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Why Vets Need to Change With the Times

Embracing the Fear Free concept and communicating the value of veterinary care are a few things veterinarians need to do.


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I believe that many pets visiting veterinary offices think they are going to die.  

Imagine being hung by your suspenders halfway out of a 30th-floor window, or being held up at gunpoint.

I have no proof that pets feel as threatened as that, but I can say we know that their flight-or-fight response often kicks in. Some animals may literally freeze with fright. 

This is not something pets think about and ponder; it’s an autonomic response to a perceived life threat. 

No veterinary nurse or veterinarian I’ve met has ever wanted to do anything except what’s best for a pet.

Scaredy Cats

Today, we know that pets have emotions and that their emotional health is important. 

It’s not easy dealing with a petrified pet. There are safety and welfare concerns for all involved. 

Not only will the veterinary exam be less thorough in such situations, but fear, anxiety and stress are contagious. If the pet is anxious, the owners and the veterinary staff will become anxiety-ridden, too. The anxiety grows like a snowball.

According to the Bayer-Brakke Veterinary Care Usage Studies, 38 percent of dog owners suggested that their pet hates going to the veterinarian, compared with 58 percent of cat owners. 

Think about yourself. If you have a bad shopping experience at a department store, you’ll likely be stressed out thinking about the place, and you’re not likely to return. The same is true for pet owners. According to the Bayer-Brakke studies, 28 percent of dog owners say just thinking about a veterinary visit is stressful, and nearly 40 percent of cat owners agree. 

I suspect those numbers would be even higher if we could ask the pets how they feel. 

I conducted a YouTube search of videos of pets fearful of visiting the veterinarian. There were hundreds. Each time I clicked on the play button, the owners thought their pet’s reaction was funny, or they expected the pets to be afraid, even terrified, of their doctor and nurses. 

How I Will Help

I have two resolutions for 2017. The first is to participate in the Fear Free and Cat-Friendly Practices initiatives so I can play a role in changing these misconstrued pet owner mindsets and the expectations that veterinary visits are supposed to strike fear in the hearts and minds of pets.

Instead, by year’s end, I hope to see balanced YouTube videos: cats head-butting contentedly on the exam table and dogs taking cookies with their vaccine, like we do cream with our coffee.

If I had a tail, it would be wagging nonstop for what Veterinary Practice News columnist and my longtime pal Dr. Marty Becker has accomplished by launching Fear Free, which promotes a considerate approach and gentle control techniques in calming environments.

And talk about having the courage of a lion, the American Association of Feline Practitioners—creator of the Cat Friendly Practices program—has essentially said it’s on us to do better for cats. We need to make real, cat-friendlier changes. These sometimes subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, changes make a difference. 

How to Interact With Pet Owners

Still, I don’t know how veterinary professionals can do all this alone, which brings me to my second resolution. I believe that both initiatives, Fear Free and Cat-Friendly Practices, begin in the pets’ homes. I resolve to communicate directly to pet owners on the significant difference they can make. 

This effort and messaging must go beyond carrier training for cats and using techniques and products to calm pets on car rides.

We know from the Bayer-Brakke studies—I can confirm this after interaction with thousands of pet owners—that there are significant additional obstacles:

  • Pet owners don’t embrace preventive care.
  • Dr. Google might be the go-to source. (Or even the dude working at the pet superstore.)
  • Sticker shock.
  • A lack of perceived value in veterinary visits. 

Value in Veterinary Care

I believe, even as a non-veterinarian, that given enough opportunity, I can influence pet owners. 

For example, 33 percent of owners of indoor cats, according to a Bayer-Brakke study, say their pets don’t require veterinary care. That percentage may not seem like a lot, but it represents millions of cat owners. In my experience, when I explain that while indoor cats may not be hit by cars or chased down by coyotes, they still may suffer heart or kidney disease, people then get it. 

Similarly, when pet owners complain about veterinary costs, I use cancer as an example. Sadly, we all know someone who has undergone cancer treatment, and we are aware of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatment costs. 

I point out that the same drugs and expertise in veterinary medicine cost a tiny fraction by comparison, though it’s still a problem if people truly don’t have the money. However, at least now, most people I’ve spoken to agree that veterinary medicine is a bargain.

Veterinary professionals can’t communicate these messages to clients they’re not seeing.

At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of pet owners consider their pets to be members of their family. They care about and want to do what’s best for their pets.

I sincerely believe that pets benefit by seeing a veterinarian. It’s common sense to everyone reading this, but clearly not to many pet owners. 

It doesn’t need to be this way. Together, we can change this. 

If pets are excited about seeing you, it’s more likely their people will be, too. It is possible.  


Steve Dale writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. A certified animal behavior consultant, he speaks at animal welfare and veterinary conferences. His website is www.stevedale.tv. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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