Practicing with care for the emotional well-being of animals

Downtown Charlotte, NC

Temple Grandin, PhD, MS, and Marty Becker, DVM, partnered to address fear and pain in animals with methods to help patients be more comfortable during veterinary care visits

Fetch keynote Day 3

Photo: Kristen Coppock/dvm360

Temple Grandin, PhD, and Marty Becker, DVM, presented the keynote lecture on Day 3 on the morning of Day 3 at the 2024 Fetch dvm360 conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Renowned animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, PhD, MS, shared the keynote stage with Marty Becker, DVM, founder of Fear Free, on Day 3 of the Fetch dvm360 conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, to deliver a lecture on the emotional well-being of animals and mitigating fear in their patients. Both speakers arrived with a wealth of knowledge and decades of experience on these topics.1

Grandin is a professor of livestock behavior at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a designer of livestock handling facilities. Becker’s career includes volunteer work as a veterinarian with World Vets, an international veterinary aid organization, through which he has cared for refugee pets at the Ukraine borders in Romania and Moldova.

Creating an environment that feels safe

Their talk first addressed the importance of creating a practice environment where pets feel safe, and provided hospital design suggestions that can help mitigate patients’ fear. Grandin noted that what animals are seeing, hearing, and smelling all have an effect on their fear level and, ultimately, how the veterinary visit might proceed.

Rather than talking in an effort to calm down the patient, she said, veterinary professionals should instead address the situation from a sensory perspective. “Animals live in a sensory based world. Get away from language when you’re [handling] animals,” Grandin said. “If you get an animal completely upset, it’s going to take 20 minutes to calm it down.”

The speakers noted that small changes can have a big impact on animal behavior at a veterinary hospital. For example, laying inexpensive bath mats on the floor may alleviate animals’ fear. “Animals’ No. 1 fear, from birth, is the fear of falling,” Becker said.

From a patient’s perspective, he and Grandin agreed that shiny floors and surfaces that have a glare are viewed as hazards much like ice skating rinks. “I can’t emphasize enough [having a] nonslip floor. Animals panic when they start to slip and fall,” Grandin said.

Animals get scared on any surface that seems unstable, including sterile, raised tables, they continued. A warm, nonslip surface is preferred and can be achieved by lining a table with a mat. Visits can also be conducted on a floor with a comfortable surface, furniture that’s different from an exam table, such as an ottoman with a washable cover; or in a designated outdoor space.2

During the talk, the speakers also suggested mitigating fear by not allowing animals to watch other patients being treated. Becker shared an experience of noticing caged patients sitting in self-protection poses while they intently watched a procedure being done by a veterinary team on another animal. To avoid generating anxiety and fear in their patients, the team hung a curtain that could be pulled around the treatment area, blocking it from view of other pets.

According to Grandin, a clinic’s décor can also trigger fear. “One thing I don’t want in [an exam room] is posters of dogs and cats with big eyes, because that is a threat [to patients]. It might be cute to us, but it’s not to them,” she said.

Turning restraint to cooperative care

Becker noted that fear is caused by something painful or disturbing. He explained that notion with the example of an animal that feels pain from an injection and is later disturbed by the sight of a needle because of its association with pain. However, in the clinic or by clients at home, pets can be shown an object that elicits fear while being provided with a desirable treat. This can be done regularly as the animal becomes less stressed by the needle or other object.

In practice, animals also can be given treats while they are being given an injection or other treatment they may fear. Becker noted that his alma mater, Washington State University in Pullman, performs blood draws on grizzly bears. Medical care providers feed the bears honey water during the procedure to keep them calm and cooperative, he said.

Additionally, Grandin said she taught sheep how to cooperatively get on a typically feared tilt table through training with feed rewards. “When I did that in the 80s, that was real radical stuff,” she said.

Allowing animals to explore

Grandin emphasized animals’ need to explore new surroundings and objects. As an example, she shared an experience she had witnessing a dog resisting its’ handler’s attempt to board an escalator. Rather than reducing the dog’s fear of riding it, the handler immediately “yanked” the dog onto the moving staircase. “Now, [the dog] probably has a fear of escalators,” Grandin said.

She went on to explain that the handler should have allowed the dog some time to “explore” the escalator before getting on it. Through exploration, the dog could have quickly become comfortable with it.

Grandin also shared an example of exploration with cattle. She said cattle will walk up to a camera set up on tripod and explore it in a friendly manner. However, fear could set in when if a photographer abruptly puts a camera in a cow’s face, without allowing the animal a chance to examine it first.

According to Grandin, regularly and intentionally introducing a pet to unfamiliar individuals and places can train the animal not to fear the unknown by having them grow accustomed to new things. “A lot of dogs today are too sheltered,” she added.

Making Fear Free a team effort

Creating and maintaining a practice environment that feels safe and eases fear and anxiety in patients is a responsibility of the entire staff. Grandin explained that she has also witnessed care providers roughly handling their patients. “Animals feel pain,” she said.

Teams should be properly trained to mitigate fear and pain in patients, and how to gently handle them such as using gradient touch.1,2 “Practice management has to get behind it, totally,” Grandin said. She went on to explain that managers are often providing staff training and are tasked with hiring—and firing—employees.

Grandin and Becker agreed that a staff member who is not appropriate handling patients, should be let go from the practice. “Sometimes you have to change that person that’s holding the rest of the team back,” Becker said.

For more coverage from Fetch Charlotte, visit our dedicated conference news page at


  1. Becker M. Grandin T. If you’re not looking after the emotional wellbeing of animals, you’re not practicing best medicine. Presented at: Fetch dvm360 conference; Charlotte, North Carolina. March 15-17, 2024.
  2. Grandin T. Becker M. Temple Grandin went into a typical companion animal practice and here’s what she saw. dvm360 Flex. Accessed March 17, 2024.
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