How Fear Free is creating a new generation of veterinary students

Black cat hiding under newspaperIt’s easy for most of us to understand that going to see the vet can be a frightening experience for animals. Sights and loud noises they associate with fear, including vocalizations of other pets in distress; uncomfortable or painful procedures; a car ride they might find stressful. It’s a perfect storm of fear, and there’s no way for humans to explain what’s going on. Is there a better way?

Fear Free is a training and certification program for animal professionals that puts the emotional and physical wellbeing of animals on an equal footing, seeking to reduce and eliminate fear, anxiety, and stress for animals in all areas of their lives. Nearly 49,000 veterinarians, veterinary technicians, veterinary students, and other pet professionals have enrolled since it launched in 2016.

In recognition of the harmful effects of stress and the positive effects of easing fears and anxiety for pets, the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program is the first academic program to require its veterinary students to complete Fear Free certification. In addition, the faculty and staff of both the shelter medicine program and the primary care service are certified and are encouraging staff and students throughout the college to be certified, regardless of their focus.

Fear Free founder Dr. Marty Becker believes that UF represents the largest number of students of any veterinary college. “We can’t be certain because some students may enroll with a personal rather than university email address,” he said, “but the UF email domain outnumbers any other academic domain in our program.”

“While the Shelter Medicine Program introduced Fear Free to UF, we are proud to see how enthusiastically it is spreading throughout the college,” said Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Endowed Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. “The training is helping us provide a kinder experience for our patients and preparing practice-ready veterinarians who will bring unique value to their first jobs.”

Fear Free makes its training and certification available to veterinary and veterinary technician students for free. They are introducing a certification course specifically for shelter workers later this year, which will also be free.

Alexandra Alberdi, a class of 2021 UF veterinary student, is Fear Free certified and recognizes the big picture implications of this more compassionate approach. “Fear Free veterinary medicine is not just placing pheromones on an animal or making sure not to scruff a cat,” she said. “In order for it to really work, Fear Free medicine needs to become a lifestyle that is practiced all the time in a veterinary clinic and one that begins before the animal even leaves their home. I have a new set of skills and a whole new perspective on veterinary medicine that I look forward to utilizing in the future. I wonder how long it will take for Fear Free veterinary medicine to catch on in every clinic. I hope to see it in the clinic I take my own dog to as well as the ones I will work in in the future.”

That UF is making a commitment to Fear Free and Fear Free is making a commitment to provide free education to veterinary students is no surprise, as Dr. Julie Levy is a member of the Fear Free Advisory Group and UF shelter medicine professor Dr. Brenda Griffin is on their executive council. Griffin is also the lead author of the forthcoming Fear Free shelter course. But their mutual commitment runs deeper than that. To understand why, consider this:

In veterinary medicine, the phrase “Get ‘er done” is often used to describe a certain approach to painful or stressful procedures. Dr. Becker explained it this way: “We know the pets are stressed and fearful, but we used to believe the best thing we can do for them is get past the bad parts as fast as possible, so they can go home. But this approach is based on a misunderstanding of how stress like this actually affects an animal.”

Pets, he said, are learning at every moment they’re alive. “They enter the veterinary hospital, and they’re hit with chemical signals and noises they know mean fear. They start feeling fear themselves, even before they get in the door. The clinic can be noisy and full of pets and people they don’t know. They start associating these environments, smells, sounds, and people with terror.” By the time they get back in the car to go home, those lessons have been learned and are well on the way to being hardwired.

“As the pet continues to experience these stimuli on subsequent visits, the associations are deepened,” he said. “They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t feel safe. They associate that terrible feeling with the place, the people, the sounds, the smells, the other animals around them. Their emotional suffering escalates. The association is reinforced.”

“As I went through the Fear Free certification, I started thinking back to so many different veterinary experiences I’ve had where an animal was stressed unnecessarily,” said Jennifer Brodsky, who completed the certification at the end of her first year of veterinary school. “For example, I brought in my 2-year-old cat for his yearly exam. He was very clearly stressed out. The vet called in a strong vet tech to come in and wrap my cat and hold him down. My cat struggled like crazy, howled, and cowered when he was let go. Now I’m thinking, was that really necessary?”

Although many veterinary students can recognize signs of deep stress, such as feigned sleep or learned helplessness, many can’t. With the best of intentions they think these pets are “calm” when they are instead in a state of tonic immobility.

Fear Free training helps break that cycle by training students how to recognize things that might stress out cats and dogs, and avoid them. It also suggests proactive steps to reduce and eliminate fear, stress, and anxiety in the veterinary practice. This promotes adaptation to the hospital environment because animals can learn what to expect, have the ability to shield themselves from unpleasant stimuli, and are afforded the provision of basic essential creature comforts, as well as some control, variety, and choice. This results in a pet who is happier and more resilient at the vet and also in other situations they may encounter, such as the groomer or a training class.

There’s another reason Fear Free might prompt a revolution in veterinary medicine.  “Fear Free addresses the emotional well-being of the veterinary team as well as of the animals we care for,” said Dr. Becker. “By using Fear Free approaches, we make everyone feel better. This includes both the animals and the people.”

Dr. Levy agreed. “Compassion fatigue, burnout, depression, and a high suicide rate are problems the veterinary profession and animal welfare workers share. We often find ourselves in the position of putting animals in extremely stressful situations in the name of helping them. And we’re the people who love and care about animals the most, and we find ourselves causing them emotional harm as well as the physical and behavioral harm brought about by stress. How can that not harm our own emotional wellbeing?”

To learn more about complimentary Fear Free certification for veterinary and veterinary technician students, visit Watch the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF Facebook page for an announcement when the shelter course is launched later this year. The veterinary program is open to anyone who works with animals, and there are currently specialized programs for groomers and qualified animal trainers. For more information, visit