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Feeling no pain with Fear Free

The initiative’s founder shares his personal experiences

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Not long ago, I was stuck in a hotel room watching afternoon television, which in my world is about as unusual as finding new hair growing on my head. Flipping between soaps and a veritable parade of TV judges, I couldn’t believe the number of slickly produced commercials featuring local carney barkers—er, lawyers—with easy-to-remember numbers encouraging those who have been injured to call the offices of Sleazeball & Slime.

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

In the last couple of years, we’ve been holding monthly Fear Free symposia in various cities. 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.”

At one conference, I was actually shocked when one person didn’t raise her hand. When questioned, she explained she had 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.’”

During break, a colleague of this newly minted ‘veterinary nurse’ (not one with formal training, mind you, but someone who worked at TJ Maxx one day and became 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 flicking its tail. Naturally, Regina commented, “It 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.

Relieving pain with Fear Free

I think it’s safe to say we’re the only profession with a 100 per cent accident rate and, worse yet, a reoccurring one. As with any malady or disease, we are trained to look at cause and effect.

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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 reacting to fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS), or feel afraid for their very lives, fight to escape. They don’t have anything personal against us—it’s just that we’re typically the ones causing FAS by trimming nails and drawing blood, or examining a painful ear or wound.

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 Dr. Karen Overall, a boarded veterinary behaviourist from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine: “Fear is the worst thing a social species could experience, and it causes permanent damage to the brain.”

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

I grew up on a farm/ranch in rural southern Idaho. Those of us who were raised 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.

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Yet, 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 understanding, dogs and cats that were frightened or in pain 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 it also helped us to practice better medicine, improve morale, attract and retain key team members, and increase practice profitability. However, we hadn’t anticipated the very real and valuable benefit of the fact that happy, calm animals seldom bite, scratch, or flee.

Reducing FAS in animals can help prevent injuries in team members and 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 a sketchy TV ad attorney? That must be what it’s like in veterinary hell.

Marty Becker, DVM, writes a regular column 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, visit fearfreepets.com.

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