What is Fear Free Veterinary Care and Why Bother?

As you may have noticed if you’ve visited with us in the last year or two, our hospital and policies are evolving to promote a more Fear Free approach to providing veterinary care. Fear Free medicine is aimed at reducing fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) in our patients. While this is certainly more enjoyable for your furry friends (and our staff), our motivation goes deeper than that. Fear Free handling is really about trust and respect.scared dog, body language, stress signs

Gaining Trust

Signs of fear, stress, and anxiety in animals can be subtle and are easy to miss in the excitement of a car ride and vet visit. Our staff is trained to look for early signs of stress and modify our handling and treatment plans before the more obvious signs become apparent.

Check out these helpful visual guides for how we gauge FAS in dogs and cats.

So what does that have to do with trust and respect? Our pets cannot communicate verbally. Nearly all of their communication happens via body language - both to members of their own species and their human families (even though we may not be aware of a lot of it!) By learning a dog’s or cat’s language, we can communicate more effectively through our own actions. When a dog or cat indicates to us that they are uncomfortable with a lip lick, yawn or constant movement in the room, we can adjust our actions to say, “Hey, I hear you.” This is done by changing our own body language in some circumstances - leaning back, turning our body to the side, looking slightly away. It can also be done by simply giving the patient a break - toss a few treats away and give the patient the choice about whether to return to our space. When this is done repeatedly either during a single visit or over many as with our comfort conditioning visits, this teaches the pet that they can trust us to respect their boundaries.

Eyes on the Prize

Does this sound extreme? Like it would take forever? It does and it doesn’t. With our average patient, small changes in our handling and body language can relieve fear, anxiety, and stress and allow us to accomplish everything that needs to be done. Our average appointment takes 30 minutes or less. In other, more nervous, patients, this can take a little bit longer. Sometimes it’s a longer visit, a few happy visits or adding on anti-anxiety medication before the next visit.  In others, it can be weeks or months of work in the clinic and at home to gain trust and consent.

So why do we do this? Isn’t it easier to just hold them down and get it over with? Ask anyone in our clinic and you’ll get a resounding NO WAY. Ignoring signs of stress and pushing through teaches the pet that subtle signs don’t work. This can lead to an escalation in behavior that, at best, makes a pet more difficult to handle and, at worse, could result in a bite. This makes appointments take longer and care suffers - plus, someone could get hurt! If we have to hold down a pet to examine it, we can’t get a full and thorough exam. Not to mention that the adrenaline that comes with fear, anxiety, and stress can mask symptoms and make problems harder to diagnose. 

We are now in our third year of focusing on Fear Free techniques and the best part is seeing nervous patients back a year later and finding that they remember! They remember that we respect them. They trust that we won’t hurt them. It may take a happy visit to prepare for their annual, but, all in all, the investment of time pays off in subsequent years in that exams are faster, more thorough and we can do more because we’ve taken the time to find what works for that patient.

Why Freeport Vet is Different

What really makes us diffKittens, cat, vet care, squeeze cheeseerent?  Anyone can feed cheese to distract during a nail trim or vaccine.  What dog wouldn’t enjoy a peanut butter kong while waiting for the doctor?  We do those things, but that’s not what makes Freeport Veterinary Hospital special.  We treat each pet as an individual.  We are willing to work with pets that other clinics may not be comfortable with because our staff understands that most “aggressive” behavior is just a front for a pet that’s terrified.  When we aren’t able to accomplish an exam or treatment easily, we don’t buckle down and try harder.  We listen to our patients and change the plan. 

Several of our staff members are skilled at counter conditioning methods that can be used to take a fearful dog and change scary associations to happy ones.  We also promote Cooperative Veterinary Care practices in which operant conditioning is used to build trust and teach consent for some of the more stressful things that need to be done such as blood draws.  We work closely with local positive reinforcement trainers to help nervous dogs prosper in and outside of the vet clinic. This multi-tiered approach is aimed at promoting lifelong, whole body health. Who doesn’t want that for their pet? 

Check out Basho and Dr. Cote in action in this video.

In summary, we practice Fear Free veterinary medicine because it’s easier long-term, it’s safer and we want the same level of respect and trust for our patients that we have with their human families. We take your pet’s health seriously and understand that their willing participation in care will lead to better outcomes for all involved. 

Do you feel like your pet would benefit from a more respectful, individualized approach?  Call us today to set up a consult!


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