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‘Fear-Free’ Pets Make for Happier Pets, and Owners

Managing pet anxiety can in some cases be straightforward, veterinarians say, once medical reasons have been ruled out. Anti-anxiety medications and desensitizing techniques can help.

“Some of what we do is common sense, and some of it is common sense in hindsight,” says Dr. Bryan Slinker, a veterinarian at Washington State University. An upcoming study, he says, will look at how pets handle needles and vaccines, with one group receiving standard care and the other distracted with tasty treats during inoculation.

“Right now, we know a lot of people don’t even go to the vet because their pets get too stressed,” says Dr. Slinker, who owns five cats and notes that cats are more easily stressed than dogs. A Bayer study found that 40 percent of cat owners cited “feline resistance” as a reason for not taking their cats to the vet frequently, if at all, compared to the 15 percent of dog owners citing “canine resistance.”

“Cats are not team players,” says Eileen Simoneau, a former kindergarten teacher in Florida who owns two Siamese cats and a Maine coon mix. Although one of her cats is “easy breezy,” she says, the other two frequently mix it up.

She has now adopted some simple strategies she learned from her local vet in Kissimmee, Dr. Lynn Honeckman, who is Fear Free certified. They include putting a bell on one cat’s collar so he can’t sneak up on the other, and providing four litter boxes rather than three, to lessen the chance of overcrowding. “The idea is to pre-empt where things can get ugly” to prevent anxiety-producing behaviors, she says.

Dr. Gary Weitzman, president of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, says he sees little need for his facility to seek Fear Free certification. The shelter regularly takes steps to minimize fear and anxiety in the 40,000 cats and dogs that pass through its doors each year, he says, using many of the same strategies Fear Free suggests: soft music, low lighting, noise reduction and mild sedatives, including Prozac.

Easing anxiety in pets may be lifesaving. While cats tend to suffer more than dogs from fear and anxiety, Dr. Weitzman says, the behavioral problems that arise in dogs tend to be more lethal, since aggression may make it impossible to place these animals in homes. “It’s a fact, and it’s sad,” he said.

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