Fear Free: Transforming Veterinary Medicine


Dr. Marty Becker and friends

Dr. Marty Becker met with me at a veterinary conference in 2016 and explained he was about to launch an initiative to do something about fear, anxiety and stress of pets going to the veterinarian. He explained, “As (veterinary behaviorist) Dr. Karen Overall says, ‘Fear is the worst thing a social species could experience.’ We (veterinary professionals) were trained to just get it done, but I know today we have the knowledge and tools to do better; we must do better to be better and it’s called Fear Free.”

I instantly understood, and said I’ll even go further, “I think many dogs, as well as most cats and pet birds and small mammals actually believe they are going to die – literally – when visiting the veterinarian. Often that feeling among cats happens at the mere sight of the carrier coming out.”

Of course, we can’t ask the pets if they literally feel impending doom – though many veterinary behaviorists have since agreed with my rather bold statement. And you do not need to be Dr. Doolittle to observe the sheer terror and panic of so many pets when visiting the veterinarian, who, after all is only trying to help.

In a survey (Bayer Usage Care Study III) dating back to around the same year Fear Free was established, 38 percent of dog parents and 58 percent of cat parents says their pet “hates” going to the veterinarian. And as a result they’re less likely to visit the veterinarian, and certainly not for routine care or checkups.

Becker’s goal was to certify veterinarians and veterinary technicians in Fear Free standards and practices, and eventually certify entire veterinary practices with a goal of eradicating or at least minimizing fear, anxiety and stress associated with vet visits.

Becker launched Fear Free with most experts in veterinary behavior participating. “Boarded veterinary behaviorists are the bedrock of Fear Free,” he said, adding that today we know that emotional health and well-being and physical well-being are interconnected.

It was only a matter of months before some Fear Free techniques began to be replicated at veterinary practices all around the U.S., and even around the world.

Using treats in novel ways, such spraying a wall with Cheese Whiz for pets to lick off while being vaccinated; veterinary professionals spraying pheromones on themselves to ease their patient’s anxiety and less taking pets “into the back” which made both pet parents and pets uncomfortable are only a few examples.

When the pet feels more comfortable, pet parents feel more comfortable. When pet parents feel more comfortable, the pet feels more comfortable.

The veterinary professional is a traditional profession where change historically comes at a snail’s pace. Fear Free was different from day one. It caught on with clients as well as veterinary professionals. Today, there are over 74,000 Fear Free Certified Professionals in the U.S. and Canada (and many more in over 40 other nations). Also, over 160 practices are Fear Free certified. What’s more, veterinary schools encourage or even require Fear Free as a part of their curriculum.

No fear here

Watching the impact of Fear Free, dog trainers, animal behavior consultants, dog groomers and professional pet sitters approached Dr. Becker asking his team to create certifications for their professions. And the Fear Free Shelter program launched in 2019.

A 2021 study demonstrates that using Fear Free tools and techniques makes a difference in patient visits, which is clearly beneficial.  When seeing a Fear Free veterinarian, vet visits increased overall two percent, and 3.5 percent among cats. The fact that Fear Free influences cat visits is huge because until Fear Free came along, a CATastrphe in veterinary medicine is that cats were considered under-medicalized compared to dogs.

Patients with exam visits before Fear Free compared to after increased 2.2 percent, and the number of exams increased as well from 1.41 visits per year to 1.47. This benefits pets as preventive care means early diagnosis which means a better prognosis, and an early diagnosis may equate to a financial savings.

Millennials and their children (Gen Z) are a part of the reason Fear Free has been so wildly successful as their pets truly are their “fur babies.” And they will do anything for them. Conversely, if they sense their “baby” is terrorized by the vet visit, they’re not likely to come back anytime soon, at least not to that veterinarian.

So, Fear Free actually builds on loyal relationships with veterinarians. Even 10 years ago and certainly 20 years ago, clients might accept an “excuse” if their animal was expressing terror. However, that’s no longer the case

Building on that, In 2017, Fear Free Happy Homes (www.fearfreehappyhomes.com) was created, a website for pet parents. With so much misinformation online, this site offers a dependable source of companion animal information with content authored by experts and reviewed by experts, often presented in an entertaining manner. And there are often “deals” on pet products. And it’s all offered at no charge.

Entering 2022, Fear Free is that most transformational initiative in veterinary medicine, in about 100 years since cars replaced horses as the primary mode of transport. That’s when veterinarians pivoted to treating dogs and cats maintained as pets rather than treating horses.

Indeed, emotional well-being matters as today scientists and even the courts acknowledge our pets are sentient beings.

You can also find a Fear Free practice and Fear Free professional HERE.