Many animal lovers across the nation know exactly who Dr. Marty Becker, DVM, is. An author of more than 20 pet-related books, the resident veterinary contributor on “Good Morning America” for 17 years, the chief veterinary correspondent on Animal Radio and, well, I could go on and on. Becker has spent his life caring for pets and their people.
In 2014, Becker spearheaded and launched the “Fear Free” initiative, dedicated to practicing veterinary medicine with a focus on calm, low-stress environments and practices to encourage better health care and happier clients and staff. In partnership with other leading board-certified veterinary experts, Fear Free programs are aiming to educate and even certify veterinarians and their practices, as well as educate pet owners on the how and why of low-stress veterinary care.
“Simply put,” Becker said, “you have to take a pet’s emotional well-being in one hand and physical well-being in the other.”
According to “Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings,” more than 50 percent of cat owners report that taking their cats in for veterinary care is stressful for their pets and themselves. This alone is a reason veterinary visits for cats are down. One aspect Fear Free focuses on is involving pet owners in a multimodal approach, to ensure that just getting to the veterinarian’s office is as low stress as possible. The use of calming pheromone sprays on cat carriers or a bandanna that can be placed around your dog’s neck is one approach, as is prescribing some anti-anxiety medication for your pet to take before he leaves home.
Another way to aid your pet through any potentially uncomfortable experience is to pair it with high-in-value treats. Becker advises pet owners to bring their pet’s favorite treats with them, and to bring them in for their appointment hungry (unless medically contraindicated), so the pet is more likely to take treats offered during a visit. He also recommends that fearful pets be allowed to go directly into an exam room instead of waiting in the lobby, and he suggests that lobbies have plenty of visual barriers such as plants or shelves, to give owners the ability to somewhat shelter their pets from the curious eyes of others. Placing your cat carrier on a shelf prevents every dog that’s passing by being able to stare at or sniff at your feline.
Wrestling pets down and outdated restraint techniques need to be phased out, and replaced with other methods of control that allow the veterinarian to perform procedures but still keep the pet calm. Smaller needles can be used for injections, and physical examinations can be performed on the floor, table or even the owner’s lap, if the pet prefers. Becker notes that even very fearful pets can be taught to tolerate procedures with time and effort.
It’s important to recognize that when pets are frightened and under stress, they behave in ways that are often labeled as “bad,” when the behavior is simply a natural response to fear. Dr. Karen Overall, DVM, Ph.D., extensively studies what fear, anxiety and stress do to our pets.
“Once a pet has been frightened, it never forgets the experience,” she said, increasing the likelihood that future veterinary visits will be even more stressful.
No doubt it will be a monumental undertaking, encouraging veterinarians and staff to listen to new ideas and make changes in the setup of their practices, as well as the way they practice veterinary medicine, but Becker is optimistic and believes when fear is taken out of the veterinary visit, veterinarians will begin to see more patients, and see them more often.
“Always start by looking after the pet’s emotional well-being,” he said. “Only after you’re confident that pet is calm or you’ve administered a sedative that has taken effect should you continue your exam or procedure. That is, first look after the pet’s emotional well-being and then its physical well-being.”
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.