How We Treat Your Pet Like A Rhinoceros

rhino in open land

We spend a lot of time on our website and social media discussing Fear Free and the fact that our practice is certified. But what exactly does that mean to you and your pets? We thought we could share an example of what “old-school” veterinary hospitals do and how Fear Free Training has changed veterinary protocols.

If you spend any time watching TV shows about veterinarians you may see some old-school techniques used. This makes us very sad, as we do not believe in forcing our patients to comply or in manhandling them to make it happen. Veterinary behaviorists have learned that forcing an animal to accept treatment without recognizing and overcoming its fear, anxiety and stress is detrimental to their mental well-being. Utilizing low stress handling skills actually makes their visit to the veterinary office something that they not only learn to tolerate but can even enjoy. Fear Free techniques are based on zoo animal husbandry. The simple idea is that the animal is rewarded for collaborative behavior and the environment and actions of the humans are relaxing instead of stress-inducing.

Consider trying to restrain a rhinoceros. First of all, that would be very dangerous because rhinos are a BIG aggressive animal when in pain. They weigh between 2000 and 5000 pounds. Unless they cooperate they must be drugged, which is risky. The animal could be darted and fall in a bad location or even worse, fall on its injury, blocking the veterinarian’s access to treatment. Instead, zoo animal veterinarians and zookeepers train the rhinoceros to go into its enclosure, remain still for an exam and present the body part that needs treatment. The rhino then receives a high value food reward. The animal does not have to be drugged and the staff does not have to be put at risk. A positive experience for all involved.

In the past, for a procedure as simple as a nail trim, the veterinary team would place the animal on a metal exam table, restrain the animal by wrapping their arms around its body and under its neck to keep it from moving. Many animals do not like having their nails trimmed or their feet touched. Many more do not like to be restrained – especially by a stranger. 

On occasion, animals will recall someone “quicking” their nails by cutting them too short. This is painful and it is an experience that the animal will definitely remember. Let us say that happened at the groomer or a previous visit to the vet. So, on the next trip, as soon as the nail clippers appear, the animal begins to struggle and try to escape. It does not want to have its nails trimmed because it remembers the last negative experience. Many humans feel this same stress at the dentist!   

In our Fear Free team this anxiety is recognized and techniques such as distraction and rewards are used to change the experience. The staff is taught to use little to no physical restraint, especially with cats, and to do work on the floor or where the animal is most comfortable…even the owner’s lap. We also know to stop when a patient has had enough and give them a break or even have them return later on medications. Even the building is focused on stress reduction with diffusers of “happy hormones” in the air and cat-only exam rooms and lobby spaces.

happy cat on blanket

Fear Free hospital teams like ours use an escalation of food rewards beginning with small treats like kibble or Cheerios and moving up the reward ladder to more exotic and tempting things like peanut butter, squeeze cheese or baby food. Our goal is to increase the pleasure of these positive rewards enough to distract and overcome the pet’s anxiety about the nail trim (remember the rhino?). At each visit these skills are used to reinforce that this is a “not so bad” trade…cooperating for the nail trim equals getting lots of really yummy treats. Soon the pet’s anxiety about nail trims is diminished and the nail trim visit is no longer stressful to the pet, owner or veterinary team.

In the “old school” practice the pet’s struggle would have been handled in a completely different manner. As the animal began to attempt to escape, the staff member would increase the pressure of restraint on their body and around their neck. A muzzle or towel to cover the mouth may have been employed for the safety of the handler.  

If the animal increased its attempt to run or to bite, another staff member would join in the battle and physically control the animal with their body… with larger dogs often by lying on top of them as the pet fights and panics.  By now the animal is in full fight or flight mode and attempts to bite or scratch its handlers. Finally, they all power through the nail trim. 

The pet is traumatized, as is the staff and all are worse for the experience.  With one or two more visits like this, the animal becomes so difficult to handle that they are almost impossible to approach as the pet feels sure it is going to die. This is how anxiety is elevated to outright terror. 

scared dog

We certainly are not accusing old-school veterinary teams of animal abuse, because until recent years this was how every veterinarian and technician was trained. No one liked it, but it was how we got care done for these challenging patients. Sometimes when animals have been severely injured, like being hit by a car, these types of restraints may be necessary to rapidly administer life-saving care to a patient crazed with pain. However, thanks to many brilliant veterinary behaviorists sharing their knowledge, we now have new and better ways to work with our patients, not against them.

As a team of Fear Free Certified Professionals, we know how to overcome the fearful pet’s anxiety with our advanced knowledge of how they think and feel. Even with our new techniques, some animals are overly anxious and require PVP (pre-visit protocol) medications. Fear Free practices are trained to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in their patients rather than induce those reactions.  We learn to read our patient’s body language for subtle cues that they are “mentally” uncomfortable so we can immediately work to create a positive outcome. By using PVPs we can even reduce the emotional ramping up of the patient before they enter the practice. 

Does this take more time? At first, YES! But over time we know that our patients are happier as are their owners. Our team, all animal advocates, are emotionally gratified when a patient is excited and happy to see them.  Over time, using these techniques actually speeds up care because our patient is relaxed and cooperative. 

We encourage all pet owners to join  Fear Free Happy Homes to learn what YOU can do to make your pet’s mental health as good as their physical health.

Together we can make every visit a good one.