Gazette Vet: Fear Free

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A few years ago in our veterinary hospital we began a new “Fear Free” philosophy when working with our dog and cat patients. I’ve been working at my current hospital for 16 years and we have always been a gentle and patient group when working with pets. It doesn’t take long to see that a slower, more patient approach to an animal will get your farther then a rushed, aggressive approach. Recently, we have really refined that effort by working towards being a “Fear Free”-certified hospital.

A great example of this is handling cats. Traditional handling of cats would quickly revert to grabbing them by the scruff of the neck to restrain them as soon as they seemed to be getting “aggressive.” A “fear free” approach is to understand that the only reason the cat is hissing at you is because it is scared out of its mind. Scruffing this cat should be your last resort. Instead of reaching in the carrier and pulling the cat out by its scruff, we’ll unscrew the entire carrier so we can slowly lift the top off, cover the cat with a towel, and gently examine them. The result of this change in approach is remarkable. We are typically able to do full exams, vaccines, and blood draws on cats that their owners say had to be sedated in the past.  

We follow a similar approach with dogs. An uncooperative or aggressive dog is almost always a scared or anxious dog.  Traditional methods for handling a growling or barking dog would be to immediately put a muzzle on it and restrain them during the exam and procedures. Now we take the time to figure out each dog and use muzzles only as a last resort, while at the same time keeping our human safety as a paramount priority. Simple things like giving the dogs cheese in a toy, sitting down in the room, and giving them a few extra minutes of time to get used to us before trying anything on them have also made a huge improvement in what we can do with a formerly aggressive dog.

One tool that we have used for the past few years are dog and cat pheromone products, namely “Feliway” for cats, and “Adaptil” for dogs. I’m going to sound like a CEVA Health salesman here (CEVA is the manufacturer for these products), but they are pretty awesome.

Pheromones are real. They are essentially “scent hormones” that dogs and cats (as well as many other animal species) use for communication. One example is ants laying down “trail pheromones” for other ants to follow to and from your kitchen. Similarly, dogs and cats can emit certain pheromones when they are feeling scared, alert, or…happy!

Researchers have found several pheromones in dogs and cats that are associated with contentment and they have been able to reproduce these, stick them in a bottle and voila!

Feliway is the product line for cats and comes in a spray bottle as well as a plug-in diffuser. The original Feliway contains a pheromone that cats release when they are feeling happy and confident.  A new product called Feliway Multicat contains a pheromone that mother cats release to their kittens that is associated with social harmony and appeasement. It doesn’t work for every cat, but neither does catnip for that matter.  There are cats, however, that go crazy with catnip and there are definitely cats that have a very visible response to Feliway.  

In our hospital, when a cat comes into an exam room in the carrier, we have the receptionist put a small towel sprayed with Feliway over the carrier while they are waiting for the doctor. We also have a Feliway diffuser in every room. Clients frequently comment about how calm their cats are, and they are convinced that it works.

Besides helping to relieve some fear and anxiety at the vet office, Feliway proves very useful for problematic behaviors at home. Peeing out of the litter box and cat-versus-cat aggression are two big behavioral problems we see, and using Feliway has proven very helpful for many clients. Again, not all cats respond, but it is safe and often worth giving it a try.  

Adaptil is the canine product and also comes in a diffuser, and a spray, as well as a collar. Adaptil contains an appeasing pheromone that mom dogs use to communicate security and comfort to their pups. When dogs come into the office, our goal is to put a bandana sprayed with Adaptil on them when they come into the lobby. We also use Adaptil diffusers in each room.  

We get the most comments about the effects of Adaptil, possibly because dogs tend to be more communicative about their emotional state with their owners, but also because overall dog anxiety with veterinary visits is probably lower than it is for cats. We regularly see dogs who would normally be hiding under the bench panting, now lying comfortably in the middle of the exam room.  Adaptil certainly doesn’t work for every dog, but again, it’s safe and certainly worth trying on dogs with anxiety. Home uses include travel anxiety, thunderstorm anxiety, and separation anxiety.  

Dogs and cats are wonderful and fascinating creatures and after so many years in practice, I am still humbled at how much I continue to learn from them. 

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