What Is A Fear Free Vet?
And why you should go to one 🏥
You may have heard the term “Fear Free vet” thrown around, but what does that actually mean?
It might sound intriguing, especially if your pet is normally terrified of the vet.
The Dodo spoke with Dr. Clarissa B. Lyon, a veterinarian at Larklain Mobile Veterinary Services in Pennsylvania, and Natalie Gibson, a certified vet tech from the same clinic, to find out what exactly a Fear Free vet is — and why you should go to one.
What does Fear Free certification mean?
Fear Free certification is a training program that teaches veterinary professionals and staff how to care for your pet in ways that’ll keep his fear down while he’s at the clinic.
Fear Free training courses can be administered for individuals as well as entire practices.
“When you hear ‘Fear Free vet,’ it’s not [always] just the veterinarian,” Gibson told The Dodo. “It’s [sometimes] the entire team.”
In order to get the best experience for your pet, you’re going to want to go to a vet whose entire practice is Fear Free certified rather than just an individual vet, so everyone from the receptionist to the vet techs will know how to treat your pet gently.
“If your receptionist is not Fear Free, you’re going to run into problems while you’re waiting for the exam,” Gibson said. “If your technicians are not Fear Free certified, you’re going to run into [issues with] the handling of them before the vet gets there.”
Fear Free certification teaches people in the vet industry alternate tactics that aren’t as scary as some normalized ones (like how to avoid holding down your dog, for example), to keep pets from feeling frightened while receiving necessary medical attention.
This is an amazing thing for all pets, but especially ones who already suffer from fear and anxiety.
“The [reason for the] big push for Fear Free medicine is to provide greater medicine for these patients that are so scared that they can’t have a full exam done,” Gibson explained. “They literally need this.”
What Fear Free vets do differently
“[A Fear Free vet will] tailor everything to the individual pet,” Gibson said. “[It’s about] being aware of what is stressful to each and every pet, not just the blanket [concept] of what’s stressful and what’s not.”
That means a Fear Free vet will adjust their procedures depending on what works best — and is the least stressful — for the individual pet they’re treating.
“[A Fear Free vet] customizes the arrival to what the dog or the cat [needs],” Dr. Lyon told The Dodo. “Maybe they need to go right into an exam, [because] sitting in a large reception area for even a minute is too much.”
Sometimes, Fear Free vets might also split up a standard visit into multiple shorter visits if your pet gets particularly anxious.
A Fear Free vet will also avoid physically restraining your pet, since that will only reinforce the fear he already has, which would ultimately make it worse.
“When you hold that dog down ... that just solidified that he was right to be scared,” Gibson said.
Instead, a Fear Free vet will do what’s referred to as “stabilization” (which means making sure your pet stays still and is willing to undergo a procedure, like drawing blood, without using physical restraint).
A lot of the time, Fear Free vets will work towards stabilizing your pet by using treats or food.
“Dogs and cats ... they’re very food-motivated,” Gibson said. “One of the first things that we ever do, if we want them to do something for us, is we entice them. We distract them with food. We give them treats almost the entire time for doing something.”
So, if you have a morning appointment with your vet, it even helps if your pet skips breakfast that day, because then he’ll be even more receptive to those tasty treats — and in turn, the procedure he needs.
Does a Fear Free vet cost more?
You might be worried that it’ll break the bank if you go to a Fear Free vet.
While most Fear Free vet visits might have similar rates as vets who aren’t certified, a Fear Free vet might notice your pet needs to split one visit into a bunch of little visits, which can add up.
It might seem a little daunting now, but if it helps getting your anxious pet more comfortable at the vet’s office, then it could save you some big bucks down the road.
“When we’re able to perform a full exam [every single year] because [your pet is] happy for us to ... things are caught much sooner,” Gibson explained. “It keeps you out of the emergency room and it keeps you out of the specialist’s office.”
On the flip side, if you don’t go to a Fear Free vet, your pet’s routine checkup might require extra services — like administering medication or muzzling — just to get him calm enough for whatever it is that you brought him in for.
And that could drive up the cost of that one visit.
“It does change depending on what [the vets and technicians] do,” Gibson said. “So if you’re adding services during that time, that’s added on.”
How to find a good Fear Free vet
To start off, you can search for a Fear Free certified individual or practice through the Fear Free Pets website.
But be prepared to dig a little deeper than just those search results.
“Unfortunately, like with all things, we’re starting to see this concept of Fear Free being used purely for its marketing power,” Dr. Lyon said. “Are they just saying that they’re Fear Free? Or are they truly utilizing Fear Free techniques and a considerate approach?”
According to Dr. Lyon, you should opt for a practice that’s entirely Fear Free certified because that practice is more likely to be passionate about the cause, rather than using it just as a draw.
However, there’s a chance there aren’t any practices that are fully certified in your area.
If that’s the case, here’s what to do.
“Let's say there’s no [fully certified] practices near you, but there’s one that has one or two techs or vets that are,” Gibson said. “[Step one is] identifying who they are and making sure you’re scheduled with them, and then [step two is] calling them and having a conversation with them and making sure that they truly are [Fear Free].”
But whether you find an individual or an entire practice that’s certified, you’re going to want to ask some questions to find out if they’re truly embracing Fear Free techniques.
“Ask questions like ‘What would you do if my dog doesn’t want his blood drawn and is baring his teeth?’” Gibson explained. “In my mind, the answer I would want for that is, ‘We would try again at another visit with medication on board.’”
If they respond by saying they would muzzle your dog, that’s a major red flag to suggest that, while they’re Fear Free certified, they don’t actually follow those procedures.
“‘Are all basic diagnostics done in the exam room?’ That’s a good question to ask,” Dr. Lyon said. “Anybody who says, ‘Oh, well, we need to draw blood or we need to do whatever [so] we’re going to take her in the back,’ — that should be a big red flag for you.”
You could also ask the vet about how they’ve handled previous patients, so you can get an idea of the kind of treatment your own pet would receive.
And even the conversation as a whole can be pretty telling when it comes to finding a good Fear Free vet.
“Oftentimes [vets say] ‘Oh yeah, we’re Fear Free,’” Dr. Lyon said. “And then when you start to talk to them, you can tell pretty clearly their actual level of commitment.”
Even the language a vet uses will help you tell whether or not they really follow Fear Free practices.
“Anybody who’s going to use a term like ‘fractious [aka unruly],’ — that’s a practice you want to steer clear of,” Dr. Lyon explained. “We talk about ‘fearful’ patients. We don’t talk about ‘fractious’ patients. We don’t talk about ‘restraints.’ We talk about ‘stabilization.’ Those are keywords that will let you know how people approach their patients.”
How you can contribute to the Fear Free vet experience
“The Fear Free experience starts at home,” Dr. Lyon said. “And it starts by setting up your pet to have a successful journey and visit.”
You could also use pheromones on your cat to calm him down before he even gets to the vet.
Pheromones would help prep your dog for the vet, too.
And it always helps to have some high-value treats on hand so you can shower your pet with them, and help him build more positive associations with his vet visits.
In some cases, your vet might even recommend pre-vet pharmaceuticals for your pet to calm him down.
But if that makes you apprehensive, you could always try some calming treats.
(That being said, there might be some cases where medicating your pet is actually necessary. Just make sure you talk to your vet about it.)
And according to Gibson and Dr. Lyon, if your dog or cat suffers from car sickness and spends the whole trip to the vet throwing up, he’s already in the mindset of not having a good time.
So knowing how to help your pet’s car sickness will go a long way towards giving him a Fear Free vet experience.
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