarians can’t diagnose clients they don’t see..

Fear Free promotes a considerate approach and gentle control techniques used in calm environments. Utilization of Fear Free methods and protocols leads to reduction or removal of anxiety triggers, which creates an experience that is both rewarding and safer for all involved: pets, their owners, and veterinary health care teams.

There’s a lot veterinary practices can do, from plugging in pheromone diffusers of Feliway and Adaptil to help pets feel more comfortable in their surroundings to taking time with exams, moving slowly and respecting a pet’s demeanor. Still, Fear Free begins in homes, long before the visit with enriched environments and setting the pet up for success. Over the next weeks and months, I will write about specifically how to carry this out.

What matters most is that we can make veterinary visits tolerable, and even fun, by working hand in paw with the veterinary community.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.