Fear Free practice is a concept that was introduced to us as first-year veterinary students. During our animal behavior course, we were taught about the importance of handling animals in a way that reduces anxiety and supports the human-animal bond. With veterinary visits on the decline, this practice is now more important than ever.
The consensus among many pet owners is that taking their animal to the veterinarian is a very stressful and traumatic experience. This is especially true for cat owners. Feline veterinary visits have declined nearly 50% over the past few years due largely to the fact that cats become very stressed during their appointments. This is true for dogs as well but just not to the same extent.
In practice, I always believed that I was doing what was best for my patients and keeping their well-being in mind. It wasn’t until I learned about fear free handling that I realized that I was doing some things wrong. I often scruffed cats to make myself feel safer. I would take them out of their carriers instead of allowing them to come out on their own. Aggressive dogs would be immediately whisked away from their owners and handled with caution and firmness. No effort was made to try to win them over because there was an established distrust.
Luckily for me, my veterinary school offers multiple opportunities to learn about animal behavior and welfare. Fear free handling is taught as part of our curriculum within a lecture and laboratory setting. We have various animal handling labs that teach us that excessive force is never acceptable and neither is scruffing. Animals should be encouraged to cooperate on their own terms and given positive reinforcement for the desired behavior.
This learning has made a huge impact on how I now interact with animals. I can wholeheartedly say that I have seen a vast improvement in how animals respond to me, especially in high-stress situations. I will certainly use these practices when I become a veterinarian and will consider obtaining my Fear Free Certification in the near future.