For our pet dogs and cats, fear and anxiety arise from a number of different circumstances such as veterinary visits, grooming appointments, and even encountering unfamiliar people. Their response to that fear can make caring for them difficult and potentially dangerous.
A survey published by Bayer Veterinary Healthcare in 2011 revealed that 37% of dog pet parents and 58% of cat pet parents felt that their pet hated going to the vet clinic. They worried that their pet was stressed during visits and this can lead to them delaying examinations or avoiding them altogether. This can have an impact on their pet's health and well-being.
To overcome this problem, the late veterinarian Dr Sophia Yin advocated a fear-free approach to handling pets in a clinic environment. This approach favors positive reinforcement (treats, pats, and praise) instead of the use of force when handling pets. It has the effect of keeping pets more relaxed, which then reduces the risk of bites to veterinarians and technicians, and also allows veterinary staff to examine a pet safely and thoroughly.
A fear-free approach can be implemented in a veterinary practice in many ways. One option is to desensitize dogs to the sounds and smells of the clinic by bringing them in regularly for a social visit and rewarding them for being calm. Another is to change the décor in the clinic to be less clinical and more like a friendly home environment, and spray calming pheromones such as Adaptil and Feliway in the examination rooms. A more specific example of a fear-free technique is using a pretzel stick to lift a dog's lip to look at their teeth and gums; it's safer than using a finger and the dog can have a tasty treat as a reward for being patient.
If these techniques aren't enough to help settle a frightened dog, then sedatives or calming medications can be used to relax them and ease their anxiety.
The fear-free approach is very beneficial for pets that are anxious and stressed about visiting their veterinarian but not all are in favor of it. Some people feel that some subtle signs of illness may be overlooked if members of the veterinary team are too mindful of a dog's emotional state. For example, taking a pet's temperature isn't pleasant for them and it would be easy for veterinarians to overlook it to avoid upsetting the patient. However, body temperature is important and should definitely be measured.
For supporters of this approach, any disadvantages are outweighed by the benefits. If a pet is not afraid of its veterinarian and is relaxed and calm while being examined, it allows a more thorough check-up. For example, it's not easy to feel the abdomen of a tense dog properly. The use of fear-free techniques also encourages dog and cat parents to take their much-loved companion for wellness exams because their pet isn't stressed by it. This allows any medical conditions to be diagnosed and treated earlier, often with a better outcome.