dog being examined by vet.

Recently, we spoke with Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian” and founder of Fear Free, about the impact Fear Free certification can have on veterinary practices, veterinary technicians, and their clients. Founded in 2016, Fear Free provides online and in-person education to veterinary professionals, pet professionals, animal welfare communities, and pet owners.

What motivated you to pioneer Fear Free?

Dr. Marty Becker: I, like most veterinarians and veterinary technicians of my age group, was taught restraint in school and in practice. Restraint was designed with one primary thing in mind: Protect the veterinarian from getting bitten, with little thought to the cat who was being stretched out into two zip codes for a procedure, or the dog underneath a rugby scrum with one foot sticking out to trim the nails.

In over four decades or practice, I’d witnessed all the signs of pet fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) in pets - shivering, shaking, cowering, hiding, yawning, lip licking, salivating, jumping, leaning away, furrowed brow, tail tucked, frozen, fidgeting, fighting, on-and-on - but thought it was collateral damage that a) didn’t cause THAT much damage, and b) there was nothing we could do about it. Wrong and wrong!

First of all, behavior produces a physiologic response, so behavior is medicine. And those of us in veterinary medicine were causing repeat, severe psychological damage to pets by what we were doing or not doing. Wow. That’s hard to take, as nobody gets involved with veterinary medicine to make life worse for animals.

In October of 2009, I was in a lecture given by famed boarded veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Karen Overall, when she said, “Fear is the worst thing that can happen to a social species and it causes permanent damage to the brain.” She went on to explain that all animals are like very young children in that

  • They’re taken against their will for healthcare.
  • They have no idea how a procedure benefits them.
  • They can’t anticipate or expect the relief of FAS even if it’s moments away.
  • They have no control; they can’t flee the threat.

She also explained how fear is caused by something painful or disturbing. To explain this, she talked about nail trims and vaccinations. Trimming the nails too short causes pain; now for the pet, seeing nail trimmers is disturbing. Having a painful vaccination causes pain; now seeing a syringe is disturbing. I left Overall’s talk awakened! I thought, if everybody had just heard what I heard, none of us would practice the same way again. Forever more, we’d always look after both the physical and emotional wellbeing of pets.

What does being Fear Free Certified mean for a practice?

Dr. Marty Becker: Any individual can become Fear Free certified. To become certified means that you’ve passed an online curriculum that was created primarily by boarded veterinary behaviorists and maintain a level of expertise. Fear Free started out as just a way for us to match up with the oath we take to “prevent or relieve animal pain and suffering.” But we soon realized that Fear Free benefited the practice in a myriad of powerful ways, including

  1. Practicing better medicine. Vital signs are more normal, physical exams more normal (pets don’t hide pain and sensitivity), blood chemistries and other diagnostics more accurate due to taking care of a pet’s emotional well-being.
  2. Fewer injuries. With Fear Free certified veterinarians and veterinary technicians, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in fear-based aggression in pets.
  3. Increased practice profitability. Studies show that, once a practice becomes Fear Free certified, all Key Practice Indicators (KPIs) are increased.
  4. Easier to attract and retain team members. The vast majority of veterinary and veterinary technician students are now learning Fear Free in school and want to practice in places they can implement this training.
  5. Makes practice fun. We always dreamed of a career where we loved pets, and they loved us back. This happens with Fear Free where we “take the pet out of petrified” and “put the treat into treatment.”

What does being Fear Free Certified mean for the career of a veterinary technician?

Dr. Marty Becker: Often, it means the realization of a childhood dream to help animals live happy, healthy, full lives. You’re not just focused on animal’s physical wellbeing; you are equally focused on animal’s emotional wellbeing. You’ll practice better medicine, face fewer injuries, be happier and more satisfied, and make more money. Veterinary technicians who leave school Fear Free certified are getting 7-10 higher job offers than classmates who aren’t Fear Free certified. Put a different way, “You’ll do well by doing good.”

Since Fear Free launched in 2016, what changes have you seen in the veterinary industry as a result of its implementation?

Dr. Marty Becker: Fear Free has been the single biggest transformation in companion animal practice ever. Other important initiatives over the past forty years have included feline medicine, dentistry, preventive care and pain management. While all these are important, none can compare with Fear Free as emotional wellbeing effects every single pet (or animal) seen in every practice, every day. We’re seeing restraint replaced by Gentle Control, many if not most pets not examined on the exam table, an allied approach to keeping pets calm (pheromones, calming music, animal handling, massage, treats), making sedation a first option not a last resort, heavy emphasis on diagnosing and treating pain, and a commitment to never risk a pet’s long-term emotional wellbeing in jeopardy for the convenience of getting a procedure done today.

What is your vision for how Fear Free practices evolving in the vet industry in the coming years?

Dr. Marty Becker: Fear Free is already the largest membership organization in veterinary medicine globally. By the end of 2021, we predict over 90% of all veterinary and veterinary technician students will have to be Fear Free certified before graduation. which is complimentary to all shelter and rescue employees and volunteers, is a runaway success. This allows us to connect with new pet parents at point of acquisition where they send pet moms and dads to which is complimentary to all pet parents. When you consider we also offer Fear Free training for trainers, groomers, pet sitters, and boarding, we see an ecosystem of emotional health led and orchestrated by the veterinary healthcare team.

Want to learn more about Fear Free and how it can impact your veterinary healthcare team and clients? Register for our upcoming webinar with Dr. Marty Becker on May 10, 2021.