Dr. Carla Germano and dog
Black and White headshot of IndeVets Employee Kelly
Words by:
Kelly Dunham, DVM — Area Medical Director for Greater New York

What does it mean to be Fear Free certified?

Practicing Fear Free helps to alleviate unnecessary stress, anxiety and fear in our patients creating a calmer, happier pet and visit, for you and the clients. This allows us to complete a more thorough physical exam, catch changes or problems sooner, and build a stronger veterinary–client–pet relationship. Since instituting Fear Free practices, there have been notable increases in client compliance and return veterinary visits. We can’t help keep pets healthy if clients won’t bring them in. In my own experience, I have seen a huge increase in cat veterinary visits. These are often kitties who wouldn’t have otherwise ever gone to the vet after their initial kitten visits and spay or neutering.


How long does it take to complete Fear Free?

Fear Free Certification can be achieved by completing the online RACE approved CE modules. This can be done in as few as seven hours for the first level certification. However, there are also additional modules available for those who wish to improve their Fear Free handling and interactions through levels two and three, and all the way up to elite status.

To reach Elite status one must complete 35 hours of Fear Free CE. This can be done through the Fear Free website and/or through industry events and conferences. Once you have achieved this you will need to keep up on your Fear Free knowledge by receiving an additional four hours of Fear Free CE annually as well as maintaining your annual Fear Free membership.


What are some practices used in Fear Free?

When practicing Fear Free the first step is to set the patient up for success. When you have those new puppy or kitten visits, talk about behavior and conditioning. This allows us to get our patients started on the right paw. We can encourage our clients to start playing with their new pets ears and paws in positive ways, while providing praise, treats and love at home. We can also have the owner bring the pets’ favorite treats to appointments. We can even encourage our clients to bring their pets in for “happy” treat and weight check visits. These can help to build up positive experiences for the patient so that they don’t have a fearful/ negative visit (vaccines, blood work or even temps) every time they come into the hospital.

Assessing the patients’ behavior and attitude can help us to track subtle changes and intervene sooner if a shift in behavior or attitude is appreciated. We’ve all had that happy-go-lucky patient that “suddenly” comes in fearful or anxious. It can be hard to pinpoint where or when things changed. Sometimes it is as simple as the build up of multiple negative experiences (ex: vaccines at every visit). Other times it may be related to the pet coming in for an illness or injury in which they were scared or hurt and now associate that experience with the hospital or team.

The good news is that even when starting with a fearful patient there is still a lot we can do! Fear Free techniques start at home. Once we figure out what is causing this shift or if there is a trigger, we need to educate the owner on what they can do starting at home to help reduce fear and anxiety.

Is the pet fearful of having their ears touched, or is it just coming into the hospital? Having the owner work on training at home, with treats, praise and love paired with gentle ear touches can start to build up positive experiences and decrease the fear response. This can progress to touching the opening on the ear canal and even to massaging the ear canal at home.

It is important to go slow. Do not expect that the next time the patient comes in you can jump right into the exam. Getting down into a lower position, dropping treats and allowing for the patient to approach you can help reduce the patient’s fear and anxiety.

Don’t forget that for our fearful or anxious patients, sedation or Fear Free drugs can be used to help facilitate counterconditioning. However, it is important to remember that it does not stop at sedation. Sedation or Fear Free drugs should be a tool to allow for reduced anxiety and the practice of additional Fear Free techniques. Use treats, move slowly, but with purpose, and talk gently.

Many pets can be sensitive to touch. Maintaining continuous gentle touch of the patient can help to reduce stress and anxiety by eliminating the continuous shock of a new touch. Typically starting over the shoulders / back can reduce stress while allowing full exam by gently moving from one location to another.

Providing Fear Free care takes time. This can be challenging, particularly with the full/ busy schedules we are currently experiencing. Taking a couple minutes to slow down and use these Fear Free techniques can help up speed up going forward by alleviating stress and helping to prevent that reactive pet who can’t be touched, that we’ve all seen.


What do you do for those pets that can’t be touched?

The first step is to start with Fear Free medications like gabapentin and trazodone at home. I will often recommend that the owners do a trial run at home as some pets are more sensitive than others. It is important to let them know that this may cause sedation and that’s okay. When the pet is at home and relaxed it is normal to become sedated from Fear Free drugs. However, many pets can overcome that once in a stressful situation or environment like coming into the hospital.

For the pets who are still very reactive, injectable sedation should be considered as the next step. Given appropriate training, counter conditioning, and medication support, we are able to see a real transformation with many previously anxious and fearful pets.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Fear Free Veterinary Certification Program, you can visit www.fearfreepets.com. And, if you’re an IndeVet, you’ll receive a special discounted price for Fear-Free Certification. Learn more about this and other great benefits we offer our doctors.