The Hôpital Vétérinaire Ormstown (HVO) has become the first Fear Free-certified practice in the province of Quebec. A trip to the veterinarian can be nerve wracking for both animal and owner, and no one wants to put their pet through extra stress, especially if they’re already under the weather. HVO is focusing on how to create a less stressful vet experience for all.
Fear Free is an educational resource created in 2016. According to the website, the curriculum was created by “boarded veterinary behaviourists, boarded veterinary anesthesiologists, pain experts, boarded veterinary internists, veterinary technicians (behaviour), experts in shelter medicine, animal training, grooming, boarding, and more.” The goal is to provide “unparalleled education on emotional well-being, enrichment, and the reduction of fear, anxiety, and stress in pets and improving the experience of every human and pet involved.” The program awards certification at various levels.
Vicky Sedgwick, a small animal vet at HVO, led the initiative to certify the entire clinic. Sedgwick graduated from veterinary school about a decade ago and has had a fascination with animal behaviour ever since. In 2018, she heard about Fear Free, and immediately took steps to get herself certified. She then slowly started integrating the program’s practices into the clinic so that “Every single aspect of hospitalization, pain control, the exams, etc, is ‘fear free’ for the pets.” Eventually, the clinic was assessed by Fear Free and officially certified.
Changes to the practice at HVO include the removal of waiting rooms, limited use of muzzles, and comfortable covers for the weighing scales, as well as only taking animals to the back when absolutely necessary, trying to limit overnight stays, and more.
It was not an overnight process to make these changes, and Sedgwick made sure to introduce them slowly. “We started implementing one little thing at a time. It took three years from when we started to actual certification.”
The practice also involves more connection with an animal’s owner. Procedures like drawing blood are done with the owner in the room to help keep the animal calm. In the case of surgeries, pets are given anxiety-reducing medication by their owners, at home, before being brought to the hospital.
A shift like this doesn’t come without some challenges. Originally, Sedgwick thought that it would be the clients who would have the hardest time adjusting. And though some did, it was the staff who struggled the most at first. She explains, “We had been working a certain way for so long that it was kind of like changing our entire practice.” However, the hurdles were quickly overcome, and now the staff, clients, and pets are more at ease than ever. “With the years we can see now that the staff is really good at seeing stress… not pushing the animal too much, finding alternatives.”
Fear Free offers different levels and categories and is in the process of developing its program further. There are certifications for groomers, trainers, and veterinary professionals at levels 1 to 3 and Elite. Sedgwick is level Elite, and the rest of the clinic’s staff is certified at various levels. Fear Free’s main focus has been on small animals; however, programs for equines and birds are in development.
Sedgwick has seen great improvement in the demeanor of the animals since adopting the program and has observed that owners have a better grasp of what’s going on with their pets.
“What’s been most interesting is teaching people how to read their own dogs, and cats too. And sometimes people will come up with things they wouldn’t have seen before.” The program has fostered an environment that is better and safer for all.