Dr. Marty Becker: Why Fear Free animal shelters aren’t just possible, they’re inevitable

To familiarize shelter and rescue professionals — whether veterinary team members or not — with the Fear Free initiative, we interviewed Fear Free founder Dr. Marty Becker.

Just as there have been four great transformations in veterinary medicine — feline medicine, preventive care, dentistry, and pain management — there have also been three great transformations of animal sheltering, That’s the view of Dr. Marty Becker, founder of Fear Free, a training and certification program for animal professionals that debuted a little over one year ago.

“Cruelty prevention was the first transformation of sheltering,” he said. “From the earliest days of the modern humane movement, there was a huge social push to protect animals – primarily horses and dogs, but other animals as well – from abuse and harm. Think back to the book Black Beauty – it was part of that early revolution.”

He continued, “After that came the great spay/neuter movement of the 1970s. The routine, widespread spaying and neutering of companion animals drove a huge decrease in shelter intake and euthanasia. Then came the lifesaving revolution, as animal shelters turned their attention to increasing live outcomes for the pets in their care with the same focus they’d given to reducing intake.”

Today, he said, there’s a new revolution in town: Fear Free, a movement to see the emotional well-being of animals respected equally with their physical well-being through progressive facility design, environmental management, and handling.

“Animal shelters have been in the vanguard of this particular revolution for some time,” he said. “For example, the field of shelter medicine has long called out the relationship between physical illness and stress in shelters, particularly for cats,” he said. “For example, shelter veterinary teams know cats need to be housed up high,” he said. “As a species that’s both predator and prey, they’re vulnerable at ground height. And yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited veterinary hospitals and seen the top cat cages full of paper towels and medical supplies, while the lower tier is full of terrified cats.

“Additionally, the move to reduce stress by adding portals between cages, creating more space as well as better separation of food, water, and litter boxes, originated in animal shelters,” he said. “Shelter medicine programs like the one at UF have utilized the teachings of the late, great Dr. Sophia Yin for years, incorporating lower-stress methods of handling fearful pets and acknowledging their emotional needs.”

Dr. Becker stressed, however, that Fear Free is not simply a re-packaging of old ideas, and it’s definitely not a fad. “Fear Free is a comprehensive training and certification program developed by board-certified veterinary behaviorists, veterinary technician behavior specialists, board certified veterinary anesthetists, well-known veterinary practice management experts, and boarded veterinary practitioners experienced in Fear Free methods,” he said. “We have veterinarians, physicians, trainers, and shelter medicine experts including UF’s Dr. Brenda Griffin on our executive council and Dr. Julie Levy in our advisory group. We are actively developing training and certification specific to animal shelters, with a planned launch within the next year.

“This initiative doesn’t just affect a species or a condition, it involves every pet in every shelter, every foster home, every veterinary practice, and every adoptive home, every day, forever..”

One of the biggest challenges Dr. Becker has observed is a lack of understanding not just of the negative effects of fear, anxiety, and stress, but how to identify them in the first place. “All too often,” he said, “I’m told by pet owners and professionals alike that a pet isn’t stressed or anxious when they’re clearly showing signs of fear including ‘whale eye,’ panting, licking, hiding, and defensive aggression like growling or hissing. We can and must educate ourselves and pet lovers to these signs, and what to do about them.”

Becker doesn’t exempt himself from this edict. “I had a very sobering experience several years ago,” he said. “I was attending a presentation by Dr. Karen Overall, in which she said that stress is the worst thing a social species can experience, causing permanent damage to the brain. She said we had been inflicting repeat, severe psychological damage on our patients for decades. Not just ‘we,’ though; me. In the name of caring for pets, I’d been harming them.

“I had always thought of myself as a particularly compassionate veterinarian,” he said. “That was the day I realized I was wrong. it was also the day Fear Free was born, and I’ve dedicated my career to it ever since.”

Becker said he was taught in veterinary school, which he attended from 1976-1980, that pets didn’t feel pain. “Or if they did, it was a good thing because it kept them immobile,” he said. “We know now that that train of thought was completely bogus, and that pets have the same neural pathways as humans and very much experience pain.

“Once we accepted pet pain was real and damaging, we worked to prevent it from occurring and treat it if it occurred,” he continued. “We embraced a multimodal model of pain treatment. For example, with hip dysplasia, we might use a powerful analgesic, joint supplements, therapeutic and weight-loss diets, products to improve joint health like Adequan, laser treatment, stem cells, physical therapy, etc.”

Fear Free, too, is multimodal, he said. “It might include reducing visual stimuli for the pet; using pheromones; playing calming music; giving prescription sedatives; using gentle control techniques; enrichment and play groups; improved housing; noise, light, and odor control; and more.”

Gentle control techniques are particularly important to Becker. “In veterinary school I was taught restraint,” he said. “Restraint is a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control or within limits. It is designed to protect the veterinary team, the groomer, the shelter worker. It’s about us, not the pet.”

Fear Free methods, conversely, are designed to protect the pet, not just the staff. “So many pets are forced through procedures while expressing tonic immobility and labeled as ‘Did great!’ or ‘Excellent patient!’  We don’t see them as fearful, stressed, or frozen in terror.”

Becker quoted Fear Free veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta as saying, “You must have the knowledge of science, the skill of recognition and response, medications to overcome the neurochemistry with situations that can’t be controlled, and a commitment of belief that is unshakable.”

The importance of Fear Free to shelters can’t be over-estimated, Becker said. “I live with five adopted dogs, and a barn full of formerly feral cats. I’ve been involved with animal shelters since my very first week as a practicing veterinarian. I’m passionate about supporting pet adoption as well as barn and working cat programs.

“What’s more, the well-being of homeless pets is central to the Fear Free mission. We need to make animal shelters Fear Free, we need to make foster homes Fear Free, and we need to educate adopters on providing a Fear Free home to the pets they bring into their families.

“We need to smooth the way for pets after adoption so they can continue to receive enrichment as well as veterinary care in their new homes. We can’t bring frightened pets into shelters, make them worse, then send them out without tools to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress. Only then can the circle that begins in the veterinary hospital be completed.”

For more information, visit fearfreepets.com.


Dr. Becker’s webinar on Fear Free shelters

An earlier interview with Dr. Becker on the Maddie’s Fund blog