August 02, 2016

The Fear Free Initiative: Happy Pets Are Just Good Business

Implementing Fear Free SM strategies may not only reduce the patient’s stress–a noble pursuit in its own right—but will demonstrate to the client that you sympathize with their pet’s feelings. Subsequently, you will gain a more loyal client who is less hesitant to bring in their pet for a visit.
By Meredith Rogers, MS, CMPP
A hissing, spitting cat hiding in its carrier can strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veterinarian, while the silent puppy averting its eyes brings a sigh of relief for an easy exam. both animals are exhibiting signs of fear and should be cause for concern.
It is not surprising that animals in the clinic exhibit higher respiration, temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure, as well as different behaviors, than at home,1,2 since they are in unfamiliar surroundings with strange people and other animals. The floors can be slippery. There are strange sounds and smells, and even a well-meaning pat can be potentially unwanted attention.
A study, by Bayer Healthcare, found that patient visits have been substantially declining despite increases in pet ownership, which may be a result of the 38% of dog owners and 58% of cat owners who report that their pets hate going to the veterinarian.3 However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
A paradigm shift is happening in veterinary medicine. Although the physical aspects of care will always be at the forefront, the emotional well-being of animals is now recognized as an important contributor to good health. Reducing pet stress, anxiety, and fear associated with visits to the veterinary clinic has spurred the embrace of the Fear FreeSM Initiative. At the center of the initiative is the realization that fear leads to permanent changes in the brain, specifically the region of the amygdala. This means that a puppy or kitten’s first experiences with a veterinarian stays with it for life. Therefore, while examinations require contact that may not be entirely pleasant, there is much that can be done to reduce the risk of a fear response. By employing techniques that reduce stress, the cortex can override the amygdala, which can lead even older animals that are fearful from previous experiences, to learn that the veterinary clinic is a good place.
The principles of the Fear FreeSM Initiative may be different than what you are currently doing in your practice to reduce stress. Adopting them needs to be pervasive, but not necessarily difficult or expensive to implement. However, committing to establishing a Fear FreeSM clinic must be a conscious effort that is embraced by everyone in your practice. Below are some of the approaches to creating more relaxed visits for your patients. 


  • Play low-volume, mellow music, and eliminate extraneous noise
  • Eliminate bright overhead lights; use targeted lighting instead
  • Paint the office in muted tones
  • Avoid using disinfectants with strong odors
  • Spray species-specific pheromones and have catnip or treats readily available
  • Place nonslip bath or yoga mats on exam tables 


  • Speak softly and start by talking to the client first, to allow the pet to acclimate to the room
  • For larger animals, conduct the exam on the floor
  • Go slowly, proceed with the exam as the animal presents different body parts, and provide frequent treats; a dog trained to give his paw offers you the opportunity to exam it
  • Allow the animal to remain on the client’s lap for noninvasive procedures, such as temperature-taking 

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