Last year ten members of our staff completed the first level of certification of the Fear Free program developed by Dr. Marty Becker. The goal of the Fear Free program is to provide the best care for our patients by limiting fear, anxiety and stress as much as possible during a veterinary visit.. This year we have decided to continue onto the second level of certification. The second level of certification provides more in-depth education in the areas of patient handling, advanced handling techniques, and in-hospital care. In addition to step by step procedures, the modules feature numerous videos detailing procedures, handling techniques and client communication examples. Each member who is completing the second level certification views the module and completes a quiz at the end. We then meet monthly to discuss what we learned and how to best utilize the information in our daily practice.
Our staff feels it is important to continue learning how to recognize fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) in your pets and the best methods to minimize these as much as possible. Our goal at Oakview Veterinary Medical Center is to make your, and your pet’s, visit to our clinic as stress free and enjoyable as possible. This helps us do our jobs better by allowing us to deliver high quality care as we look after the physical and emotional well-being of our patients. We then can practice better medicine because we can get more accurate vital signs and diagnoses, thus providing the best treatment options.
When your pet is relaxed and eating delicious treats during their visit at the clinic it is easier for our veterinarians to complete a thorough physical exam. This is as important during a wellness exam as it is when your pet is sick. Because our patients can’t tell us what is wrong, or where it hurts, we must rely on our pet owner’s observations and the physical exam to tell us where to look or what tests to run. Often during a wellness visit we find new lumps or dental disease that owners were not aware of. If a pet is stressed and it is difficult to complete the exam, then we may not find these important issues.
We have patients that love coming to our clinic, gladly take treats and allow a comprehensive physical exam. But we also have patients that are nervous, stressed or fearful. One way we can decrease the anxiety associated with a trip to the veterinary clinic is through “happy visits.” Happy visits are just that, a visit to the clinic that is a pleasant experience. This month we will detail what happy visits entail and give some examples of how they may help your pet feel less anxious about a veterinary clinic visit.
For more information about how we currently implement fear free at Oakview, please visit our website.
by Lisa Karnitz, DVM
Dr. Karnitz graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 2004. She has been in practice ever since. She was also the resident veterinarian at the Globe University for two years.
Dr. Karnitz has a special interest in dentistry and internal medicine.
She shares her home with her husband, two children, and a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Harry.
Our Fear Free protocol starts with your phone call to our office. Please let us know if your pet experiences fear, stress or anxiety during veterinary visits and we will make suggestions for you to try before you even leave home! Once you arrive, our Fear Free protocol will begin. We place a bandana on your dog or a blanket over your cat carrier. Each has been sprayed with a special pheromone for your pet. Pheromones are produced by animals to either mark their territory as safe (for cats) or to help feel calm and secure (for dogs). Many of our clients have noticed that their pets are less vocal and nervous in the exam rooms since we began utilizing these products.
In fact, most of you have likely experienced that stressful car ride to the vet with a howling cat. We have come to think of this as normal. It is NOT normal, and we will no longer accept it! Once in the lobby, place your cat on the elevated “cat carrier parking” areas in the lobby and we will cover his carrier with a Feliway sprayed blanket.
We also use the diffusers that are species specific in our exam rooms to help calm your pet. We specifically use Feliway® and Adaptil® products. These diffusers are unscented and ONLY emit pheromones. They are non-toxic and safe for any species including birds. They will only affect they species that has the appropriate pheromone receptors.
Fear Free Exam Room
Before and during the exam we utilize treats to help keep your pet calm and distracted. Pets often focus on the food and allow us to complete the physical exam with less stress involved. For dogs we try to utilize a variety of treats including: jerky treats, spray cheese and peanut butter. Of course we respect any food allergies as needed. Our staff always attempts to use treats when performing procedures, such as nail trims and vaccines, so there is minimal stress and fear involved. You can help by bringing your dog in a little hungry, that way they are more likely to focus on the food. And if you have a sensitive dog or a fussy eater feel free to bring their favorite treat from home! You can also bring a special toy or item that makes them feel comfortable (a stuffed toy, chew toy or a special bed or blanket, for example). If your dog is food motivated we may also use a stuffed “kong” treat while they are waiting to help them feel at home.
In the video below, Mia gets a stuffed kong at her first puppy visit. She is playing and happy by the time the vet comes in. We are starting her out on the right paw!
If you are bringing your cat in, you may want to bring their favorite blanket or bed as we can often do the examination while they are laying on that. Cats are often not quite as food motivated as dogs but we do have several specific cat treats to try and entice them. They also like the cheese! We have special “kitty huts” in the exam rooms so that they can feel hidden and safe while they wait. Be sure that the carrier you choose is easy to open (the entire top should come off easily) as many of our kitties have their entire procedure done while safely in the bottom of their carrier! Remember, we know how cats like to be transported and recommend specific style carriers.
You will notice that we have slip-proof surfaces for dogs and “yoga mats” for cats so that they feel safe and secure if they are on the examination table. We have come a long way from making our pets sit on cold, slippery stainless steel tables!
Lastly, we utilize the iCalm pet sound systems for both dogs and cats. This classical music has been studied and is at an appropriate cadence to have a calming affect on dogs and cats. (They also have more stimulating sounds if you want to use them at home!)
Fear Free Exams
During the examination, we will ask that one of our staff members gently restrains your pet while you remain in front of them for reassurance. In most cases they can have treats during the examination. We try to be very aware of words/phrases and touch during the examination process. Did you know that “It’s okay” is one of the most stressful phrases you can say to a dog!? We only say it when things are definitely NOT ok and our dogs learn that “It’s okay” actually means “Look out”! We try to speak in calm, reassuring tones and we actually DON’T stroke the dogs much. Studies have shown that excessive stroking may calm the owners but it actually increases the stress levels of their dogs! Instead we use a calm, firm touch that lets them know where we are and where we are heading so that we don’t surprise them with an injection. This is called the “touch gradient.”
Fear Free Procedures
There are times when your pet may need an additional procedure – blood analysis, urine analysis, fluid therapy, x-rays or even surgery. We want our pet parents to rest assured that the steps we take up front and in the examination rooms are carried throughout the hospital. We never want a pet to feel “forced” into a procedure; we want them to be comfortable and relaxed. So while they may need to be restrained, they should be calm and not struggling. You will notice that our examination rooms all have windows in the doors so you can see the working area of the clinic. We don’t do anything to your pet we wouldn’t do to our pets! If your pet is hospitalized for any reason they will benefit from appropriate pheromones, warmed blankets, soft music and a “hide box” if appropriate.
In the video below, a cat is having blood drawn from her back leg. She is fed cheese throughout the procedure and is barely being restrained!
Occasionally we have patients that are so nervous and fearful that the pheromone products and treats do not adequately reduce this anxiety. In that case we often prescribe medications that have sedative properties to give the pet before the appointment. We never attempt to wrestle or fight with a patient if they are fearful or anxious about the exam or any procedures that we need to perform. If this medication is not effective enough, or we cannot postpone the appointment, then we will use an injectable sedative in the clinic.
Nail trims are one of our most requested services. This seemingly simple task is often impossible for owners to do at home and difficult in clinic. It causes a lot of stress in pets and their owners. Dogs especially hate to have their feet touched. Our team has worked hard to make nail trims low stress, and it’s going great! Food rewards and little to no restraint are our biggest aids. Gone are the days of holding a pet down for a nail trim. Watch Bella, who we have worked with routinely since she was a puppy.
Your pet’s stress is a top concern for us here at Oakview Vet. We look forward to making your vet visits happier!
Go to our YouTube page to see more low stress procedures.
Dr Lisa Karnitz is the newest vet on our team, and bravely led the charge to become Fear Free Certified! We love her for her patience, her helpfulness, and her smile!
To truly change the dynamic of cat veterinary visits, we will need your help! There are things you can do to begin the process of decreasing your cat’s anxiety and avoiding those dreaded car rides with a howling, stressed out kitty.
The classic story of finding and then wrestling a cat to get him into the carrier is the exact opposite goal of Fear Free. One thing we know about cats is they need safe spaces. This is the opposite of dogs, who need safe people. So, get ready for a lot of discussion about carriers.
What kind of carriers do cats prefer?
For cats, so much is about the carrier! It may surprise you to know that scientists have done studies on how cats prefer to be transported. So, we know A LOT about what your cat needs to feel safe. The scariest way for a cat is to carry them in your arms. They do not like being loose in the great outdoors, there are lots of scary things out there!
So, what kind of transportation do cats prefer? First, most cats do not like soft sided carriers! They are flimsy and more likely to keep a cat off balance. A cat wants a hard sided carrier with a non-slip surface inside. We also know cats REALLY don’t like swinging! Regardless of what kind of carrier, it is important to carry it from the bottom, not the top.
Something your vet and your cat will appreciate is a hard sided carrier where the top opens easily, like the one pictured above. Oftentimes, we can do everything needed in the clinic with your cat comfortable in her carrier bottom.
Now for the hard part. Getting kitty in the carrier! We are challenging you to do this differently! Take your cat’s cozy, hard sided carrier, and put it out in your house. No more storage in basements, garages, and attics. This is supposed to be your fur babies safe place, let’s make it so! Make it cozy with catnip, treats, and toys, then….wait. And wait some more. Cats take their time with changes, so it could be as long as several months before they enjoy using their carrier to relax in at home. Once this is accomplished, you will be shocked at how your cat’s car ride and vet visit changes!
Let’s review recommendations for carriers:
Use a hard sided carrier where the top comes off easily
Put a non-slip surface inside
Carry it from below, cats don’t like to swing!
Cover the carrier so your cat can only see out the front
Use Feliway before travel
Put the carrier in the common area of your home and make it tempting
Car travel with anxious cats
Now you have the appropriate carrier and your cat is calmly waiting in it. Remember to carry the carrier from the bottom to give as much stabilization as possible. Spray Feliway in the car about 10-15 minutes before leaving.
Basic safety dictates that your cat is safely restrained in a carrier and ideally placed on the floor behind the front seat. Cover the carrier so your cat is not overwhelmed by passing cars and scenery. If you put the carrier on the car seat, face it forward and use a book to prop up the back end so it is level.
During the ride, we recommend calm, quiet music. Only classical music has been shown to reduce stress in cats.
Fear Free check in
Once you arrive at the clinic, feel free to “check in” with the front desk from your phone if you like! We offer a “concierge” service so that you and your pet can wait where you are comfortable until we have a room ready. Then we can escort you directly to a room without all of the chaos of the lobby! Just let the receptionist know that you have arrived and are in your vehicle – we will take it from there!
Our goal is to make every veterinary visit a Fear Free one!
Our next post we will discuss how we use Fear Free techniques here in the clinic. Get a headstart on our website.
Watch videos of low stress procedures on our YouTube page.
Cats are especially challenging. I often think about how cats must feel when they leave their house once a year, enter a noisy, moving vehicle and a noisy, smelly clinic, and then get examined by strangers. When they return home their housemates think they smell funny and sometimes treat them differently. That would create anxiety in the most laid back person if this was their experience, too. By utilizing the above mentioned tools and occasionally taking your pet for a car ride that is an enjoyable experience, then you can teach your kitty that cars and vets aren’t something to fear.