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Fear Free in a Pandemic: Challenges and Advantages

Linda Lombardi

Fear Free practices may have been better prepared to handle Covid-19 disruptions because they were already used to thinking about emotional wellbeing of both animals and humans.

“I feel that our Fear Free principles up to this point have created trust with our patients and clients, making this easier. Most of the pets happily go with my team into the building without the owner,” says Kathryn Primm, DVM, CVPM.

But there are definitely challenges. For one, Dr. Primm says, “In the case of new clients, it is definitely harder to introduce Fear Free ideas since they cannot see how their pet reacts.”

And pets don’t always respond in a stress-free manner, either, says Monique Feyrecilde BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior). “We’ve noticed a number of our pets are more stressed than they have been in the past, when they have to be separated from their owner.”

Primm, Feyrechild, and other veterinary professionals have learned a lot this year about ways to care for patients during a pandemic. Here’s how some practices have managed and even thrived.

Distanced Care

Because of the need for distancing and limiting contacts, many veterinarians are practicing “curbside,” handing pets off in the parking lot or on the sidewalk.

This may require doubling down on Fear Free tools.

“Animals that maybe in past were on the borderline of benefiting from a pre-visit prescription, now we err on the side of giving it,” Feyrecilde says.

For others who were already prescribed medications, they may adjust the dose or add something new.

Use of telehealth has also helped to reduce the number of clients coming in in the first place. That includes coaching clients via video through procedures such as nail trims.

Additional Training

Both staff and clients learned new safe and low-stress procedures.

“We conducted additional training for our technical staff because we’re the ones going in and out to retrieve patients for curbside care, and that’s a really different picture for the pet,” Feyrechild says. “We coach our team to look at the pet’s emotional record in advance, bring the pet’s favorite treats, walk together with the owner for a short distance and then transition the pet to the team member.”

Appointment reminders for clients now have more information about how to prepare and what to expect. Without this, some became a little too comfortable with the handoff.

“They roll into the parking lot and think they can stick their small dog through the window of the car,” she says. “A lot of dogs don’t like it when people come up to the car and a lot of clients don’t realize that could be not safe for our team, too.”

Remind clients not to interact while waiting, she says. The parking lot isn’t a dog park.

Behavioral Medicine in a Pandemic

Amy Pike, DVM, Fear Free certified boarded veterinary behaviorist, found her practice getting so busy that she had to add four new staff. “I think it’s partly that owners are around their pets more, so they’re noticing behavior problems more frequently, but also so many people adopted animals during this time and pets often come with some behavior challenges.”

At the same time, she says, curbside medicine wasn’t possible for her practice.

“Because we do behavior medicine, we really need the owners present. Almost the entire visit is talking to the owner, not necessarily interacting with the pets, and especially because most of the pets I deal with are aggressive, there’s no way that I could go get them and then sit there with them,” she says.

Seeing clients and patients safely involved adopting procedures similar to those in human medical offices: taking temperatures, confirming that clients haven’t traveled or been exposed, and requiring masks and six feet of distance where possible.

Dr. Pike has also taken steps to help her patients feel more comfortable when being seen by general-practice veterinarians without their owner present.

“For the ones that are incredibly fearful, we’ve had to adjust protocols for them to be able to get their general practice care.” This can involve adjusting medication or muzzle training.

Her advice to those practices is to take advantage of medications, and if possible to consider letting at least one familiar person come in with the pet.

“And I encourage general practitioners and staff to become Fear Free certified. That could really help our patients,” she says.

Taking It on the Road

Daphne Tanouye, VMD, faced a particular challenge when the pandemic started: hers was a house call practice.

Judging it unsafe to go into people’s homes, over the summer she started seeing patients outdoors. It worked fine for dogs, but not so much for cats. “And we were at the mercy of the weather,” she says. So in July, she got a van.

“Now we just drive up to people’s homes and use the van as a mobile exam room.”

She provides the option to watch the exam through the van’s windows or via teleconference but says most don’t do it. “I think it’s because they know how we handle their pets, and they know their pets are comfortable with us.”

Some of the details have changed a little, but the Fear Free approach has worked. In the past they often used the pet’s own toys that were in the home; now they use more treats. She has also increased her use of pheromone products such as Adaptil and Feliway. “With cats, we spray it on the towel and on myself,” she says. “I think that does help.”

Caring for Clients and Staff

Some challenges are not specifically about handling pets. It has become even more important for practitioners and staff to remember to take their own mental wellbeing into account.

“Fear Free isn’t just for patients and clients but also for our team – how we interact with each other, and realizing that it’s okay to set healthy boundaries with our clients. It’s difficult, because we always want to be able to say yes,” Feyrechild says. “We’ve met several times as a group to sort of troubleshoot – how to interact so as to keep our job as Fear Free as possible for us while talking to clients who are under unbelievable emotional stress that has nothing to do with us, but it bleeds into their interaction with us.”

She thinks that being Fear Free in some ways means they are better equipped to deal with the issues the pandemic has raised.

“Fear Free in general does so much for improving communication skills within the team, I feel like we had a head start on that,” she says. “And talking about the emotional welfare of pets was something we were doing every visit, every day, we’re just framing the conversation a little differently because the visit looks different than before.”

Lessons for the Future

Some changes that practices have been compelled to make have had unexpected benefits.

“We have a covered area outside where we see some patients if we need the owner to help,” says Dr. Primm. “I think we will always offer a curbside option and will continue to use the outdoor area as well. Some clients have indicated that they like the services and want us to continue.  Also, some of our very fearful dogs have tolerated handling better in the outdoor area.”

And for behavior specialists, the value of telemedicine is one positive lesson that’s come out of the situation.

“The benefits to telemedicine have really come to light,” says Dr. Pike. Training over videoconference can actually be better than in-person for fearful animals. “They’re in their home and there’s no stranger there with them, because we’re on the computer.”

Feyrecilde agrees. “There’s a lot that we can do over virtual that I don’t know that we’d really thought about before.”

For cooperative vet care training, she has started doing three or four virtual visits so the client can get the pet started at home. “That goes a lot faster. I’d done virtual behavior consults for years, but it hadn’t occurred to me to add in so much virtual on the front end of that,” she says. “The telemedicine piece of this has been totally new for us and I think it’s something we will retain going forward to the extent that it is appropriate and legal.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

This article was brought to you in collaboration with our friends at Ceva.

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