The Prudent Pet blog the increasingly popular practice of the Fear Free certification, a program that provides online and in-person education for veterinary specialists to make vet visits less stressful for animals and their humans.
However, we were eager to learn more from professionals in our local Chicago veterinary community about how becoming Fear Free certified has impacted their practices.
An Interview with Fear Free Certified Professionals
We had the opportunity to speak with two certified Fear Free professionals: Lauren Singleton, DVM and Patricia Ostaszewski, CVT.
Dr. Singleton received her DVM in 2009 from Purdue University and currently sees dogs, cats, and small mammals at VCA Ark Animal Hospital.
Ostaszewski is Prudent Pet’s in-house veterinary technician but has been a practicing CVT for 13 years, specifically working with exotic animals like birds, reptiles, rodents, and wildlife.
Why did your clinic decide to become certified Fear Free?
SINGLETON, DVM: We decided to go Fear Free because it actually helps us provide more thorough exams for stressed pets. We can get more diagnostics and treatments done that we otherwise would not been able to do with a stressed patient. So, we can provide better medical care by using low stress methods. Plus, we also like animals, so we want them to enjoy coming here!
OSTASZEWSKI, CVT: My clinic knew firsthand what fear and anxiety could cause for our patients: more trauma, skewed labs, and less thorough exams. We wanted to make sure every pet was comfortable, calm, and wanted to make every patient and client visit a positive one.
What did the training process entail for your clinic’s staff to receive the Fear Free certification?
SINGLETON, DVM: Every staff member at our clinic had to do numerous hours of online training. I personally attended continuing education classes on lowering stress techniques at conferences.
OSTASZEWSKI, CVT: Becoming Fear Free certified meant a long course to understand the benefits of low-stress handling as well as understanding the fear, anxiety, and stress scale for each individual patient. It’s important to recognize and minimize triggers and study pharmaceutical techniques to minimize stress. We must also continue to re-educate ourselves and become re-certified yearly.
How does your clinic prepare for anxious and potentially aggressive dogs in the waiting areas?
SINGLETON, DVM: The preparation usually starts at home. Especially for anxious animals, we recommend the owner give an anti-anxiety medication two hours before the appointment. We try to get anxious patients in an exam room as soon as possible, since seeing other animals can make an anxious pet even more nervous. In feline exam rooms we have Feliway diffusers (a calming cat pheromone) to help ease the stress with tense kitties.
OSTASZEWSKI, CVT: We learn about each of our patients. If a client notes that their dog can be fearful, anxious, or aggressive we eliminate the waiting room completely. Patients are taken into a room immediately or asked to go for a walk until a room is available.
Are there any methods you use in the exam room to help ease anxious pet patients?
SINGLETON, DVM: Treats! Lots of treats! We feed pets treats throughout the exam, even snacks like peanut butter. This helps change their emotional state from nervous to relaxed. I always try to keep my hand on the patient throughout the exam to get them used to my touch. You must be aware of the pet’s body language: some are more comfortable with less restraint. I will usually perform exams with little or no restraints, so long as the exam can be safely performed this way.
OSTASZEWSKI, CVT: Yes! We use a considerate and gentle approach for each patient. We alleviate stressful stimuli in our rooms — from not putting cats in a room that previously had a dog to providing non-slip surfaces and aroma or acoustic therapy. We encourage the owner to let us know their preferences. We let the pet explore the room and bring the procedure to the pet if possible. And treats! We love positive reinforcement — easy cheese and peanut butter are game changers.
In what ways do you work to make your office open and accepting to all animals while simultaneously tending to the specific needs of some?
SINGLETON, DVM: We try to separate cats and dogs in our large waiting room. We even have specific rooms dedicated to cats since felines often react to barking and the smell of dogs. We also try to put dogs that are reactive to other canines in the exam room as quickly as possible. This mitigates the risk of anxious dogs becoming more worked up upon entering the clinic.
OSTASZEWSKI, CVT: It’s not difficult at all. It’s about making sure everyone is communicating and understanding. We make notes OFTEN in our patient records about how the patient acted during visits so we can continually improve their experience.
What can pet parents do at home if they suspect their pets may act negatively towards being at the vet?
SINGLETON, DVM: For cats and small dogs, owners should leave their pet carrier out at home so the pet can become used to it. They can even feed their pet and offer treats in the carrier, so it becomes a happy place.
I also suggest taking the pet on trips in the carrier to locations other than the vet. This way, they won’t associate their carrier with a trip to the vet’s office – it’ll simply get them used to traveling.
Owners can even spray their carrier with Feliway spray for cats or with a dog appeasing pheromone. Always carry carriers from the bottom and not from the top so that the carrier is more stable, and your pet feels more comfortable. Drive slow and cautiously so the carrier does not slide all over the car.
For larger dogs, pet parents should acclimate them to car travel by taking them other places in the car and giving them treats during travel to reward them. You could even take them to the vet’s office just so your doctor can feed them treats – this will ensure positive vet experiences, instead of getting poked with needles.
If your pet has a prescribed anti-anxiety medication for the exam, you should give that to them at least two hours before the visit. For both cats and dogs, do not feed them before the exam to make sure they’re hungry (and food motivated!). Bring your pet’s favorite treat to the appointment so we can reward them throughout the exam to make it a positive experience.
OSTASZEWSKI, CVT: Talk to your vet! Let them know what’s going on. There are many options when visiting a Fear Free clinic. We can send medication to give BEFORE coming in (anything from anxiety meds to anti-emetics to help with nausea in the car). We can also give feline pheromones to spray into carriers for stressed cats. You can also talk to your vet about doing visits at home or even in the parking lot!
The rise in Fear Free certifications throughout the veterinary industry has helped turn stressful vet visits into more enjoyable (and productive) experiences. Dr. Singleton and Ostaszewski’s Fear Free credentials have helped them mature their practices for every animal they see.
Our main takeaways for handling an anxious pet:
- Consider the environment. Just like the interaction between the veterinary team and the patient, the waiting areas and exam room should be as considerate and calm as possible for anxious animals.
- Be cognizant of your own actions. Professionals often practice gentle control to comfortably and safely position the patient in order to administer veterinary care.
- Listen to your pet. While our animals can’t tell us how they feel in words, their body language speaks volumes – especially when stressed.
No animal should have to sacrifice their health because they’re too nervous or stressed to visit their veterinarian. If you’re interested in easing the stress of vet visits, consider taking your pet to a certified Fear Free clinic.
*Interview responses may have been edited for clarity