Getting to Know a Little More About Fear Free
American Veterinarian Editorial Staff
As veterinarians, we have a responsibility to look after the well-being of pets and animals. Not just the physical wellbeing, but the emotional wellbeing as well.
To learn more about the Fear FreeSM Initiative, American Veterinarian™ spoke with Marty Becker, DVM, also known as, “America’s Veterinarian.”
WHEN AND WHY DID YOU START THE “FEAR FREESM INITIATIVE”?
I cannot take credit for starting the “Fear FreeSM Initiative.” I’m a passionate populizer and gatherer of resources. The topic of emotional animal welfare was discussed as far back as 30 years ago, but we didn’t pursue it. At that time, many of the traumatic procedures we were doing to animals were only stopped because of the danger to the veterinarian—we were not considering the damage to the animal. We were treating their emotional trauma as collateral damage. It wasn’t until, at a meeting in Victoria, BC, Dr. Karen Overall lectured on how “fear is the worst thing that a social species could experience” that I had an awakening and started to stand up and take notice of thinking of the welfare or emotional well-being of the animals we were treating. What a shock to find out that we were making life worse for pets! We took an oath to make life better; to prevent or relieve animal pain and suffering… not cause it by what we were doing or not doing! Nowadays in human medicine, they coddle the patient and try to make them as comfortable as possible, particularly in pediatrics. As veterinarians, we are pediatricians for life.
The Fear FreeSM advisory panel actually put this [the Fear FreeSM Initiative] together with input from the greatest icons in behavior and medicine; from Temple Grandin to experts in pediatric care, geriatrics, internal medicine, end-of-life care experts, Zoo veterinarians, and even architects. But, it should be emphasized that the bedrock upon which Fear FreeSM is built are board certified veterinary behaviorists; they alone have the education, training, and experience to make sure this important transformation of companion animal practice is science-based.
WHAT GUIDES FEAR FREESM PRACTICES?
People hate to take their pets to the vet. Even veterinarians, nurses, and other hospital team members don’t like to take their own pets to the vet. Why? Because of the stress to the pet, [which leads to] the stress to the client. The pet owners, therefore, start to say that it’s not [financially and emotionally] worth the hurt to their pet and the hassle, and so they don’t take their pets to be examined.
Now, contrast this with taking a pet to a place like PetSmart or Petco and the difference is staggering. The pet loves to go to these places. Why? The pet is surrounded by toys, friendly faces, and receives treats! The pet owner is more than happy to take their pet to these places because it makes them happy and there’s no hassle. As a result, clients are paying more for day care, high-end grooming, nutrition, and not to going to vet visits. And pet store employees, groomers or kennel workers become the de facto pet health expert.
As veterinarians, we have a responsibility to look after the well-being of pets and animals. Not just the physical wellbeing, but the emotional wellbeing as well. The only way we can do that is to examine the animal. To examine the animal, they either have to come into the office, or we have to go to them, and that means that the experience needs to change to become a positive one for both the animal and the client. We need to teach animals to WANT to have their nails trimmed—to WANT to have their ears examined. The veterinary office needs to become an arena where the pets actually want to go (dogs) or is at least neutral not negative (cats).
WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN CLIENTS DON’T TAKE THEIR PETS TO THE VET?
Because clients do not want to go through the hassle, they are diagnosing their pets on their own through “Dr. Google,” and this can have devastating results. In the last 2 years in North Idaho Hospital, I’ve seen four cases where the pet owner was seeing vomiting or diarrhea in their pet and an internet search told them that their pet ate something it shouldn’t (so-called dietary indiscretion or garbage gut). These clients, therefore, withheld food and water and then gave the animal Kaopectate or Pepto Bismol and something bland to eat once the symptoms subsided; all because of “Dr. Google’s” advice. What had actually happened was that one dog had gotten into a case of rat poison. As a result of not being seen by a veterinarian, the dog died.
In another case, the dog had bloat, which we all know can be a serious condition. Again, the client consulted the internet instead of bringing the animal to be examined. The dog’s stomach ended up rupturing, and the dog died. In another case, the dog drank some antifreeze. Again, the dog died. In yet another, the dog had an intestinal foreign body, ruptured intestines, and an abdomen full of pus. Again, the dog died.
We cannot treat or cure what we don’t see. And that’s the great thing about Fear Free. Pet owners who had stopped coming in, start coming in again; and pet owners who were visiting less frequently, start coming back in more often.
The veterinarian is the true pet health expert and there is no substitute.
The clients need to understand that their pets cannot tell them where it hurts or how they got sick. Additionally, pets don’t want to tell you they are hurt because it’s inherent in them to keep it quiet. Because in the wild, hurt pets are preyed upon (sick = supper). Only veterinary professionals have the education, training, and experience to not only diagnosis problems, but look past obvious diseases or conditions to emerging or potential problems.
HOW CAN A VET MOVE TOWARDS A FEAR FREESM PRACTICE?
We need to work to remove anxiety triggers for the pet. We know through Fear FreeSM that if we look at the physical and emotional well-being of the animal at every visit, every day, everybody wins. And, it’s so rewarding for the veterinarian, the client, and most importantly, the pet. They get the healthcare that they deserve.
At first, it might seem like it might be too expensive or time-consuming. But it ends up being neither because you spend even less time on positional compliance or Gentle Control. You do not have to remodel your practice or the exam rooms—you have to remodel your voice or your animal handling procedures. Start simple. Find one or two things that you want to start with and then try it out.
Start out with requiring pets to come to the office when they are hungry and then reward them in the office with high-quality foods, such as baby shrimp or hot deli turkey. Last Thursday, we had two dogs that didn’t want to leave the exam room. They just wanted the treats. They were asking, “Where’s the next treat?”
Start the magic carpet ride of natural pheromones in their carrier, then the car, then the clinic, on you, the staff, and your instruments. Give the pet the choice of where they want to be examined. Don’t think that you have to put them on a high table that’s cold. Instead, maybe you can put them in a heated baby blanket. Start at the tip of the tail and work forward and use Clipnosis prior to examining an anxious cat’s mouth. Modules that have been developed by vets and pet experts are available on (www.fearfreepets.com) and CE credits are included.
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FEAR FREESM INITIATIVE IN THE FUTURE?
I want to see a pet adopted from a Fear FreeSM shelter, that goes to a Fear FreeSM home, who recommends a Fear FreeSM trainer, groomer, etc. and the animal is Fear FreeSM for life. We think of our animals as our children and it is high-time that we looked at the stuff that keeps them thriving, physically and emotionally.
Fear FreeSM is the biggest transformation for companion animal practice. We say it’s: Every pet. Every practice. Every visit. Every day.
This is our chance to do what’s right, and “Do well by doing good.”
Dr. Becker is an adjunct professor at his alma mater, the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and also at the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine at both Colorado State University and the University of Missouri. Additionally, he has lectured at every veterinary school in the United States, and is on the advisory board of World Vets, an international veterinary and disaster relief program to help animals. Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on “Good Morning America” for 17 years. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the American Humane Association as well as its Chief Veterinary Correspondent, a founding member of Core Team Oz for “The Dr. Oz Show,” and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Panel. Dr. Becker also serves as the Chief Veterinary Correspondent for the American Humane Association, with a strong focus on supporting their efforts to end the use of gas chambers in animal shelters, a cause for which he has successfully advocated since his earliest days as a veterinarian. His special fondness for older pets has led him to a spot on the Advisory Board of The Grey Muzzle Organization, which is dedicated to helping homeless senior dogs. He practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital because he loves veterinary medicine, pets, and the people who care for them.