Fear-Free Visits Promote Better Veterinary Care
March 13, 2017
By Dr. Hope Jankunas
This article originally appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal Living and Being Magazine, March 2017 issue
Many cat owners will attest that the mere sight of the carrier is enough to send Kitty running for cover under the nearest piece of furniture. Our four-legged friends are smart enough to connect the dots: carrier means car and car means trip to the veterinarian.
A trip to the vet does not have to be stress-inducing for your pet, however. It can actually be “fear free.”
The term “fear-free” refers to removing triggers that would typically cause pets to become stressed during their visit to the veterinarian—and it’s more than just the latest industry buzzword. The concept of fear-free visits has recently gained popularity because it allows the veterinary team to provide a better experience for both patients and clients, while improving the safety of everyone involved.
It Starts in the Home
Cats and dogs pick up on cues that they are headed to see the vet, and their nervousness begins long before they arrive at the office. To prevent anxiety, we must alter the pet’s interpretation of these cues using behavior modification training called desensitization and counter-conditioning.
Consider the cat carrier. It is possible to change the pet’s negative emotional response to the carrier by leaving it out in the house at all times (desensitization). Hiding treats or toys inside the carrier can teach her to have a new positive response to it (counterconditioning). Over time, the cat’s fear of the carrier will be eliminated, allowing her to arrive at the vet’s office in a calmer state.
This process can also be applied to dogs that are afraid of going into the car. The same association with the car and vet visit can trigger a negative response. Taking the dog to the park or simply for a ride around the block will work to desensitize him, and providing treats or positive reinforcement for climbing into the car can help counter-condition.
Keep Calm and Carry Treats
Upon arrival at the vet’s office, a calm and welcoming environment will maintain your pet’s relaxed state. The waiting room should be relatively quiet and odor-free, with separate waiting areas for dogs and cats. The use of calming pheromones also helps ease fear in dogs and cats. If your pet suffers from anxiety, minimize wait times by requesting the first appointment of the day. Exercising an energetic pet prior to the visit will help avoid restlessness and agitation during the exam.
A well-trained veterinary team will use safe and gentle handling techniques during your pet’s exam. Your pet should be examined wherever he is most comfortable. High value treats can be offered, both as a distraction and as a counter-conditioning technique, thus promoting a new, positive response to a veterinary examination.
If a pet is exceptionally stressed, a veterinarian may recommend sedation. In most cases, however, the fear-free approach can help ease a pet’s nerves during the visit.
Remember, dogs and cats can pick up on their owner’s emotional state, so it is important that pet parents also remain calm.
Ask if your veterinary team has pursued special training in the fear-free approach. Additionally, look for a certified “Cat Friendly” practice, a special accreditation given by The American Association of Feline Practitioners to animal hospitals that provide the highest feline veterinary standards and demonstrate a thorough understanding of needs unique to cats.
Using the fear-free approach will lead to happier vet visits, but be prepared to spend more time at the vet both during the exam and planning for the visit. Becoming actively involved in the fear-free process strengthens the bond between pet and owner. In the end, the purrs and tail-wags will tell you that it was all worth it!
Dr. Hope Jankunas is the owner of Companion Pet Hospital with locations in Fishkill, Beekman and Carmel. CPH is accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Association of Feline Practioners. To learn more, visit companionpethospital.com, call 845.896.4830 or follow CPH on Facebook.