Fear Free for Dogs

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

My veterinarian recently posted information in her office that she and her staff are qualified as Fear Free Certified® professionals. What does this mean?

The veterinary profession now understands that many dogs do not receive the veterinary care they need and deserve. Many pet owners decline to take their dogs for regular veterinary visits because they perceive that their dogs resent and fear the visits. The veterinary behavior community has clarified that many dogs experience fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) when faced with a visit to the veterinary clinic. FAS can be a problem at many points leading up to and during the veterinary visit. Dogs can experience FAS during travel from home to the veterinary practice. Some dogs have learned that they only get in the car to travel to the veterinarian’s office, and that means that FAS begins to exert its negative influence before the dog even gets to the practice.

I’d like to know more about FAS and what it might mean for my dog.

Fear, anxiety, and stress are rooted in responses to stressful events and result in both physiologic and behavioral changes. FAS inhibits healing, can contribute to chronic health issues, and can make any required treatment difficult. The stressors that contribute to FAS in the context of veterinary visits include humidity, odors, extraneous noise, pheromones, pain, hunger, thirst, disease, being surrounded and handled by strangers, and being separated from human family members. The stress response is the body’s attempt to return itself to a more normal state of functioning. It is important to remember that the threat causing the stress response may be either real or perceived.

What are the signs of a dog’s stress response?

A dog experiencing FAS will exhibit a physiologic stress response in two phases: immediate signs that manifest acutely, and delayed signs that appear later. The signs of an immediate stress response include:

  • decreased rational thinking
  • decreased ability to perceive pain
  • fear-based aggression
  • increased heart rate
  • panting
  • blood shunting away from the core/organs and to the muscles (preparing the body for “fight or flight”)
  • memory consolidation that will result in “flashback” experiences in the future

The signs of a delayed stress response are influenced by chronically elevated cortisol levels. Several body systems may be affected including:

  • Gastrointestinal system
    -inflammatory bowel disease
  • Musculoskeletal system
    -muscle wasting
    -chronic fatigue
  • Immune system
    -delayed healing
  • Skin
    -poor hair growth
    -hair thinning

Are there other effects or negative results from stress on dogs?

When experiencing FAS in the context of veterinary visits, it creates issues around the visit itself. Dogs with FAS are more difficult to examine, which may compromise the veterinary healthcare team’s ability to make a complete and accurate diagnosis. FAS may cause a dog to react aggressively to members of the veterinary healthcare team, resulting in injury to them. Because of some of the immediate effects of FAS, a dog needing sedation or anesthesia will require larger doses of medication, which may create an increased risk to them. In addition, dogs experiencing FAS who must have surgery will have slower post-operative healing, and dogs who are hospitalized due to illness will experience a longer recovery time.

There are long-term future consequences for dogs experiencing FAS. Fear impacts learned behavior, undermining training in even the best trained dogs. This means that a dog experiencing FAS may lose complete connection with his usual training commands. Fear happens in the emotional center of the brain, and these dogs cannot “think” their way out of their FAS experience. Fear also evokes vivid sensory memories linking the environment and people associated with veterinary visits. Think of this as the PTSD of the dog world. Fear-based memories are very easily retrieved when the dog is in that situation again.

Is there anything to be done for a dog who experiences fear, anxiety, and stress when he must go to the veterinary practice?

Fortunately, there are many things that can be done on behalf of dogs who experience FAS around their visits to the veterinarian. Creating a Fear Free SM veterinary visit starts before your dog even leaves your home. Your veterinarian can guide you in conditioning your dog to better enjoy time in your car, and by helping your dog not to associate car rides with “bad” things. Once you arrive at your veterinary clinic, the practice team will help to create a Fear FreeSM experience for him (and for you). Every dog is different, so your veterinarian will provide insight and guidance as to how the examination and visit will go. There may be treats involved. There may be a need for medication, and your veterinarian may recommend a Thundershirt® for swaddling. The best strategy for an individual dog will be determined by your veterinary healthcare team in dialogue with you and your family.

Rest assured, it is possible to help your dog reduce/eliminate FAS from its veterinary visits.

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