We have learned a lot about dog and cat behavior in the past two decades. We have learned that dogs don’t behave like people or wolves, and cats are totally unique — they are not small dogs.
We also have discovered that dogs and cats learn best through positive training methods and rewards. Negative training techniques, such as shock collars, punishment or trying to dominate pets, are not effective and often result in your pet being afraid of his or her owners. Our new focus is to be more kind and considerate to our pets, thus changing the way we interact with them in many circumstances. We now seek to prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety and stress. This is the focus of Fear Free.
Fear Free started in 2016 with an educational program for veterinary professionals to give them the knowledge and tools to make veterinary visits less terrifying for pets. Eighteen thousand veterinary professionals became certified in the first 18 months, and the number keeps growing. Now, there is a Fear Free program for pet owners called Fear Free Happy Homes to teach about in-home enrichment and Fear Free training. Soon there will be programs for pet trainers, groomers and other pet care providers.
Fear Free veterinary visits start at home with techniques for making the ride to the veterinary clinic less stressful for the pet. A combination of rewards, slowly acclimatizing your pet to car rides and, sometimes, anti-anxiety medications given prior to the veterinary visit can greatly reduce or eliminate anxiety associated with car rides.
Cat owners should first let their cats become familiar with a safe and comfortable cat carrier at home. A carrier that opens from the top as well as the front is ideal. Open the door and leave the cat carrier out where the cat can investigate and leave its scent on the carrier. Put treats and favorite toys in the carrier to encourage exploration. Make sure the bedding is soft, comfortable and stays in place when the cat moves.
If the carrier you use is one of his or her favorite safe sleeping spots, your kitty will be much more likely to accept transportation in a vehicle and also will be happier once they reach the hospital. Once at the clinic, we often cover cat carriers with a towel and put them up on a table away from other pets while waiting. Dogs all should be on leashes. If your pets are especially anxious, ask if you can wait in the car, outside or in an exam room.
It is best for your pet to be hungry when he comes for his visit to a Fear Free veterinary clinic, since he will have a wide assortment of treats and toys available to reduce anxiety, distract and reward him while waiting, being examined and having treatments done. Pet owners are encouraged to bring their pet’s very favorite treats and toys as well.
At the veterinary hospital, the staff has learned how to approach and handle pets in a non-threatening way. While dogs should all be on leashes, we invite pets to get on scales, tables and into cages instead of forcing a fearful pet to go somewhere scary. Pets can read our facial expressions, so they understand a smile. A happy voice and gentle handling are important, too. In the exam room, your dog will appreciate a familiar slip-proof surface on the table. Bath carpets work well, especially if your dog has practiced staying on one at home while eating treats or playing with a toy. Cats may be examined in the bottom half of their carriers if they are happier there.
Despite treats and gentle handling, many pets are naturally fearful and anxious about routine veterinary procedures, including nail trims, wound care and X-rays. A Fear-Free hospital will try never to struggle with your pet or hold her down in an uncomfortable position. Sedation with safe and effective modern drugs is ideal in many scary situations. Some pets even need sedation for routine examination.
For more information, go to fearfreepets.com and catfriendly.com. Also, you may call your pet’s veterinarian hospital and speak to the veterinary professional staff. They are there to help you and your pet.
Kathi Gruss earned her BS in agriculture and DVM from Ohio State University. She and her husband, John, opened the Earlysville Animal Hospital in 1982. They strive to give pets excellent veterinary care while treating their patients and clients like treasured friends. Earlysville Animal Hospital was certified a Fear Free Practice in 2016 is also a certified Cat Friendly Practice through the AAFP. When not working, John and Kathi Gruss enjoy spending time with their two adult children and their grandson and traveling with family. Dr. Kathi Gruss also enjoys riding her dressage horse, Revlon.
For Pets’ Sake is written by the members of the Jefferson Area Veterinary Medical Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the health and wellbeing of all area pets. Visit javma.net for more pet health information, or to find the perfect veterinarian for your pet.