In 2009, veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker attended a presentation where veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall said something that changed his life: “Fear is the worst thing a social species can experience, and it causes permanent damage to the brain.”
“I’d always thought of myself as a particularly compassionate veterinarian,” he said. “I had been exposed to the idea of ‘stress-less’ handling almost 30 years ago, when renowned behaviorist Dr. R.K. Anderson came to our veterinary practice in Salt Lake City to show show us how to turn the ‘All Pain Veterinary Hospital’ into the ‘All Treat Veterinary Hospital.’ I was familiar with the work of Dr. Sophia Yin, and admired and tried to incorporate her teachings into my daily care of animals.”
“What I realized, though, is that we were taking only the babiest of baby steps in the direction of removing fear, anxiety, and stress from our care of pets. Worse, it was viewed more as a practice management suggestion, not a veterinary practice imperative.”
This time, however, Becker couldn’t get Dr. Overall’s statement out of his mind. The realization that he’d been contributing to “permanent damage” to pets’ minds for decades haunted him. Even worse, he had spoken at hundreds of veterinary conferences throughout the world, written dozens of books and hundreds of columns and articles, and used his platforms on Good Morning America, the Dr. Oz Show, and his syndicated column to unknowingly add to the stress pets experienced when they went to see the veterinarian.
“We as veterinarians ask ourselves why veterinary visits are falling off,” he said. “Money is one of the three top reasons, but it’s not number one. In a national survey of pet owners, we found out that the stress pets suffer at the vet is the top reason. Money is number two. Number three is the stress the pet owner experiences at having to take an anxious, fearful pet to the vet.”
Was it possible to reverse course, and balance the emotional well-being of pets equally with their physical well-being? To help veterinarians understand that the physical harm of fear, anxiety, and stress means that practicing in a way that reduces or eliminates those negative emotions is actually better medicine?
He decided it was not only possible, it was the only ethically acceptable course for the veterinary profession to take. He founded the Fear FreeSM initiative, which is a training and certification program, developed by the country’s top veterinary behavior, anesthesia, and internal medicine specialists, along with general practitioners, to ground veterinarians, technicians, and other team members in gentle, compassionate care for pets.
During these same years, veterinarians had also been turning their focus to animal shelters. Shelter medicine courses and programs at veterinary colleges were founded and expanded. Shelter medicine became the newest veterinary specialty. Progressive animal shelters hired more veterinarians and began giving them a significant policy voice. Veterinary behaviorists were part of that movement, with a focus on housing, enrichment, and the damaging effects of noise, stress, fear, and other negative stimuli on sheltered animals.
And then the two worlds met, as Dr. Becker reached out to a number of shelter medicine experts to serve on the Fear Free Advisory Panel and help develop guidelines and training for future Fear Free animal shelter certification.
“All of what we know about sheltering will help us as veterinary hospitals,” said Becker. “And all of what we know about handling, noise, stress, and fear in the veterinary hospital will help animals in shelters.”
On Wednesday, December 7, 2016, at 9 PM Eastern, Dr. Becker will be giving a free webcast for Maddie’s Fund®, in which he’ll introduce the concepts of Fear Free, from the perspective of animal shelters as well as community or private veterinary practices that work with adopted or homeless pets, rescue groups, or shelters. You’ll learn why Dr. Becker calls Fear Free “the most important transformation in the history of companion animal medicine,” and how it involves every pet in the shelter or in the home, every day, forever.
What’s more, through a Maddie’s Fund-Fear Free partnership, attendees at the live webcast only will receive a promotional code good for 50 percent off the Fear Free certification course.