No More Scaredy Cats—or Dogs!

A woman holidng a frightened cat

How can you make your veterinary practice less frightening for pets? In a recent conversation, Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” shared insights and suggestions for ways you can create a more friendly environment at your practice right now.

What’s good for your patients is good for your practice

Could being pet-friendly encourage the 38% of dog owners and 58% of cat owners who claim their pets hate going to the veterinarian1 to bring them in anyway? Absolutely—in fact, net profits are increasing significantly in the practices that work with him on establishing Fear-Free approaches to visits. But Dr. Becker says fostering a Fear-Free experience is simply “the right thing to do.” He’s in good company. The movement to eliminate fear from veterinary visits also includes luminaries in the research and practice of humane animal care: Temple Grandon, PhD; Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB; and Stephen Ettinger, DVM, DACVIM, DACVIM (Cardiology).

Dr. Ettinger, author of the Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, shared an interesting observation with Dr. Becker before joining the Fear-Free advisory board—that pets, like people, often experience a “white coat” response when visiting the doctor. He compared the heart rates of pets in a traditional veterinary hospital to those of pets he treated in a rehabilitation unit and found that in the traditional hospital, heart rates were 50%–60% higher. And while his finding gets to the heart of the fear-free movement, its soul lies in what fear does to pets’ brains and minds. The work of veterinary behavior specialist Dr. Karen Overall is revealing the power of fear to induce neurobiological changes and life-long psychological effects.

Your patients have more to fear than you may realize

Fear is a basic survival mechanism. It’s hard-wired into the brain and kicks into gear when pets or people perceive a threat. And to a pet, a visit to the veterinary hospital can be pretty scary: the floor can be slippery; the reception area is sometimes filled with people, other pets and noise; the air is thick with unfamiliar smells; the animal is confined, sometimes muzzled and often lifted onto a metal table where its paws, belly and backside are explored. In short, the pet is completely vulnerable and, when it tries to alert people to its mounting stress or distress, its signals are often missed or misinterpreted.

Start eliminating fear with these 10 steps

When a pet signals its distress, Dr. Becker says veterinary practices are conditioned to, “act to protect the team, but they’re not trained to adapt their behavior based on the animal’s fear. At a Fear-Free visit, the pet’s physical and emotional well-being work hand in hand.” In fact, he says “the pet’s emotional well-being should come first.”

It’s not uncommon for veterinary visits to start with the staff giving the pet a big welcome. That’s because veterinary professionals love animals and want to shower them with love. But to cats and dogs, unsolicited attention of any kind (petting, hugging, kissing, even direct eye contact), can seem threatening. During a Fear-Free visit, the animal sets the pace for the interactions. It may take a few moments, but waiting for the pet to make the first move goes a long way toward reducing fear and establishing trust.

Here are 10 actions every practice can start taking today to make veterinary visits less fearful for pets:

  1. Ask the client about their pet’s anxiety triggers and preferred gentle control method when scheduling the appointment.
  2. Instruct the client to bring their pet in hungry.
  3. If possible, minimize time spent in the reception area.
  4. Listen without interruption to the client after asking why they’ve come in.
  5. Speak softly and avoid direct eye contact with the animal.
  6. Do not stand directly in front of the animal.
  7. Avoid being effusive or overly interactive with the pet.
  8. Reward the pet with physical touch and by letting it choose the location of the physical examination.
  9. Make use of proven relaxation methods: massage, pheromones, music.
  10. Don’t hesitate to prescribe a sedative to be administered before the visit.

A simple rule of thumb in Dr. Becker’s practices is that, “if a pet won’t accept a food treat, you’re already past the threshold. It’s time to reschedule the visit or sedate the pet.”

Want to learn more? Watch DVM360’s interview with Drs. Becker and Overall.

Examples of fearful behavior

How dogs exhibit fear2

Lip and nose licking

Stress yawn (more intense than a sleepy yawn)

Panting (despite cool weather and without physical exertion)

Pinned ears

Avoidance (excessive sniffing, inattention, looking or turning away)

Shaking off (unrelated to waking)

Low tail carriage

Dilated pupils

How cats exhibit fear3


Avoidance (escaping, running away)

Flattened ears

Crouched or curled body

Absence of vocalizations

Dilated pupils


  1. Spinks I. Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings 2011. Accessed January 16, 2015.
  2. 4Paws University, Inc. Stress Signs in Dogs. Accessed January 16, 2015.
  3. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Fear of Places and Objects. Accessed January 16, 2015.

Fear-Free is a trademark of Dr. Marty Becker.