When I became a relief vet over a year ago – after over 11 years of being a GP associate – I had the usual stressors: would I be able to find enough work, to find work at clinics that practiced good medicine, to manage my finances, or would I be audited by the IRS because my home office desk has a cat bed on it? Another huge concern for me was whether or not I would be able to be a relief vet and still be Fear Free.

THEY’RE NOT BAD. MANY OF OUR PATIENTS ARE JUST TERRIFIED, AND WE CAN’T BLAME THEM. BUT WE CAN HELP THEM THROUGH IT.

If you are new to the Fear Free movement, it was founded by Dr. Marty Becker in 2016 and strives to reduce the fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) experienced by many of our patients through principles such as considerate handling and positive reinforcement. Traditional handling methods focus more on the ends rather than the means – think about every flailing dog you have seen placed in lateral recumbency for a nail trim.

Now think about every appointment that has been cancelled because an owner couldn’t catch their cat, or the number of times one of your patients has trembled, cowered, urinated, defecated, scratched, growled, or snapped. Instances like these happen every day, several times a day. These pets are not “bad”. They are completely terrified, and you can’t blame them. They are shoved into carriers, poked with needles, hugged by strangers, getting their nails accidentally quicked, and restrained in scary positions for reasons they do not understand.

One of the biggest lessons I am trying to learn as a relief vet: to reset expectations and let some preconceived notions go.

I don’t know about you, but I would totally express my anal glands if something like that happened to me every time I had to go to the dentist, and yet we expect pets to endure these things without complaint. In contrast, Fear Free takes a more compassionate approach and considers the emotional well-being of our patients, not just their physical health.

Members of the Fear Free community range from veterinarians and support staff in general practice, specialty hospitals, shelters, and emergency practices, to groomers and trainers. I was just not sure if relief vets could still be included in part of that community. Every new practice would bring with it new management and staff, people who may or may not be familiar with Fear Free techniques. Or worse, people who may react to those techniques with impatience or hostility. Additionally, when you are doing relief, you basically act as a mobile vet within a standing hospital. Much of the equipment that I was used to using daily as a Fear Free associate could not be guaranteed to be readily available while practicing relief.

To my surprise, not only have I encountered tolerance and openness to learning about Fear Free from clinic staff, but I have continued to discover more and more ways in which you can bring Fear Free to the pet. This has also helped reinforce one of the biggest lessons I am trying to learn as a relief vet: to reset expectations and let some preconceived notions go.

I had the chance to attend a CE lecture by the late Sophia Yin several years ago, and something she said when it comes to a pet’s emotional health that has always stuck with me: try to leave that pet as good or better than when they came into the clinic.

Veterinarians can be notorious control freaks (“No….wire….hangers!!!”), and I was no exception when I was an associate. When you are a relief vet, however, you simply have to accept that there are going to be a lot more things you are not able to control. While it is still difficult for me to see one of my patients feeling FAS or being handled roughly, if I can do some small thing to reduce that pet’s emotional trauma – while it may not be perfectly Fear Free – it is at least a more humane experience than that pet would have had before.

Even better, it may spark a conversation with a staff member who could then go on to rethink how they handle their own patients. I had the chance to attend a CE lecture by the late Sophia Yin several years ago, and something she said when it comes to a pet’s emotional health that has always stuck with me: try to leave that pet as good or better than when they came into the clinic. This is a high standard to strive for, but being a relief vet does not make it impossible, and some of the tips below might help get you there.

Top Five Fear Free Tips that Cost Nothing

1. Use a towel for handling all cats.

Hiding is a major coping mechanism for cats when they are stressed. If you use a folded towel for handling, you would be amazed at how many cats will instantly burrow into the little towel pocket you have created for them. Allowing cats to hide when stressed may prevent them from escalating to hissing, growling, or swatting, and if they do escalate, you already have a towel to use for restraint rather than resorting to the non-Fear Free traditional method of scruffing. This is also why you should try to avoid dumping cats out of their carriers – doing so abruptly takes away their ability to hide. Many cats that have a history of high FAS at the vet can be examined in the bottom of their carrier with the top taken off, covered with a towel. Using this technique alone, I have examined and vaccinated multiple cats that have historically needed sedation at the vet.

WE ALL KNOW CATS OFTEN HIDE WHEN STRESSED. TRY CREATING A LITTLE ‘TOWEL POCKET’ THEY CAN SNUGGLE IN.

2. Try examining dogs on the floor.

Most cats prefer to perch on an elevated surface, but a lot of nervous dogs become even more fearful as soon as you get them onto the cold, hard surface of an exam table. When was the last time you saw a dog on a table at someone’s house? Examining dogs on the floor also shows a lot more consideration for your technicians who have to lift and restrain multiple patients a day and have the back pain to show for it.

3. Rather than the “nose to tail” exam, try starting your exam in a position next to and facing the same direction as a pet.

Staring at a pet can be perceived as threatening, so avoiding eye contact and keeping your hand on the pet throughout the whole exam so as to avoid a startle response can help reduce FAS. I typically start with auscultation, then move to dorsal skin exam, ventral palpation/skin exam, hind leg ROM, front leg ROM, lymph node palpation, perianal exam, and then examination of the legs/feet before I get to the head. If a pet is coming in for a specific complaint that may be associated with pain, such as otitis, or a history of sensitivity with certain body parts, I try to save those areas for last.

TRY EXAMINING DOGS ON THE FLOOR. AFTER ALL, WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU SAW A DOG ON A TABLE AT SOMEONE’S HOUSE?

4. Try giving injections with a 25g needle instead of the standard 22g.

I just started doing this a couple of years ago, and at first was worried that it would take too long to give the injection. After a few vaccines, I realized that it takes a microsecond longer, and the amount of needle reactivity I was seeing in pets was reduced significantly. It has also made me rethink the default needle gauges I used for pets in other situations such as subcutaneous fluids. When I switched from 18g to 20g needles for giving my own cat subcutaneous fluids at home, she was much more comfortable, and it still only took 5 minutes.

5. Get and give some free education.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners has some great member benefits, but you don’t need to be a member to watch the amazing Feline Friendly Handling webinar on the AAFP website. And bonus, it’s RACE-approved. I also recommend signing up for a free account through Fear Free Happy Homes, the Fear Free site for pet owners. Under “tips and tricks”, there are a ton of useful client handouts such as ways to reduce fear during fireworks and reducing stress for vet visits. I find this last handout especially helpful for clients who are averse to trying anxiolytics for their pet but are open to other suggestions such as pheromones or bringing high value treats to the next vet visit.

Additional resources
  1. https://fearfreepets.com
  2. https://fearfreehappyhomes.com
  3. https://catvets.com/education/online/webinars/feline-friendly-handling
  4. Ask about our steep discounts on Fear Free subscriptions for Relief Rover members – info@reliefrover.com