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Pandemic spurs 'Fear Free' veterinary movement to put pets at ease

Pandemic spurs 'Fear Free' veterinary movement to put pets at ease
Posted at 2:42 PM, Mar 23, 2023

Since more people spent time with their pets during the pandemic, animal behavior experts say they've noticed a shift in how people are caring for their companion animals. 

Fear Free-certified veterinarian Dr. Robin Downing says there's been a greater focus on fear free care. Downing runs the Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Northern Colorado and she’s the hospital director of the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management

"It turns out dogs really like reggae," Downing said. “And so we have this soft beat of reggae in the background."

Downing is a self-proclaimed pioneer in fear free and palliative care. She says she's worked alongside Dr. Marty Becker who leads the fear free movement.

"Fear free veterinary practice is all about taking the pet out of petrified and putting the treat into treatment," Downing said. "And what it means fundamentally is seeing the veterinary visit through the eyes of the patient, through the eyes of the pet."

Downing runs Colorado's first and only comprehensive pain prevention and management practice for companion animals. She was also the first in the state to become Fear Free Certified.

"I have one exam room, for instance, that's dedicated only to cats," Downing said. "No dogs allowed. And in that cat exam room, we don't use fluorescent lights that are very bright. One of the reasons we don't is that when cats are stressed, their pupils will be a little bit dilated."

SEE MORE: At-home veterinary care aims to lower stress for pets, veterinarians

She says she implements a lot into her practice to make sure the animals feel at ease. That includes special lighting, warm blankets, specific music backed by audiology research, and even diffusers that release pheromones. She has a pheromone diffuser for the cats, and a separate one for the dogs. 

"It's a synthetic reproduction of the pheromones around the mammary gland of the mother dog," Downing said. "So what it does is to take these dogs back to being puppies with their mamas."

From womb to tomb, Downing sees patients their entire life. She says palliative care is a subset of a fear free practice and refers to helping an animal have a great quality of life in its later years.

"We shift our focus from a cure-based treatment to a comfort-based treatment," Downing continued.

Downing says fear free practices are moving into animal shelters, and even people's homes. She says the pandemic spurred a shift in many people's mindset when it comes to caring for their companion animals.

"They've gone from the kennel to the couch and from the couch to sleeping on the end to the bed and sometimes sleeping under the covers," Downing said. 

SEE MORE: 'Pets For Life' Working To Address 'Veterinary Deserts' Across America

In 2021, Edwards Nunes from TD Bank Healthcare Practice Solutions says vet clinics noticed a 10% to 12% increase in revenue. Nunes says the fear free vet approach comes into consideration when he evaluates business plans of loan applicants.

"Usually I consider this a competitive advantage for most practices, and it is catching on," Nunes said. "So fear free certification itself is an actual certification that you can get on an individualized basis for a team member or veterinarian or for the whole practice."

From 2021 to 2022, PNC Bank says it experienced a 23% increase in new business loan dollars provided specifically to Veterinarian business clients.

Nunes says lending requests are directly related to industry changes and he says more people than ever have pets right now. He says he doesn't steer away from offering a loan to a practice that isn't fear free certified, but he says it's a strong benefit as he's noticed an increase in profit at fear free practices.

At it for several decades now, Downing says she's happy to see more pet owners coveting the precious relationship they share with their companion animals.

To dive deeper into the fear free practice, you can visit