Gulliver’s Travails And Other Tales Of Fear Free Technician Care

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Gulliver was nervous and fearful. Recently adopted, he needed a complete checkup, but his owner wasn’t sure she could get the cat into a carrier and to the clinic without a complete meltdown on his part—and maybe hers. Fortunately, she knew that her veterinarian offered in-home exams using Fear Free techniques.

Dr. Karen Angele and certified veterinary technician Chrissy Schultz went to Gulliver’s home where they gently wrapped him in a towel treated with Feliway, a pheromone spray, and sat with him on the floor as they checked his weight, examined his eyes, ears, and teeth, and drew blood.

“Gulliver’s owner described the visit as a very pleasant encounter for both of them,” says Carol Petersen, a certified veterinary technician at Burr Ridge Veterinary Clinic in Darien, Illinois, where Dr. Angele and Ms. Schultz practice.

Gulliver’s tale is just one example of the reasons veterinary technicians and other staff members have taken to Fear Free techniques. The opportunity to give pets the care they need in a way that’s pleasant for all involved is more than just handing out treats and helping pets feel comfortable in a care setting, whether that is the home or the veterinary clinic.

“Implementing Fear Free techniques at our clinic has been life-changing,” Petersen says. “Fear Free was a natural next step for Burr Ridge Veterinary Clinic because in addition to making sure each pet receives all of the medical treatments needed for good physical health, we’re equally committed to the emotional health of our patients.”

Trixie is a 12-year-old American Eskimo who hated getting her nails trimmed. When her people brought her in to Heron Creek Animal Hospital in North Port, Florida, they described her as nippy and said she would need a muzzle for the nail trim. Cindy Goldstein, LVT, CVT, who is Fear Free certified, has a “less is more” attitude when it comes to restraint and handling. She put her Fear Free training to the test, spraying a bandana with Adaptil and gently holding Trixie while her owner stood in front of her.

“Trixie was wagging her tail and gave no signs of aggression and didn’t try to bite,” Goldstein says. “The pets that I use Fear Free techniques on are more relaxed, and so are their owners. It makes bringing your pet to the vet less stressful for the owner and rewarding for me as a tech.”

One of the benefits of Fear Free certification is the way it expands knowledge of animal behavior and handling. Training in those areas is sometimes lacking, says Jennie Fiendish, a CVT in Portland, Oregon, who owns Happy Power Behavior and Training. She notes that it’s not uncommon for new graduates to have been taught to scruff cats or hold down struggling dogs. In her own experience, Fear Free has taught her how to advocate for patient needs and easy ways to implement techniques.

“Fear Free provides an excellent working understanding of animal behavior and how it applies to our patients, how they feel about us, and how we can interact with them appropriately,” she says. “With the techniques learned from Fear Free, I have not only seen a dramatic decrease in fear and stress of our patients but also for our staff. No one wants to cause an animal harm or get harmed themselves. Fear Free lets us accomplish that.”

At Del Mar Veterinary Hospital in Saint Augustine, Florida, its Fear Free status differentiates it from clinics in the surrounding area. Anna Deason, lead CVT, believes it has helped the team achieve a closer bond not only with their patients but with owners as well. It may look as if technicians are simply cuddling animals and giving them lots of treats, but there’s more going on beneath the surface.

“To us, we are performing a better exam and getting samples, but to the owners they see us taking the time to make sure their pet is comfortable and happy,” she says.

And that’s the real key to the success of Fear Free. When pets are less stressed, owners are less stressed, too.

“Owners come in worried about their pets,” says Nicole Ballreich, a Fear Free certified LVT at Westarbor Animal Hospital. “When they see their pets eating food and purring or licking us, they laugh and feel better about the visit. This keeps them coming back.”

Most important, Ballreich says, when patients are happy and less stressed, veterinary technicians are less stressed. That allows them to provide more care and better care.

“It is making a huge difference in how we run our practice.”