Fear Free™ Vet Visits: A Feline Behavior and Training Specialist’s Journey

By Victoria Blais

Providing tuna juice during handing at home and during victory visits contributes to Haddie’s low fear, anxiety and stress

Desperately visiting a veterinarian I had never seen before, I had a sick feeling in my stomach when I was encouraged to put on protective leather gloves to hold my highly anxious cat, Haddie.  My normally sweet, affectionate girl, flattened her ears, pupils dilated, as she leaned away from the doctor.  Reading her cat body language, I knew we should stop, but I reasoned, “This vet specializing in felines knows what is best.”  As the vet approached Haddie, whose tail was thrashing, a loud guttural, fearful sound emerged from Haddie’s drawn back lips.  Then like lightning, her opened mouth lunged toward the veterinarian’s

Haddie’s open carrier is a familiar location where she allows handling and her blood to be drawn. Dr Kelly Flannigan DVM and author Victoria Blais use considerate approach, gentle control, touch gradient, and food distraction for a successful exam (YouTube video: https://youtu.be/b_ubLUo4rTI)

hand. “We need to stop.  Proceeding is too dangerous,” the veterinarian conceded.  Have you ever had an experience like this?

My passion for the Fear Free veterinary movement would soon turn my frustration here into tears of joy with a happy healthy cat.  Let me explain how by answering the following questions.  How did my feline girl develop such fear of veterinary visits?  How is the Fear Free veterinary experience different?   How can we help our clients’ pets have low stress care?

Over the 30 years of owning cats, I greatly appreciate my veterinarians’ knowledge and compassion.   Unfortunately, after a surgery, my cat Haddie no longer tolerated vet visits.  Her fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) escalated to hissing and batting, motivating vet techs to scruff and immobilize her forcibly, which frightened Haddie more.  Disturbed by her distress, I longed for calm vet visits.  How did my determination accomplish that?

Pioneers in low stress handling planted seeds of my learning how to make vet visits comfortable for Haddie, including Dr. Sophia Yin’s “Low Stress Handling of Cats and Dogs”, and The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), Cat Friendly Practice® information.  At the 2015 Clicker Expo in Dearborn, Michigan, I learned about the joys of desensitizing and counter conditioning dogs to vet visits and grooming. Laura Monaco Torelli’s “Ready… Set…for Groomer and Vet!” seminar and workshop taught me skills that I applied training my cats.

From Marilyn Krieger’s “Naughty No More”, I had already taught my cats to enjoy touching a target stick and “go to mat”, but I never did this at the veterinary hospital.  Now my cats were having fun going from their carrier to their training mat, touching a target stick, and gobbling down a delicious reinforcing reward.  After doing this in various rooms in our home, we moved the show to a beautiful park, grandma’s house, in the car at the vet clinic parking lot, lobby, and empty exam room.  Lastly, an agreeable vet tech helped me with various towel wraps and holds. The clinic staff probably thought I was a bit odd, nevertheless they humored me.  But my cats still had high FAS during exams.  What was missing?

Fear Free was the answer.  I heard about it at the American Association of Feline Practitioners’ conference in Washington DC, in 2016.   Immediately I became a Fear Free certified professional, loving how this distinctive initiative considers an animal’s emotional and physical well-being of equal importance during veterinary care.  “Just get the procedure done!”, while forcing a petrified animal to submit is obsolete.   Instead, considerate approach, gentle control, touch gradient, and anti-anxiety medications when necessary are key to keeping an animal’s FAS low.  Fear Free states “considerate approach includes interaction between the veterinary team and the patient as well as inputs from the environment during the visit.”  For cats, less is more.  Less noise or loud voices, less handling, less restraint, less odors, less bright colors, and less lights.  When I arrive for an appointment, I call from the parking lot, so we can directly enter the cat only exam room.  Next, five to ten minutes to acclimate, with low volume relaxing instrumental music, soft exam surfaces, pheromones, and choices.   Choice of treats or toys, to explore or to retreat, to be examined outside or inside the carrier, or perhaps on the owner’s lap.  Reading the animal’s body language to determine level of FAS, scored zero to five, is vital for success.  This guides staff in knowing when to move forward with the exam, when to take a break, or if high FAS, when to perform only what is medically needed during that visit, when to give pharmaceuticals or to stop.  Keeping an emotional medical record helps staff know the animal’s preferences.  These are merely a few highlights of Fear Free™.

Helping our clients’ pets have low stress veterinary care starts in the home.  Cats should have a positive association with their carrier.  Remind owners to leave the cat carrier out all the time in a low traffic location, placing a soft towel or fleece blanket and random treats inside.  When the cat cheek marks the carrier, depositing pheromones, later detection of these can be calming.  Developing fun tricks such as touch a target stick or stethoscope, go to mat, or sit on cue improves the owner-cat bond as well as gives the cat something familiar to do during the vet visit.  Fun no-exam vet visits are encouraged.  I bring along my cat’s favorite rewards and training mat.  Help the cat have a positive conditioned emotional response to moving onto a scale, veterinary handling, vaccinations, and blood draw using systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.  Familiar situations and scents equal lower stress.  Clicker Training for Cats in BARKS from the Guild, November 2017, pp. 16-23 explains techniques.  Fear Free certification is a great way to learn more.

What about Haddie?  I had tears of joy during her latest exam because there was no hissing, batting, or biting.  Relief beyond my wildest dream!

Resources:

Fear Free, LLC,  FearFreePets.com

Garber, P, & Miller, F. (2017, November). Clicker Training for Cats, BARKS from the Guild, pp 16-23.

Krieger, M. (2011). Naughty No More:  Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement. CompanionHouse Books.

Monaco Torelli, L. (2012, June).  “How Trainers Make a Difference:  Ready…Set…for Groomers and Vet!”

The American Association of Feline Practitioners, Feline Friendly Handling During Veterinary Visits

Yin, S. (2009). Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs. Davis, CA: CattleDog Publishing.

About the Author

Victoria Blais opened Clever Cats Livonia LLC using her passion for cats to assist owners solve feline behavior issues, including need for nail trims.   With a bachelor of science in medical technology providing the medical foundation of understanding diseases, Victoria applies this knowledge to helping cats be happy and healthy through behavior modification, environmental enrichment, and improving the human-cat bond.  She is the only feline behavior and training specialist in Michigan with Fear Free Professional certification level 3 and Better Vet Visits certification (Karen Pryor Academy).   Victoria is a supporting member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Cat Division, and a feline training professional member of The Pet Professional Guild.  When volunteering at The Michigan Humane Society, Berman Center, she incorporates clicker training and enrichment to build confidence in cats so they can woo their future adopter.

chirrupsandchatter@gmail.com'

About Pet Professional Guild Cat Committee

A group of Pet Professional Guild members who are feline behavior specialists have formed the PPG Cat Committee. The Cat Committee aims to help members who are interested in feline behavior add to their knowledge about this species that shares its life with so many people throughout the world. They provide webinars and educational information on many feline topics and encourage everyone to learn more about the fascinating feline!

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