Getting Your Cat to the Vet: The Benefits of a Fear Free Vet Visit | Lola The Rescued Cat
Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Getting Your Cat to the Vet: The Benefits of a Fear Free Vet Visit

Welcome back to our “Getting Your Cat to the Vet” series. I’m excited to continue my collaboration with Tabitha Kucera of Chirrups and Chatter to bring you the third installment, Why Fear Free is Beneficial for Your Cat. Today we’re discussing some of the benefits and basic concepts of Fear Free, and Tabitha answers some questions including how she uses Fear Free practices with her clients. 

benefits of fear free

What is Fear Free?

So, what exactly is Fear Free, anyway? The Fear Free initiative is a rapidly growing and popular movement that helps animal professionals make vet visits and medical procedures easier for all pets. Fear Free’s mission is to prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress in pets by inspiring and educating the people who care for them. 

Founded by Dr. Marty Becker in 2016, Fear Free, a compassionate approach, provides animal professionals with online and in-person education and tools to provide a safe and caring experience that caters to both the animal’s physical and emotional well-being. The medical exam is adjusted to the pet and their needs, instead of the pet needing to endure the exam. Healthcare for cats improves when diagnostics are easier to get from a calm patient. Additionally, owners are given advice on how to reduce stress before the visit, so your cat or dog will feel secure during their entire exam, from transportation to the appointment to check out.

Benefits of Fear Free

A study conducted by Bayer Health Care in conjunction with the American Association of Feline Practitioner revealed that more than half of cats in the USA are not seen by a veterinarian for regular, much needed, checkups. By increasing compliance through gentle handling and behavior in the exam room, your veterinarian will have more accurate and complete exams including more accurate blood tests, temperature checks, and blood pressure readings.

Other benefits of Fear Free include: 

  • Less stressful travel to and from the vet for both cats and their caregivers. 
  • Alleviation/reduction of anxiety and fear associated with preparing to go to the vet.
  • With less stress associated with the veterinary experience, more cats will successfully be seen by a vet.
  • Lower likelihood of bites, scratches, and other injuries to caregivers and handlers because the cat’s fear and anxiety are reduced. 
  • The veterinary staff’s jobs are easier. When they are  relaxed and their patients are calm and more eager to see them, it is easier for them to provide needed veterinary care efficiently and effectively. 

benefits of fear free

Basic concepts of Fear Free 

Some of the basic Fear Free ideas include: 
  • Approaching a cat considerately.
  • Avoiding a frontal approach and staring. 
  • Moving calmly and speaking in quiet tones. 
  • Keeping the carrier covered with a pheromone-infused towel and elevated on high surface prior to exam.
  • Removing the top of the carrier to remove the cat if they do not come out on their own. This is much better than tipping the carrier or straining to pull the cat out.

Towel handling techniques:

  • Many towel restraint techniques can be used for cats including blanket wraps like the burrito, half-burrito, and scarf wraps.
  • The varied techniques allow accessibility to different areas of the cat for different procedures.

  • All towel restraint methods require practice and patience.

Supporting the cat well:

  • By having your hands, arms, and body positioned appropriately, the cat should not feel as if they will fall or are off-balance.

  • Using Gentle Control by adjusting your handling based on the cat and their response to restraint.

Creating an environment that considers the cat’s point-of-view:

  • This includes sights, smells and pheromones, sounds, touch, and tastes.
  • Distractions and rewards like food, brushing, and play.
  • Examining the cat where they prefer (owners lap, cat carrier.)

In this video, Chip is receiving his rabies vaccine. You see there is a Feliway sprayed towel over the exam table along with a bathmat so he can stand comfortably on the table. Both Dr. Anselmo and I are using a side versus frontal approach. I brought his favorite treat Ciao Cat Treats which he eats out of the bottom of an easter egg. Dr. Anselmo uses a touch gradient petting him from his shoulder to his rear and then simulating a poke by gently picking up his skin. As she is doing this, both of us are assessing his response and body language. She then gives vaccine and rubs a few more times prior to stopping(ie not just poking, then stop touching) Chip does stop eating and turn his head which is in correlation with the vaccine being given but he was also out of food (I didn’t think he would eat it that fast ) and you see me refilling. After the vaccine, Chip chooses to hang out and enjoy some pets and food!

Tabitha Answers Questions About Fear Free

Now Tabitha answers a few questions about Fear Free: 

DW: What are some Fear Free practices you utilize and what have been the effects?

TK: Fear free techniques have changed the way I work with clients and patients for the better. I consider the pet’s point of view when working with them, which includes setting the environment up to be less stressful, always using a considerate approach, and using gentle handling techniques. Some examples of these techniques are:

  • Helping the client carrier train their cat and giving them tips for less stressful travel prior to the visit, such as covering the carrier with a Feliway infused towel.
  • Having the cat go into a quiet, cat-only exam room right away.
  • Having a yoga mat and Feliway infused towel on the exam table.
  • Approaching the cat quietly and calmly, assessing their body language the entire time.
  • Taking the carrier apart versus pulling or shaking them out.
  • Offering them delicious treats.
  • Avoid restraining or interacting in a way that could cause fear or panic.

The harder you grip, the more frantically the cat fights to escape. Instead, I read the cat's body language and adjust my handling based on the cat’s response. I let the cat’s comfort level guide me, and  I have not been injured (bitten or badly scratched) since starting these techniques. Fear Free is also a lot easier on my body. 

Fear free has given me the knowledge needed to identify signs of fear, anxiety, and stress so I can better understand my patients. This allows me to create an environment where the patient can be more comfortable and calmer. When patients are less fearful or stressed, we see them recover quicker, they are easier to handle or manage in the hospital environment, vital readings are more accurate (temperature, blood pressure, even weight, etc.) and the patients are happier in our care.

It also bonds clients to our practice, reduces time and resources spent on consecutive appointments, avoids employee injury and the costs that come with it. Being a Fear Free Veterinary Technician has also given me the opportunity to educate people about their animal’s emotional state and alert them to abnormal and normal behaviors. With this knowledge, owners are more likely to recognize and seek help in alleviating their pet’s anxieties and fears.

Cat using a Malt Lickimat before coming out of the carrier for his vet visit. 

DW: Why are the methods used by Fear Free so important, especially when it comes to cats? As in what should people know about cats, their instincts, and how they react in a veterinary environment?

TK: Fear Free is important because it allows veterinary professionals to not only address our patient’s physical wellbeing but their emotional wellbeing as well. Many cats are stressed, fearful or anxious during their veterinary visits which can result in clients avoiding veterinary care. Cats are the most popular pet in the United States, yet we see them less and less at veterinary visits. This is a huge concern. Cats are both prey and predators which means they are masters at hiding signs of pain or illness until they are usually quite severe. Annual veterinary visits are necessary for us to prevent or treat issues before they become untreatable. 

We do this by using Fear Free and Low Stress Techniques in the hospital while also providing education to cat owners about body language and behavior. When it comes to working and handling cats, we need to better understand them. Most cats, for example, do well with minimal restraint and positive distractions, so I say no to the scruff and stretch. Gentle control does not include scruffing, which is a form of traditional restraint. Although this is a technique that was taught to me in school as a technician, we are always learning and striving to do better. Continuing to handle cats in this way when it has been proven to increase their stress, anxiety and fear is unacceptable. Also, the idea that one handling technique works with all cats in all situations is outdated. When handling animals, we commonly use very heavy-handed restraint. What we don’t realize is that  often the techniques we are using are severely escalating fear, anxiety, and stress which results in an attack. 

benefits of fear free

All cats are individuals. We need to assess the cat's body language and be flexible with handling techniques based on the cat's individual preference. Allow the cat to maintain its chosen position and vary your touch with the cat's response. For example, many people's initial response is to walk up to a cat and immediately scruff the cat while sometimes also physically manipulating them to go on their side. If the cat begins to struggle, hold them down firmly. Cats territorial instincts and lack of socialization causes them to be become stressed in most situations where they are handled by unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar setting. When cats become stressed, their natural coping mechanism is to hide or retreat. They will exhibit aggressive behavior as a last resort. Scruffing removes the option to retreat or hide. The cat’s inability to escape commonly results in aggressive behavior, and the cat learns the veterinary hospital is a scary place. The staff may be injured and learns the animal is scary so they will use more restraint in the future. Thus, the vicious cycle continues. 

Alternatively, using Fear Free and Low Stress handling restraint methods allow the cat to hide and provide them with some sense of control over the situation. This includes using towel handling techniques, distractions like food, brushing, play, and examining the cat where they prefer (owners lap, cat carrier). 

Fear free provides tools, protocols, procedures, and guidelines on ways to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in patients. Another wonderful thing about these methods is that by reducing the cat’s anxiety the staff and client’s stress levels go down as well.

Also, stress at home or in the hospital affects their short-term and long-term emotional health. Stress can cause behavioral issues such as not using the litterbox, aggression, or other issues that can result in owners surrendering the cat, opening the door and letting their cat go, or euthanasia. It is crucial that we do what we can limit fear and stress in our patients both in the hospital and at home. 

benefits of fear free
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Thank you, Tabitha, for your insight on how Fear Free and Low Stress handling techniques can benefit cats, their owners, and the veterinary staff as well. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed working on it with Tabitha. If you missed anything read Part 1 - Your Cat CAN Love Their Carrier and Part 2 -  Fear Free Travel. And for more information, visit Tabitha at Chirrups and Chatter.

Does your vet use Fear Free practices? Tell us about it in the comments. 


benefits of fear free
Tabitha Kucera is a level 3 Fear Free and Low Stress Handling Certified Registered Veterinary Technician, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner.  She is the owner of Chirrups and Chatter cat and dog behavior consulting and training in Cleveland, Ohio. 

She has been working with cats and dogs for over 10 years and in that time has worked with a number of rescue organizations and small animal practices. Her work in these fields shed light on repeated occurrences of feline and canine euthanasia and re-homing due to behavioral issues. She quickly became dedicated to learning about the prevention, root causes, and solutions to feline and canine behavioral concerns. She continued to teach herself more about behavior through continuing education, workshops, completing her low stress handling and fear free certifications, graduating from the Karen Pryor Academy and obtaining her KPA-CTP, and became a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Keeping animals in their loving homes is her utmost goal – this reduces euthanasia as well as displacement of animals from their homes, where canines and felines often end up in stressful shelter environments. She helps people better understand and relate to their animal companions which leads to a stronger bond and a more gratifying relationship between animal and human. 

She currently is a Fear Free certified speaker,  serves as the co-chair of Pet Professional Guild’s Cat Committee, the president of the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians, and she serves on the board of The Together Initiative for Ohio’s Community Cats. 

Would you like to comment?

  1. This is such an important program to help cats get to the vet more regularly. Although my human has always been able to get any and all of us to the vet when she has to, she knows SO many people that have an issue with getting this accomplished! I hope this helps lots of kitties.

  2. That was really good. I don't have any fear of the Vet and I'm not the least bit scared of my carrier. I simply hate the movement and sound of the car, we'll have to try the towel sprayed with feliway.

  3. We are taking Angel to a new veterinarian on Thursday; I'll be interested to see how that office handles my baby!

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  5. have changed all the cats but one, to different vets . Katie has been to three, and this is now the fourth. They took a dear loving girl and turned her into a totally manically frightened cat at the office with rough scruffing. And they used all the bad techniques mentioned. I am about on my last Vet I have been through so many. She goes to a certified fear free Vet. She was so beside herself the first visit that I now have to drug my girl before going. I hate that, and I am very angry with the Vets and techs thru the years who abused her and my other girls. I have been there and I have seen the rough treatment that escalated her screaming and struggling despite pleading with them not to do those things. So now, we travel 25 minutes to get to this vet. We will see how it goes. At least there is a cat only room and her own entrance.

    1. That is so sad to hear, Katie. I hope you wrote reviews for each of those vets who caused you to fear.

  6. Great info. Our vet does do some of these things but they need to do a little more to make it less stressful for us.

  7. Thanks for the informative post! I am lucky that my kitties don't seem to be too afraid cause my vet is my sister!!

  8. Such a fantastic and helpful post! My vet isn't cat-only but I love him dearly which is why I go there. I see some things here he could use to make the experience better for kitties.

  9. Great post. My vet uses a lot of these techniques. I especially like that on Wednesdays she only sees cats so there are no dogs in the waiting area to make them nervous.XO

  10. Great post, Lola. Granny always talks to me before going to the vet. It's not that I'm afraid of the vet, I just don't like strangers😸Pawkisses for a stressfree day🐾😽💞

  11. I would love to send this post to a couple of Lita's prior vets!! They would use so much restraint with her, which scared her more than anything else I've ever seen her be afraid of. The more they tried to control her, the more she lashed out (understandably). Once I got her back to her very first vet, there was no more freaking out on her part. They do an amazing job at working with the kitties there. Our vet examines Carmine in his carrier or under a towel, which is much less stressful on him. We are very fortunate to have a vet and techs who understand kitties and do their very best to make them as comfortable as they can while at their office. Thank you for spreading the word about Fear Free.

  12. Thanks for that. I went to the vet and since my cat has asthma, I am considering buying a vacuum for cat hair.

  13. We have two vets at our house. One is Mom's favorite, as Dr. Christine genuinely loves cats and remembers ALL of our names, even when we don't see her that often. But her office is 20 minutes away. And Frank has horrible motion sickness. So much so that he gets very barfy and poopy by the end of the street. So mom found him a vet closer. Dr. Stephen is a reputed cat expurrt and so far he's done a wonderpurr job of caring for Frank. We did have two other vets who did not work out for us. In fact, they overmedicated Herman so much, that he was not able to attend Blogpaws 2016. Beware vets who loooove to give your pets umpteen medications. Get second opinions.

  14. Mee cuud use a few meetinss with Miss Tabitha! Mee still iss a bit nippy/bitey or scratchy with LadyMew an shee wunderss why mee like this.
    Wee wish Miss Tabitha all THE best! Shee iss a pawsum purrson fore sure!
    **purrsss** BellaDharma

  15. Dr. D. uses a lot of these techniques but I still hiss and struggle and bite. I guess I'll send her the article.

  16. Great post! Our vet does many of these things. We love her!

  17. Great info! Our vet definitely takes into account these things. I'm happy we have a cat only vet within 2 miles of our house.

  18. My vet is really good at handling me in a fear free manner. Mom always brings my blanket to put on the exam table, and if the vet ever needs to take me in back for anything, he scoops me up blanket and all and tucks me into his chest. He's a wonderful vet.

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  20. We love this idea. Rumpy has an issue with vet visits

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