No more ‘fraidy cats: North Dakota’s first Fear Free vet clinic takes the pet out of petrified – InForum

FARGO — In the busy back treatment area of ​​Animal Health Clinic, a veterinary technician hurries by holding a patient chart stamped with one large word in red: “Fearful.”

Not so long ago, any pet who hoisted, bit, scratched or otherwise lashed out at veterinary staff would wind up with a different word stamped on their chart: “Behavior.”

That subtle change is more than semantics.

It reflects the philosophy of a veterinary practice that has fully accepted that Grangers who growl and Sophies who scratch usually do so not because they’re bad dogs or crazy kitties — but because they are terrified. The vet staff’s response is to make sure the pet feels as safe and comfortable as possible in the first place.

It’s all part of the Fear Free Program, an educational online course unveiled in 2016 by celebrity veterinarian Marty Becker to help veterinary professionals eliminate fear, anxiety and stress in patients while creating a more rewarding experience for all involved.

Many veterinary clinics have one or multiple staffers with Fear Free certification; however, Animal Health Clinic is the first in North Dakota in which all 36 employees — from veterinarians to kennel assistants — are certified in this gentler approach to animal care, says Natalie Gruchow, AHC’s certified veterinary practices manager who is also “elite-level” certified in Fear Free methods.

“A job requirement in all positions is to receive the certification and to maintain the annual requirements for renewal,” Gruchow says. All current employees are certified, unless they have been newly hired, in which they have 90 days to complete the certification during their training period. Everyone signs a pledge that they are committed to Fear Free and they understand it is a job requirement.”

Fear Free practices range from minimizing restraint with special handling techniques which are gentle and accommodate a pet’s comfort level; safe, effective medications to help pets relax; and the use of dog or cat pheromones to increase feelings of security and familiarity, Gruchow says.

Nail trims are notorious for causing fear in dogs and cats. Using Fear Free methods, vet techs are able to distract the animal with treats while getting the trim done.

Contributed / Animal Health Clinic

One only has to glance around the large clinic at 1441 S. University Drive to see how thoroughly the Fear Free philosophy has been folded into its culture. “Fear Free-Certified” plaques hang throughout the building and exam rooms display charts which show how to monitor a dog, a cat — or even a rabbit or rat — for signs of fear. Every exam room is also outfitted with Fear Free educational materials, treat jars for multiple species, calming music boxes or special diffusers which emit synthetic versions of the pheromones that mother dogs and cats secrete to calm and comfort their newborn litters.

Owners also are invited to take a free pheromone-treated bandanna to soothe their pets while awaiting appointments, and cat owners are invited to place a pheromone-scented towel over or inside the carrier.

It’s a smart marketing strategy, but do these measures really make a difference? Yes, Gruchow says, and it benefits all involved.

Owners experience less stress about bringing a panic-stricken Papillion into the clinic. The pet experiences less emotional suffering overall, but is more likely to get important treatment sooner because vet visits are no longer so chaotic that they are postponed or avoided.

And, although this approach requires ongoing training and renewal fees, it also benefits veterinary staff, who are able to give pets a more thorough examination while experiencing less stress as they watch a once-aggressive patient react with calm.

In fact, Gruchow says workers’ compensation claims are down 60 percent since the clinic first introduced Fear Free five years ago. “There’s been a big decrease,” she says.

Dr. Kevin Dill, who co-owns Animal Health Center with Dr. Tammy Ness, has also seen the benefits. The goal of Fear Free is to make an environment that reduces and eventually eliminates the fear of clinics that many pets already have, and prevent young pets from developing fear, anxiety or stress,” he says. “I have seen many dogs and cats come in the first time and are petrified. With patience, a calming environment and proper patient handling, we’ve seen many of them starting to be happy about the visits and look forward to seeing us. That turn-around is an amazing and heart-warming experience that everyone involved can be proud of.”

One of the most prominent demonstrations of Fear Free at AHC is the “happy visit.”

In a nutshell, owners bring their fur babies to the clinic where staffers shower them with attention and treats — but no exam or procedures.

As the dog acclimates, the staff prolongs their exposure to the environment — perhaps walking them around the back treatment room or taking them into an exam room for more treats.

“We base it on how comfortable a pet is in each step in the process,” says Danielle Paseka, a licensed veterinary technician who was one of the first staffers to pursue Fear Free training.

How else is Fear Free different from traditional methods? Here are just a few examples:

  • Reading the animal’s body language: A big part of Fear Free is learning to read an animal’s body language to determine what emotional state they’re in. Recently, the staff was supposed to treat a dog that obviously didn’t want to be touched. The more physical contact he had with them, the more his aggression escalated. Their solution was to simply hold him in place with a leash and lavish him with treats while performing the necessary procedure.
  • Minding their own body language: If an animal is scared, the sight of a human towering over them won’t help. Paseka says she’s learned to squat down closer to the pet’s level and to sometimes turn her body sideways to present a smaller, less intimidating figure to the patient. She also avoids certain behaviors — such as direct eye contact or a loud voice — which could be perceived as a threat by a scared animal.
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    Gentle holding techniques can go a long way toward making pet visits less frightening to patients.

    Contributed / Animal Health Clinic

  • Taking time and being kind: Stacy Bergin, who provides front-office support at the clinic, recently adopted a cat, a handsome, orange-cream Devon Rex. Right away, the adoption staff informed her he would need to be sedated for any routine procedures, like cleaning ears or trimming nails. Armed with knowledge that vet visits stressed out Kingston, Stacy wiped out the inside of his carrier with Feliway pheromones and sprayed his carrier blanket with the pheromones. Once at the vet, Kingston was approached on his own terms: approached when he was ready and held carefully by Bergin as Dr. Dill cleaned his ears. “Everyone was very patient and took their time,” Stacy says. “We are now able to clean his ears without any fuss anymore.”
  • Treats, treats, treats: Frequent, tiny treats can go a long way toward reconditioning pets. For owners who fear this method will make their chunky Chow even chubbier, Paseka says their approach is to dispense tiny nibbles more often. One training treat can be torn into 10 pieces and still trigger the same positive behavioral modification as a full-sized treat.
  • Stepping into the pet’s shoes (or pawprints): Much of what they do focuses on shifting perspective so the staff can better understand why a pet might react badly to a seemingly innocuous procedure. For instance, many dogs hate climbing up one slippery, shallow step to be weighed on the veterinary scale. They find the sudden elevation—just one step up—to be confusing. The solution? A long rubber mat, which offers a more gradual transition to the scale and provides traction. A trail of treats leading up to the scale platform doesn’t hurt either.
  • Use of safe medications, when necessary: Administering pre-visit medications to relax the pet, such as Trazedone or Gabapentin, can work wonders in curbing pet fear and aggression, Paseka says. Animal Health Clinic now prescribes relaxing pre-visit medication for all of its surgery patients, because the entire experience of surgery — from being dropped off by the owner to receiving blood tests — can be frightening to them. Staff have also found that animals who get the benefit of these medications need less anesthesia, which makes for a safer procedure, better regulated heart rates and blood pressure rates, and smoother recovery, she says.
socks and feliway.jpg

The feline patient pictured here is being held with towels treated with pheromones to soothe anxiety. Another approach to ensure the animal’s comfort is to place socks on an animal’s paws to help them retain body heat when under anesthesia.

Contributed / Animal Health Clinic

‘It takes a little bit of your soul every time’

Paseka is now “elite-certified” in Fear Free training and listed on AHC’s website as a “Fear Free Dog Champion.”

While pursuing her degree in veterinary technology from the Minnesota School of Business in 2009, Paseka says she feels lucky that she had several instructors who instinctively thought like Fear Free practitioners.

In school, she remembers once reaching into a kennel and removing a cat by her scruff, as she was taught to do.

The cat lashed out with anger. “This cat is really mad at me,” Paseka remarked to her instructor.

“Yeah, no wonder, look what you just did to it,” the instructor said to her.

Paseka never forgot that lesson. “No one is working in this field because they don’t like animals, so when you have to pin an animal down and hurt them to give them care, it takes a little bit of your soul every time,” she says.


After Paseka joined Animal Health Clinic, she and Gruchow began hearing about Fear Free practices at continuing-education conferences.

They became so convinced that it was a better way to treat their patients that they started sharing information with their colleagues. They also formed a Fear Free Committee to troubleshoot ways to better serve clients and pets. By 2019, the clinic had met all requirements needed to become a Fear Free facility.

It wasn’t always easy. “It’s definitely a culture change and it didn’t happen overnight,” says Gruchow, adding that it even required changing the clinic’s mission statement, which was written in 1972.

Both she and Paseka say it will likely take many more years until the entire veterinary profession adopts Fear Free practices.

“I think it’s going to take some time. There are still some very old-school veterinarians and technicians and clients,” Gruchow says. “They’ll say, ‘Can’t you just hold them down and get it done?'”

But for them, the benefits — from reduction in workforce burnout and injuries to happier, healthier pets — make it worth it.

“Once you know about Fear Free and you see what it can do, there’s no going back,” Gruchow says.

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