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TOFFEE the cat hated going to the vet. It would spit and hiss getting into the cat carrier and yowl all the way in the car.
Once in the consulting room it was nearly impossible to get the cat out of the carrier. Sometimes, in its fear the cat would bite the vet and scratch its owner. Its normal friendliness had disappeared.
Traditional vet medicine has a bad reputation with animals. They remember what happened last time they came through the vet’s door. More often than not it was traumatic.
We know animals have a heightened awareness of scent, so there are lots of smell signals that we humans are unaware of, even outside the vet clinic door. Often – as in Toffee’s case – the animal is distressed before the vet has even laid a hand on it.
But what if a visit to the vet could be a pleasant experience, not simply for the owner, but particularly for the animal?
This was a question at the centre of Dr Marty Becker’s thinking when he began campaigning for the ideas and techniques at the centre of what was to become the “FearFree” movement. Known as “America’s Veterinarian”, Dr Becker is a pioneer researcher on the human-animal bond as well as a respected veterinarian. He had noticed that an animal’s anxiety when going to the vet was hampering thorough veterinary care.
The FearFree movement is still in its infancy, but has already developed into a worldwide trend that veterinarians are adopting. By doing an online course vets and vet nurses are educated about the animal-centred concepts that the FearFree philosophy outlines. These ideas are advancing veterinary medicine by putting the animal’s welfare – not just physical but also emotional – at the centre of the process of caring for that animal.
It may sound a bit touchy feely to say that the animal’s emotional state is key to the success of the vet visit. But, as anyone with an animal like Toffee understands, it can be essential to feel safe before being treated for any unwell state.
It’s somewhat like the “white-lab-coat” syndrome in humans, which incidentally is the worst thing a vet can wear. Animals see white as a sort of neon brightness, the whiter the coat the more unsettling it is for the animal. This is also the case for bright, white walls and counters.
The approach Dr Becker initiated could be described as a holistic, animal-centred health plan that brings the owner, the animal and the vet into a relationship, building trust and understanding that should run in all directions.
It sounds good, but how does it look in reality?
When Toffee the cat comes into clinic using Dr Becker’s ideas there are a few differences that are immediately obvious – to the animal. Firstly, it should smell great. “We use a pheromone called Feliway diffused in the cat consult rooms,” says Dr Libby Adamson, of Northside Veterinary Centre, Braddon.
“It helps to make cats calm and even smoochy. Owners sometimes say: ‘There must be something in the air!’ Well, there actually is.”
Dogs respond to being given tasty rewards for everything that happens in the clinic, from getting on the scales to allowing handling and effective examination.
“We’re having great success with the protocols set out by FearFree thinking,” says Dr Adamson.
“We had a little terrier, Benny, present with extreme anaemia. It was at death’s door. The dog used to be impossible to handle and would bite the vets.
“We did a lot of work to treat his anaemia, but also worked making his visit positive. After his hospital stay and weekly visits he now runs in wagging his tail, gobbling treats and letting us take bloods from him. That’s a huge win for all of us.”
If needed, owners are given strategies by the clinic to help their animals have a successful visit. These may include making the cat carrier part of the cat’s every day experience. Turning it into a comfortable and even enticing space – perhaps with a hot-water bottle and some treats or pheromone sprays. Then, when it is time to take her along to the vet, a cat like Toffee arrives in its safe carrier happy, content and unruffled.
In a clinic where the FearFree concepts are in use there are waiting areas especially for cats – some even going so far as to have specific shelving designed so cats have a reassuring view of the waiting area from their carriers in an elevated position.
With anxious animals, preparation might start weeks before, with the animal’s family finding out their absolute favourite treat.
“Roast chicken is almost always a sure thing,” says vet nurse and puppy school facilitator at Northside Veterinary Centre, Sarah. There are also some techniques for compression coats, which effectively calm anxious dogs pressing certain pressure points making them feel enclosed and safe.
Dr Adamson says the practice uses gentle handling and restraint at all times.
“Calming music is played in the treatment rooms. If a muzzle is required, basket muzzles are used so anxious dogs can still pant, lick and express emotion as well as accept treats,” she says.
“For a cat like Toffee, we sometimes recommend an antianxiety medication 90 minutes before her visit to support her having a good experience of the vet. Then, once a positive visit has been achieved the team build on that to make Toffee relaxed and so we are able to provide her with best care.”
The Braddon practice has two vets out of its five and three nurses out of six trained in the FearFree online course.
“What’s actually crucial to understand from an owner’s perspective is that when we’re treating their animal for a serious health scare, if that animal’s familiar with the clinic and happy to be here, it has a head start in recovering,” says Dr Adamson.
“It also makes treating that animal easier so we’re all happy, the team, the owner and the animal.”