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Fear Free Pet Visits – How to Take the Pet out of Petrified

By Dr. Marty Becker, January 14, 2016

Nobody should dread a trip to the vet. Not the pet and not the pet owner. I’ve been working with a team of experts for six years to create Fear Free visits for pets and I’m excited to tell you that “taking the pet out of petrified” is the single most transformative practice mandate I’ve ever witnessed in 36-years of practice. Practices that have the pet’s emotional wellbeing (pet owners’ too I might add) in one hand and physical wellbeing in the other hand are not just ‘striving’ but ‘thriving’ with practice growth in double digits for five years in a row.

Now let’s do some imagining of life in the Fear Free Practice. Let’s start with the at home part, what you’re going to educate your clients to do before they even make the appointment. They will have invested in a carrier that is optimal for bringing their pet in. It’ll be loaded with a towel soaked in Feliway. If their pet is even a little anxious, they give it Zykene two hours before the visit.

Now, this pet will be loaded into a carrier that it loves, a carrier that has been part of its furniture at home and has occasionally been found to contain a nice treat, a carrier where it is comfortable, that has pheromones so it’s like being in a spa, this scent of calm.

When they come in, this clinic or hospital is familiar. They’ve been here before just to get treats. Their memories are all good of this place. Good as they can be. It’s a place with a waiting room where you don’t wait. You get right into the exam room or check in and wait in your vehicle until it’s your pet’s turn.

The veterinarian who comes in is calm and focused and doesn’t seem to be in a rush. She’s not in a hurry to start her scientific side. She knows how to handle animals with confidence and skill, she spots anxiety before it happens and heads it off. She’s got treats in her pockets and she knows how to use them. She’s learned a whole tool belt of techniques so the pet doesn’t even realize a shot has happened. In fact, the pet may not have even made it to the exam table. This wonderful, gentle vet examined it in the owner’s lap or on the floor or, in the case of a cat who fancies itself a birder, on a shelf designed just for this purpose. The exam room doesn’t smell like disinfectant Nolvasan but has been cleaned with RescueTM; it smells like, well… like a college party with the bong going, the pet just breathes it in, breathes it in, breathes the secret Feliway.

And when it’s over, the owner and the pet walk out of your clinic or hospital feeling more like they’ve had a trip to Baskin-Robbins than the dreaded veterinarian. Imagine the difference between this visit and that Jaws feeling: the sound that pricks everybody’s ears up and makes them go in the other direction, to run from the water.

The reason I think this is really important is because we must get more pets to come in to the veterinarian, and to do that it is critically important to get more pet owners to come in. I’m convinced of this point: We have no better opportunity to do something good for pets than to create Fear Free Practices. We have to face facts: It is difficult to take these pets to the veterinarian. And if people think it is too hard on their pet, or it’s too hard on them, or both, then you’ve got a bond breaker on your hands.

The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, as I’m sure you know, has taken a hard look at companion animal practice since 2009. It builds on survey research showing a consistent downward trend between 2000 and 2009 in visits to our practices. While dogs paid more visits to our practices than cats, despite being a smaller portion of the population, both dogs and cats came to see us less often each year and in significant numbers. And owners of both dogs and cats reported stress – their stress and their pet’s stress – as key factors in not bringing them in for care. Let these numbers settle in for a second because they’re just so important.

  • 26% of dog owners said just thinking about a visit to the vet is stressful
  • 38% of cat owners said just thinking about a visit to the vet is stressful
  • 37% of dog owners said their beloved dogs hate going to the vet
  • And a whopping 58 percent of cat owners said their cats hate going to the vet.

Neglect can kill. Neglecting to consider the veterinarian the true pet health expert and taking the pet in regularly for wellness care and as needed for accidents and illnesses.

And if neglect is in any way related to how our practices treat animals — to stress and fear in the clinic or the hospital — then we are part of the problem. A much bigger part than we care to admit.

So what to do about reversing the alarming trend of declining visits?  Create a pet centered practice. Not a vet centered practice, a tech centered practice, a consultant centered practice, an ego centered practice, maybe not even a science centered practice though to be certain nobody is saying the science in our practices isn’t important. I’m talking about a practice where the animals come first, their comfort and their emotions count for just as much as the veterinarians’ and technicians’ comfort and emotions.

Practice like the pet owner – who feels exactly what her cat or dog feels — is right there looking over your shoulder all the time. That’s what it takes. If that happens you are well on the way to a fear-free practice.

Obviously, a pet centered practice is not a practice where animals are afraid.  If you want to figure out how to do this for yourself, just keep that phrase in the front of your mind. Write it on the wall; put a note on all computer terminals, tattoo it on your arm. It is the most natural thing in the world to create a veterinarian centered practice or a staff centered practice or a client centered practice. Across the years, everything gets organized for the convenience of the veterinarian or the staff or to please the clients… or the management consultant. Everything. You are nodding your head right now – inside, not outside. But if you organize the practice to be compassionate to the animals first, you know as well as I do, you will be making a lot of changes.

What is the one thing you can do to make the practice more compassionate for the animals who are brought to you for healing? Of course, make it a place free of fear.

And let me emphasize something here. This stuff works. It’s actually easy once you get locked in on it mentally.

Go sit alone in an exam room. Think about the really awesome responsibility you have as a person who treats animals. If you haven’t looked at what you do as a veterinarian this way before, I absolutely guarantee this will revolutionize how you see your job. What you need to embrace is this truth. We engage in behavior modification every minute of every day we’re around pets. Period. Sometimes we do it actively; sometimes we do it passively. Sometimes it shows; sometimes it doesn’t. Pet owners, veterinarians, and veterinary team members are often subconsciously and accidentally reinforcing pet behaviors that are the most distressing to both pets and their people.

The good news is that small, relatively passive techniques can effect huge changes… for the better. Here’s my Top 10 Tips For Creating Fear Free Veterinary Visits:

  • Help the pet owner deliver a calm pet to your clinic
  • Have the pet owner bring their pet in hungry
  • Minimize the use of the clinic waiting area
  • Designate species specific exam rooms
  • Create a sense of calm in the exam room
  • Choose the best location to examine the pet
  • Figure out the best method of positional compliance
  • Make the vaccination experience more comfortable
  • Sedate early and often
  • Cradle every pet’s emotional and physical well-being.

I saved one of my best tips for last for it has a big impact with sustained ripples. I told you earlier that one of the most powerful things you can do is catch the pet owner doing things right or exceptionally well with their pet (before you get to the necessary things they must improve upon). Sincerely compliment them on their pet’s coat, nails, teeth, manners, joy, really anything. Then as you’re listening to the pet’s heart with a stethoscope, ask the owner to stroke or talk to the pet in the special touch or voice that only they know. Most of the time you’ll be able to sincerely tell the owner as you pull the stethoscope from your ears, “I could hear ____’s heart rate dropping as you interacted.” By complimenting the owner for their pet care and for the contribution to a Fear Free Visit you make the owner feel good and do good.

OK, I’ve emptied out my Fear Free Practice toolbox for you. I hope some of this will help. Just one more thing. I don’t know how to say this, exactly, but what I’ve been talking about here is just so easy. It’s easy to make friends. It’s easy to make clients say, ‘Yes.’ It’s easy to make clients feel like number one. It’s easy to do – a fear free visit. It’s like a performance where a peace treaty gets signed. You have to give it everything you’ve got, then something of great value to everyone comes out of it.

If we don’t galvanize our profession around something as important and vital as a Fear Free Veterinary Visit then what should capture our attention, education, enthusiasm and actions? If it’s not the veterinary profession that looks out for the physical and emotional well-being of pets and pet owners, who should, can or will?

As the ad implores us, “Just Do It!”

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