Fear Free Kitty

Today I received these pins from the Fear Free Certification Program. I completed the course in the end of October and was gung ho to write a blog post about it. But the election happened shortly thereafter and, well quite frankly Fear Free was the opposite of the way I felt. But it’s time to put one foot in front of the other and work for what we want, which is precisely what we are trained to do as Positive Reinforcement trainers.

The Fear Free Certification program:

aims to “take the ‘pet’ out of ‘petrified’” and get pets back for veterinary visits by promoting considerate approach and gentle control techniques used in calming environments.

from the Fear Free website.

I was interested in taking the course because as trainers, we focus on preparing our animals for potentially unpleasant experiences well in advance of the experience itself. That said, my history with animals has given me plenty of experience with the “but we need to do this now” situations. I have traveled with veterinarians to horse farms and all too often the people involved have not done the necessary preparation work so the doctor has to do what she has to do in order to get the job done. As a result, that tends to be the approach taken with all patients. Even if the animal behaves well for the usual handler, someone new arriving with the smells and sounds and differing body language of a veterinarian can put even the most cooperative of animals on edge.

Yet here was a course claiming to have techniques to use in that very scenario. I wanted to see what their suggestions were and with luck, help the people I work with “take the pet out of petrified” for their veterinary visits. The course was designed for dogs and cats, but I am always inspired for other species, regardless of the specie I may be learning about in any given situation.

As it turned out, I learned a lot which I hope to be able to share it with veterinarians I work with. Personally, I learned most about cats. And telling you about this will require me to make some confessions.

My cat George has never been a priority for training. I don’t expect him to come when called or anything else. I enjoy having animals who live most naturally in their surroundings and George has it made in that department. He is never confined unless he chooses to be. He has plenty of opportunities to hunt (I am perfectly comfortable with his thinning of the bird and mouse population and in fact that is precisely why I have a barn cat).  He is fed and has a warm barn to sleep in with his choice of hayloft with lots of hiding spaces (his preference in the summer) or heated tack room (his preference in winter).

But when it was time to take the yearly trip to the vet’s office, poor George definitely got stressed. A very friendly cat who always shows up at chore times, he never suspected that one day out of 365 when I’d scoop him into a cat carrier. And it got worse from there. We usually have five or six dogs at any given time and I like to save time and money by taking everyone in at once. My car is canine packed…and then George’s cat carrier gets stuck in an empty available spot. He’s quite safe, but invariably has a dog or five staring at him for the trip. When the course pointed out that one should not swing the cat carrier but cradle it against your chest, I thought of George swinging frantically as I generally had a leash or two in the same hand as the cat carrier. Poor George.

As I listened to the course describe how cats like small enclosures (though regardless of the popular youtube videos, George showed zero interest in a couple boxes I offered him. I decided it was because he had all those nice natural tight spaces in the hayloft). In any case, I vowed to do better by him in the future and promptly ordered him a smaller cat carrier than the old dog crate (held together with baling twine) I’d used in the past. AND I got one with a door in the top, just like the ones recommended, so the kitties can stay in their safe space for at least part of the exam since the doctors and techs will have access.

img_8133When the new carrier arrived, I happily carried it out to the barn to begin to get him accustomed to it so it wouldn’t be a shock when he had to be put into it. I feed him on a table in the kennel/feed room of the barn where the dogs can’t interfere. I put an old saddle pad in the crate base and set it on top of some mineral storage drawers, up high, just as they recommended.

I had to remind myself that George is bigger than the average cat. He managed to eat the kibble I sprinkled in it but there was no way he was going to stay there afterward, scrunched under the shelf.

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I moved it down lower, to where he usually ate and fed him there for a few days. He always climbed in happily to eat whatever kibble I put there but I never saw him in it otherwise. Of course, he never hung out there previously.

At this point, temperatures were dropping with the onset of winter and he began asking to go into the tack room at night. Last winter I wrote about how George quickly trained me to let him in or out of the tack room by scratching frantically at the door and we had to go through an extinction burst (several) to eliminate that habit. Now he just sits by the door and waits until I see him and take pity on him by opening the door.

I placed the new cat carrier in the tack room. He was quite pleased with this arrangement since I’d never offered him a bed before, and for several nights he curled up in it. Unfortunately, when I progressed to the next step of putting the top on, he stopped staying in. He’d perch there to eat any kibble I put in, but not sleep in it. It may just be too small for him, or maybe I need something which takes up less room than the saddle pad since he takes up a lot of room himself.

As with all training, there is obviously more work to do. I am grateful for the opportunity to help George be less stressed for his vet visits, though I can’t promise him he won’t be stuffed in the car with all the dogs. As I said, he’s a very friendly cat and he has an impressive purr motor which he fires up for the techs as soon as he’s out of his carrier so I don’t think he’s too miserable. img_8195

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