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'Fear Free'? Say goodbye to stress and hello to calm

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elite Fear Free Certified Coach

We know as a fur parent, you are a responsible care-giver and want to provide the best, not only for your pet’s physical safety and welfare, but their emotional safety and wellbeing too.

The Five Freedoms, a bare minimum set of standards by which all our animals should be kept, states that an animal has the right to “freedom from hunger & thirst, discomfort, pain/injury/disease, fear/distress and the right to express normal behaviour”.

But while it’s easy to provide food and water and provide the best medical care, protecting against distress isn’t a topic that is widely discussed.

Fast forward and the term ‘Fear free’ has found its way into our language but what is it and how it works is still something of a mystery for many.

To help you understand what ‘Fear free’ is, why it matters and what you can do to play a role, I’ve prepared a quick snapshot to help answer the most frequently asked questions.

Fear, anxiety & stress

Before exploring Fear Free, let’s understand the difference between fear, anxiety and stress (FAS).

We have all experienced fear at some point in our lives. Fear is our brain and body telling us something is wrong. Fear is what comes before the danger. It’s the near-miss car accident. The heart-stopping moment when you skip a step. The feeling you experience from an elevated position when you’re afraid of heights, or during take-off if you’re afraid of flying.

Fear is normal. Fear is evolutionary; it tells us not to touch the hot plate, take care with sharp things, and be wary of fast-moving objects. Fear keeps us safe.

Fear is not always rational however, and if it becomes excessive for the situation, we might refer to the condition as a ‘phobia’.

It is important to recognise that with fears and phobias, what might make sense and be rational to one person, might seem completely irrational to another. The same rings true with our pets; what might seem totally out of proportion to us, is a very real and valid experience to them and we should treat it as such.

I avoid taking my pet to the vet because of the stress they experience

  • Yes

  • No

Anxiety is fear with a twist; where the threat or danger might not be present. Anxiety is the fear of something that might happen and is therefore more prone to disorder. The triggers can be more obscure, irrational and harder to pinpoint.

Stress is a word we use all the time, usually in a negative context and referring to the failure of our physical and emotional systems to social pressures. But we might reframe it from how you usually use it. Stress is technically the response of the body to challenging or new situations and it’s often a positive process building resilience and strength.

Did you know we have actually evolved to adapt to stress? Think of muscles. If we don’t expose muscles to heavy loads (stress), they don’t get stronger. However, stress is not always appropriate, such as loading muscles excessively (strain) or while they are fatigued or recovering.

What is Fear Free?

The vet is to our pet what the dentist is to humans. That sense of dread which heightens our senses and challenges our flight or fight mechanisms. Imagine the opposite of that feeling and you have a sense of ‘Fear Free’.

‘Fear Free’ is the commitment to you and your pet that, wherever possible, we will aim to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in all interactions with your pet. This could be during vet visits, at the groomer, or in the home.

It is possible to get qualifications in this method of handling pets, such as Low-Stress Handling Silver Certification and Fear Free. After over a decade of perfecting handling techniques, training veterinary teams and learning to listen to their patients, our Dr Channy is not only an Elite Certified Fear Free pet handler, but now an Australian coach for Fear Free. Dr Channy has the privilege of passing on their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm to other veterinary teams around the country.

A black and white cat with large smudgey spots on his nose and mouth rests his head on the edge of a fluffy bed, eyes happily closed and relaxed.
Smudge loves his bed

It’s a fact that unpleasant things happen in the vet’s office. So how can a veterinary professional become ‘fear free’?

Fear Free is in the details; the idea of consent or co-operative care for starters! Fear Free can be many things like

· learning to note down a patient’s favourite treat or toy type

· their preferences in handling (towel or no towel?)

· talking in calm, soothing tones and playing calming music in the background

· noting a description of emotional observations or preference for particular staff members in patient records (it may simply come down to who has handled the calmest pets that day and is covered in the least amount of stress pheromones!)

· utilising home-visits where appropriate

These are just some of the ways low-stress veterinary teams work.

Nobody knows your pet like you do!

Fear Free is a journey that is not exclusively for the veterinary team; you are invited along too!

Bringing along their favourite treats, toys or blankets, having your pet hungry but not ravenous, and giving medications if needed are a few important contributions you can make so the veterinary team can achieve the best outcomes for your pet.

So, your pet is already scared of the vet?

It might surprise you, but total avoidance is generally not recommended. If the only time your pet visits a vet is when they are in extreme pain, there is not likely to be a positive association with any visit.

At-home, pre-visit behaviour assessments can be helpful to construct a plan for the clinic team, unique to your pet’s needs to help your pet cope better at their regular clinic. Then, when your pet is well, desensitisation to the process of visiting the vet is recommended.

For example, acclimating your cat to their carrier by not putting it away, then tossing treats in it or playing games around it, and regular visits with your dog (with or without medication) where only treats are given are common ways to desensitise pets to the vet clinic.

Every pet is unique, and their triggers or pain-points unique also. A professional eye to help you empower your pet for vet visits can be so helpful!

Follow @fearfreepets , @icatcare and @fearfreehappyhomes for links to more information about how you can get involved

💜 This is our heart-felt promise 💜 - to help raise awareness & manage even the most subtle signs of fear anxiety and stress (FAS)

- to prevent FAS wherever possible - to constantly research and learn the latest fear-free and low-stress measures - to encourage veterinary professionals, trainers, groomers and pet owners to adopt the Fear Free mindset in a pet's life

Dr Channy is always happy to answer your questions so please reach out to them at for more information.

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