WATERLOO — Scaredy cat disappears under the bed when the pet carrier appears and won’t come out without a fight. Fido’s fun car ride turns anxious and whiny when his owner turns a corner, and his keen nose gets a whiff of the veterinary clinic.
Trips to the vet fill some pets — and their owners — with dread. They aren’t alone. According to a 2014 report by the American Veterinary Medical Association, 51 percent of pet owners reported their pets feared a trip to the vet.
“We go to vet school to help critters — not become the person the critter dislikes the most. We want to do what we can to reduce the anxiety,” says veterinarian Rebecca Chadwick of Pawsitive Pet Care in Waterloo. She recently became certified in the Fear Free Pet Visit program.
Fear Free Pet Visit was launched nationally in 2016 by veterinarian Marty Becker with the goal of helping companion animals become better able to cope with vet visits. Chadwick joins a handful of local and area veterinarians, vet technicians, clinic staff, groomers and other pet professionals who have received the certification.
Fear Free Pet Visit includes eight to 12 hours of online training and testing to earn certification. Since 2016, more than 43,000 veterinary and pet professionals have been Fear Free certified.
Agitated, frightened pets aren’t the best patients. Vets take stressed pets seriously, Chadwick says, because research shows stress can affect a pet’s physical and emotional well-being. It also makes it difficult to do a thorough exam, and a high level of stress can affect some test results. “Is the belly tight because something is going on there, or is it a response to stress? A pet may not like to be handled by anyone but its owner. Our hands can seem like scary tools for a fearful dog or cat,” says the veterinarian.
The Fear Free approach emphasizes creating more positive experiences for the pet. Pheromones that mimic natural chemical messages used by animals can take the edge off a pet’s behavior. Other techniques include having a separate waiting area for cats unnerved by noisy dogs, or hustling a scared pet into an exam room before its anxiety triggers a similar response from other pets in the waiting area; playing soothing music or distracting noises; making sure floors have good traction for paws; moving slower; and talking in a calm, lower-pitched voice.
Chadwick also makes sure she keeps a comforting hand on the animal for the entire exam and uses a “nice touch” for procedures such as checking ears. “I’ll give a little ear massage, then bring up the otoscope to the ear. You also learn not to touch a painful spot first. If a dog is limping on the front right foot, start the exam with the left foot and work around to the sore one,” she explains.
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Toys, food and treats provide positive reinforcement, especially for dogs. Often owners are encouraged to bring their pets hungry so they’ll be receptive to treats.
Peanut butter, for example, turned one snarling little dog into a happy camper during nail trims at Advanced Pet Care in Cedar Falls. A German shepherd’s fear barking turned into anticipation after a concerted effort by its owner and the staff, recalls veterinarian Tammy Stevenson. “The owner began stopping in once or twice a week for the staff to toss him treats. The clinic became a good place to go for the best treats. Now he barks once – ‘I’m here!’ – and climbs on the scale, hops on the table and lets me do my exam while he looks for the treat jar,” she says.
Stevenson and all the vet technicians, staff and groomers at Advanced Pet Care are Fear Free certified. “Having everyone know what’s going on and on the same page with our Fear Free program means everyone is conveying the same message to pet owners,” she explains.
Owners can unintentionally reinforce fearful behavior, especially through baby-talking their pet, or becoming frustrated or embarrassed when their pet freaks out. If the pack leader is upset, the pet is further convinced that the vet is scary, Stevenson explains.
The Fear Free program offers ideas for how owners can calm a pet before leaving home for a vet appointment. Most dogs and cats can be coaxed to be better patients, she says. However, there may be instances when anti-anxiety medications or sedatives need to be administered in order to complete an exam or procedure.
Cats tend to be a bigger problem than dogs, Chadwick says. “Lots of folks store their carriers in the garage, a closet or the attic, and it only comes out for a trip to the vet. That signals trouble to the cat. The carrier should be kept out as part of the décor, at least a few days in advance. Put treats and the best toys in there, so it becomes a pleasant place for the cat,” she says.
If you have a cat or small dog, consider a carrier with a removable lid. “I can take the top off and do the exam while the critter is in the carrier. It makes them feel safe and comfortable. I bring out all my best goodies and try to make it a pleasant experience,” Chadwick explains.
“When they leave I want them to have a last image that’s a really good one — that lady has the best treats, as opposed to being stressed and unhappy.”