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Fear-Free Vet Clinics, Holistic Medicine, and Choosing Your Veterinarian Carefully

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

If you have a dog or cat or any other pet, you know you should take them to regular veterinary visits. These visits are essential to making sure your pet is healthy and without pain. It's common for me to come across students who have a dog that is suffering from a health issue and the parents aren't even aware of it. Health problems and pain can also cause behavior changes in your pet and be a precursor to aggression, fear, anxiety, and other major changes. The more regularly you visit your veterinarian the less likely you are to run into these kinds of problems. If you are seeing these kinds of problems, visit your vet first to determine if health or pain are the cause and then seek out a veterinary behaviorist (the AVSAB - American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorist is a great place to start) or a certified behavior consultant or certified dog trainer for help with the behavior issues you are noticing.


There are a lot of options out there when choosing a veterinarian and you may not be aware of this fact: not all veterinarians are equal and neither are the facilities they practice in. Here are just a few things you want to look at when choosing your veterinarian:


  • Is the vet holistic, traditional, or somewhere in the middle? Some veterinarians are traditional in their methods and prefer to do things as they have been done for decades. Some vets use newer methods and even use holistic medicine first. Make sure you have a vet that matches your morals and ethics. If your vet does something to your pet that makes you uncomfortable, be sure to ask why they are doing it. Always know that their is a vet out there for you and your pet and don't be afraid to look around for them.

  • Is the practice fear-free certified? This means that they take great care to make sure your pet has a positive experience. Some vets use harsh methods and force dogs to do things that they otherwise wouldn't do. This leads to your dog feeling fearful of the entire practice which makes your next visit to the vet a harder one. A large reason why people don't take their pets to the vet regularly is because of such fears. If your dog is aggressive, reactive, fearful, or you just don't want your dog to be subject to harsh treatment, seek out a fear-free certified vet. Give them a call if you aren't sure whether they are or not.

  • Does your vet give advice in a field they aren't in? It might seem odd at first but dog training and dog medicine are not the same. Dog nutrition and dog medicine are also not the same. When you have a veterinarian giving advice on aspects of your dog's life that they aren't well versed in you may end up with a close minded view point and potentially miss out on a lot of important information that can help you and your pet have a better life. Before you give the advice from a vet a try, ask them for credentials on why they are giving these recommendations. You wouldn't take nutrition advice from your doctor (your doctor also shouldn't be giving nutritional advice unless they are qualified to do so), your doctor would refer you to a trusted nutritionist. You should have the same mindset with your pet's vet. Don't be afraid to as your vet for their qualifications and if they can't provide any, then ask for a referral to a professional. As I stated in my last blog, it takes a village to raise a dog properly, don't be afraid to branch out.

I had the privilege of shadowing Dr. Wendy Swift at Ottawa Animal Hospital in Holland, Michigan. She works anywhere from completely holistic to completely traditional in her methods. Ottawa Animal Hospital is a fear-free certified practice and I was able to witness just what this means for the pets. I was able to see how holistic medicine can help with pain in a dog and I was able to witness just how much work goes on behind those doors.

In my nearly 5 hours of shadowing Dr. Swift I saw (and sometimes helped with) a Pit Bull getting a nail trim, a Yorkie getting his teeth cleaned, a kitten spay and neuter, as well as a kitten with sneezing, a husky that had yet another cancerous tumor, x-rays for an Airedale with spine and hip problems, an anal gland expelling on a Beagle mix, and acupuncture and laser therapy on a Rottweiler. All of this along with back and forth visits to the office to do paperwork and phone calls. I was told this was a slow day! It's safe to say that your veterinarian works hard.


I was able to see how fear-free certified staff can help with the overall experience. None of the staff were pushy, they all used treats to create positive associations, and the jobs were still able to get done. I will from now on only recommend fear-free clinics to my fearful, aggressive, or reactive students.


Dr. Swift was kind enough to answer some questions that I had for her as well as some questions you had for her too:


Q: How long have you been a veterinarian and what made you join this line of work? 

A: I have been a veterinarian for close to 20 years and I always knew that I was going to be a veterinarian.

Q: Can you describe holistic veterinary medicine and explain the benefits of using it? 

A: Holistic Veterinary Medicine is an integrative approach to health care focusing on wellness, mind along with the body.


Q: Are vaccinations necessary for a healthy dog? 

A: Puppies have protection from their vaccinated mothers, but this immunity weans after the first 16 [weeks] of life. Vaccinations as a puppy are important under the guidance of your veterinarian. After the initial annual booster vaccines, vaccine titers can be performed and your dog [or] cat may not need additional vaccinations for many years if their immunity stays at a protective level.


Q: You work in a fear-free clinic, can you explain what that means?

A: Fear Free Clinic - We take the pet out of petrified by using positive interactions in the clinic without negative restraint techniques to perform all medical procedures.


Q: What is the most common health problem today that you see with dogs?

A: Allergies, dental disease, and cancer are three of the most commonly diagnosed conditions.


Q: I see allergies to food or the environment popping up a lot more lately with my students, is this becoming a larger problem?

A: Yes 


Q: What advice can you give to someone whose pet is dealing with allergies?

A: Talk with your veterinarian for early intervention. Diet changes, antihistamines, essential fatty acids, and topical treatments are just a few of the treatment options available.


The take away from my visit is this:

There are more options to your dog's health problems than you are aware of. I witnessed a Rottweiler's spine literally change shape with one acupuncture and laser therapy treatment. He was looking better immediately.

Herbs can be just as powerful as general medicines too.

Ask for titer testing to be done to make sure you aren't over vaccinating your pet.

Don't be afraid to ask questions and don't be afraid to change vets if you don't like what you see.

Know that your pet will benefit from a qualified individual who is passionate about veterinary medicine.

If your pet is scared of the vet, please look for a fear-free practice near you.

Veterinary medicine is a helpful component to proper dog training. Medicine, both holistic and not, can be used to help the training process and make the dog be their better self. Just be sure to always talk to a qualified individual for the specific needs you have.


Thank you to Dr. Swift and all of the staff at Ottawa Animal Hospital for allowing me into your space to learn a little more about the medical process for our loved pets!


Happy training!


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Dr. Wendy Swift and/or Ottawa Animal Hospital.

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