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How Fear Free training decreases on-the-job veterinary injuries

Learning animal behavior sometimes comes with battle scars

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Recently I was stuck in a hotel room watching afternoon TV, which in my world is about as unusual as finding new hair growing on my head. Switching back and forth between soaps, cable TV news with ever-present “Breaking News” banners below shouting heads, and a veritable parade of TV judges, I couldn’t believe the number of slickly produced ads featuring local carney barkers—er, lawyers—with easy-to-remember numbers encouraging those who have been injured to call the law offices of Sleazeball & Slime at 888-444-WINS.

It made me both smile and shudder at the thought of the veterinary profession, where literally everybody has been injured on the job.

This past year, we’ve been doing monthly Fear Free symposia in various cities, and one of the first questions I ask the audience as the moderator is, “If you’ve been bitten, scratched, or injured working in a veterinary hospital, please raise your hand.”

I was actually shocked in Columbus, Ohio, when one person didn’t raise her hand. When questioned, she explained she just started working the day before.

“Give it time,” I said. “Inside of a month you’ll probably be joining not The Walking Dead, but the ‘Limping Wounded.’”

Ironically, at the first break, a colleague of one of this newly minted “veterinary nurse” (not one with formal training mind you, but someone who was a stockperson at TJ Maxx one day and a veterinary nurse in name only two weeks later) said that on her first day of work, Regina (not her real name) saw a cat on the treatment table in the back flicking her tail and commented, “She really looks happy!” Of course, the veteran nurses just laughed and shook their heads. They knew she was going to learn feline body language the hard way—with scars.

Fear Free is the best thing for those who work with animals
I think it’s safe to say we’re the only profession with a 100 percent accident rate and, worse yet, a reoccurring one. As with any malady or disease, we are trained to look at cause and effect.

Why do dogs and cats bite, claw, and struggle to escape? Well, the answer is very simple and starts not at the ends of the canines or tips of razor-sharp claws, but in the brain stem.

Animals who have fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS), or fear for their very lives, fight to escape and live. They don’t have anything personal against us, it’s just that we’re typically the ones causing the FAS (doing nail trims and blood draws, examining a painful ear or wound) or working in the environment that causes the most severe FAS in the pet’s life: a veterinary hospital.

Back before Fear Free was a reality, the trigger that awakened my need to look after both an animal’s physical and emotional well-being was something said by boarded veterinary behaviorist from University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Karen Overall: “Fear is the worst thing a social species could experience, and it causes permanent damage to the brain.”

Well, if fear was the worst thing a social species could experience, then I thought Fear Free would be the best thing to bring to an animal’s entire ecosystem. What I came to understand soon after is it’s also the best thing for the people who work with animals.

I grew up on a farm/ranch in rural Southern Idaho. Those of us who work with animals and grew up around horses, dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and more knew by experience that you couldn’t startle or stress them or you’d be kicked into the fence or in the shin, or get not-so-many eggs the next day because the chickens were too stressed to lay them.

Likewise, happy cows gave more milk, happy pigs weighed more at slaughter, and happy horses could be ridden. This in-the-trenches training certainly helped us in large animal rotation, but we still fell short using bruticaine to handle critters versus learning how to keep them calm and happy. We opted for the rough stuff instead of using a gentle touch.

But we were trained in veterinary or vet tech school in restraint, with little to no low-stress handling techniques, gradient touch, considerate approach, or sedation protocols—all things now being taught in Fear Free certification. Without those tools and that understanding, scaredy cats and frightened/painful dogs bit and scratched us so much we can play tic-tac-toe with the scars on our hands, arms, or worse.

One of the unexpected benefits of Fear Free training is an amazing decrease in on-the-job injuries in veterinary practices. Fear Free started out as just the right thing to do, but we soon saw that it also helped us to practice better medicine, improved morale, helped attract and retain key team members, and increased practice profitability. But we hadn’t anticipated the very real and valuable benefit of the fact that happy, calm animals seldom bite, scratch, or flee.

I know veterinary practices are covered under worker’s compensation, but it can be very expensive, or we can be dropped. Reducing FAS in animals reduces injuries in team members and can result in much lower worker’s comp premiums. Plus it can help prevent the kind of serious, permanent, or disfiguring injuries we see or read about. Can you imagine if veterinary injuries were litigated by those afternoon attorneys? That must be what it’s like in veterinary hell.

Dr. Marty Becker writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com.

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