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‘Fear-free’ veterinarians aim to reduce stress for pets

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Trips to the veterinarian leave some pets so scared, the get sick.

But a new movement in some veterinarian circles is helping dogs and cats who suffer from shakes and shivers, heart rate jumps, blood pressure spikes and temperature rises.

The fear-free movement aims to eliminate things in the vet’s office that bother dogs and cats — like white lab coats, harsh lights and slippery, cold exam tables — while adding things they like.

For example, a fear-free clinic “will have a big treat budget,” said Dr. Marty Becker, the initiative’s main cheerleader and the vet chosen to introduce it to the country. All the dogs and cats at his North Idaho Animal Hospital, a fear-free vet, have space on their files to note favorite treats, from Easy Cheese to hot dogs.

About 50 practices across the country have gone fear-free, Becker, the chief veterinary correspondent for the American Humane Association, said. Later this year, the initiative will start certifying veterinary professionals. The certification takes about 12 hours of online instruction. The movement hopes to register as many as 5,000 people this year.

Hospital certification could start in 2018, followed by animal shelters and homes, Becker said.

Heather Lewis of Animal Arts in Boulder, Colorado, which has been designing animal hospitals since 1979, says there are many ways to make veterinary offices more pleasant for pets. Among them:

  • Paint walls in pastels and have staff wear pastel scrubs and lab coats. To an animal’s eyes, a white lab coat is like a bright glowing beacon and can be scary.
  • Remove old fluorescent lights. Dogs and cats have better hearing than humans, and the buzz from those old fixtures can bother them.
  • Consider alternatives to lifting animals up on to high exam tables with cold, slippery metal surfaces. Some clinics, like Becker’s, use yoga mats for animal exams.
  • For background music, choose classical. Becker and Lewis like collections called “Through a Dog’s Ear” and “Through a Cat’s Ear.”

A fear-free vet might also use sedatives or pheromones — chemicals secreted by animals that serve as stimulants for many things, including mating — rather than muzzles or restraints to keep animals calm during treatment, Becker said.

“Twenty-five to 30 percent of pets need sedation,” Becker said.

Becker introduced veterinarians to the fear-free initiative at the North American Veterinary Community convention last year. He’s presenting version 2.0 at the 2016 conference beginning Saturday in Florida.

One fear-free center is the Bigger Road Veterinary Center in Springboro, Ohio.

“We designed this clinic to look like you were going for walks in the park,” said Dr. John Talmadge. “Support beams look like maple trees. I don’t know if we’re fooling any pets but the exam rooms look like cottages and it looks like blue sky on the ceiling. It has a very inviting feel.”

He also expanded from 2,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet so he’d have room for better senior care and pain management. And for owners making end-of-life decisions for their pets, the clinic offers a private area.

“There is nothing more important than making that last treatment dignified and calming,” Talmadge said.

Becker says the fear-free initiative is important because stress and anxiety cause so many problems for pets, both physical and mental.

“Once pets know fear and anxiety and stress, you can’t undo it,” he said, adding, “You can see it. You can smell it because dogs are stained with their own saliva from licking themselves. You can hear it and feel it.”

Stress and fear can lead animals to hide the symptoms that prompted the vet visit, and may even alter their test results, said Richard A. LeCouteur, a veterinarian with a specialty in neurology and a professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

Talmadge says the fear-free approach is proving popular. “We have more than doubled our business through that clinic since opening (in April) and are well ahead of where we thought we would be,” Talmadge said.

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