Fear Free is a new initiative that is gaining traction among veterinarians as well as other pet-related industries (nurses, pet groomers) — designed by Dr Marty Becker and the late Dr Sophia Yin. The goal is to provide a fear-free environment during veterinary visits.
Most pet lovers are painfully aware of how much fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) a visit to the veterinarian can be. Cats don’t like it, and we don’t like it, and I’m sure the veterinarian doesn’t like it. Fear Free has devised a programme for veterinarians to become fear-free certified which includes learning several protocols to take the fear out of medical care. Research has shown that many pet owners avoid veterinary visits due to the stress it causes their pet. This benefits everyone:
- Our pets, who are more likely to receive regular veterinary care which can diagnose and treat diseases early on. It also enables the veterinarian to take his or her time while performing an examination. Blood tests and vital signs are more accurate if the cat is not experiencing FAS.
- Pet owners, let’s face it, none of us likes to see our cats scared.
- Veterinarians, by reducing the chances of injuries caused by scared animals as well as by increasing the number of visits through the doors of the veterinary practice.
- Increased aggression
- Crouched stance with tail tucked under the body
- Flat ears
- Dilated (enlarged) pupils
- Avoiding eye contact
- Tail against the body
- Whiskers pulled back against the face
- Tense jaw
- Increased heart rate
- In extreme cases, involuntary urination
- Reluctance to come out of the cat carrier
Effects of fear and stress on the body:
Fear can present as aggression or hiding and has several physiological effects to increase the amount of available energy, decrease the flow of blood to non-important parts of the body needed for movement, increase oxygen levels, decrease digestion and perception of pain, all of which help the fight or flight response.
- Increased heart rate and increased blood pressure sends more blood to the muscles and away from the core and organs
- Muscles tense up
- The kidneys secrete the hormones cortisol and adrenaline and the liver releases glucose, all of which increase energy
- Changes to the gastrointestinal system, which slows down digestion
- Enhanced memory (which means similar situations in the future will provoke these powerful memories of fear which leads to anxiety)
How veterinarians practise fear-free:
A popular phrase used by veterinarians who use fear-free is ‘putting the treat into treatment’, which can be a way to earn your cat’s trust with the veterinarian and their staff and distract or reward the cat.
Soft hands and gentle restraint
During the physical examination, the veterinarian will use soft hands on the cat; veterinarians are moving away from firm restraint while performing examinations and diagnostics with the use of diversion therapy and where necessary, mild sedatives.
The use of music can reduce levels of stress in cats who enjoy classical music or nature sounds.
Limit eye contact
Direct eye contact is seen as threatening to cats, particularly those who are already experiencing FAS. The fear of-free veterinarian will examine the cat while limiting direct eye contact.
Separate waiting areas for dogs and cats
Larger veterinary practices can offer separate waiting rooms for dogs and cats or providing the cat with an elevated position (such as a shelf) to provide the cat with a safe view of the room.
Where this is not possible, they may recommend waiting in the car with the cat (never leave a cat alone in the car, especially on hot days) until the veterinarian is ready. The cat can then be transported into the examination room as quickly as possible.
Soft examination room table
Placing soft blankets or a non-slip yoga mat onto the examination table can feel more comfortable than the traditional cold, hard examination table
Synthetic facial pheromones in waiting and examination rooms
Pheromones are chemicals produced by several animals and insects. Cats produce feline facial pheromones (FFS) in glands located around the mouth, chin, cheeks and forehead, which are used to mark familiar people and objects. These particular facial pheromones are known to reduce stress in cats.
A synthetic version of the feline facial pheromone by the name of Feliway, which comes in the form of a spray or a plug-in can help to reduce stress in cats visiting the veterinary practice. Felifriend is the same product, which is applied to the veterinarian’s hands.
What can pet owners do to help?
Fear free starts at home, your veterinarian can help to educate pet owners about ways to reduce FAS in cats, some of which includes:
Let the cat get used to the carrier
Don’t bring the carrier out 5 minutes before you take your cat to the veterinarian. The cat will quickly learn that the carrier = veterinarian and will immediately feel stressed. Instead, leave the carrier out for the cat to use as it pleases. Our two cats slept in their carrier, which was situated close to a heater. The rule in our house was if the cats were in their carrier, we (as children) were to leave them alone. It was their safe haven.
Choose a suitable cat carrier
A carrier with an open or detachable top can enable the veterinarian to perform a physical examination (in most cases) with the cat still in its carrier.
Schedule pop-in visits to the veterinarian
Don’t wait until the cat needs to see a veterinarian, where possible, take your cat for trips without actually undergoing a physical examination. Bring along some of your cat’s favourite treats for the receptionist, veterinary nurse or veterinarian to give to your cat.
Use Feliway/Felifriend before you leave home
Feliway spray can be used in cat carriers and on the hands to help keep the cat calm.
Don’t feed before a visit
Where practical, and if the cat has no underlying medical causes, don’t feed the cat, or feed a smaller meal before the veterinary visit. This can help to make the cat more receptive to treats provided by veterinary staff.
How to find out more:
There is a wealth of information on Dr. Marty Becker’s Fear Free website.
Ask your veterinarian if they hold a certificate in fear-free practice, if they would consider joining the programme or if they follow fear-free principles. I hope that in time, more veterinarians will practice this method, certificate or not.
I have spoken an Australian veterinarian yesterday who has just attended a seminar on the Gold Coast, part of which discussed the Fear-Free programme and asked her if she thinks it will take off with Australian veterinary practices. She agrees that Fear Free is a ‘superb concept’, but said that many veterinarians are already using many of these methods because ‘no veterinarian wants a fearful patient‘, this, of course, puts the veterinarian at risk as well as causing stress to the cat. She also pointed me in the direction of Cat-Friendly practices which came out of the UK and follow a similar principle. What do you think? Have you noticed changes with the practice you take your pets to?