Columns , Communication

The fearless journey of a homeless pet

Veterinary practices should partner with shelter and rescue organizations to ensure that animals are ready for adoption and get the lifelong medical care they deserve. A new Fear Free program can help.

The fearless journey of a homeless pet
While you or a colleague might have experienced compassion fatigue in the hospital setting, we often forget that shelter personnel, whether hired or volunteer, suffer from it, too.

U.S. shelter groups care for approximately 10 million or more homeless animals annually, mostly dogs and cats. Why is this important to small animal practices? Because we should strive to:

  • Make these dogs and cats our patients and their new owners our clients.
  • Improve and maintain the animals’ physical and emotional health.
  • Help the pets stay in their forever homes and preserve the human-animal bond.

For all this to happen, we need to partner with rescues and shelters and work with them to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in the animals they care for.

One new tool that should be supported by all veterinary teams is the Fear Free Shelter Program, a course designed specifically for shelter and rescue personnel. Here are five things you need to know about shelter animals and the no-cost program, which was created by Brenda Griffin, DVM, MS, DACVIM; Sheila D’Arpino, DVM, DACVB; and Sara Bennett, DVM, MS, DACVB.

1. Shelter animals develop significant fear, anxiety and stress from their earliest moments associated with a shelter situation. Admission into any shelter is a stressful, sudden environmental change for a dog or cat. These stresses include new smells, sounds, people and animals, and the triggers can imprint fairly quickly into the brain’s amygdala, creating fear memories from the beginning of the stay.

In addition, many shelters are unable to create “normal” day-to-day routines for the animals, leading to apprehension, anxiety and a lack of coping skills, even during short stays. For dogs and cats staying long term in shelters, the effect on their emotional health can be severe and persistent, leading to chronic behavioral diseases and anxieties. In these severe cases, we typically end up with unhappy and frustrated clients and patients, and sometimes the pet is returned to the shelter.

2. Shelters and groups that partner with your practice should be encouraged to enroll in the program. Participants are taught to identify early signs of fear, anxiety and stress and to communicate their findings to shelter veterinarians, behaviorists and potential adopters. This is a critical point because animals needing additional support for their emotional health must be identified and placed in the right family situation.

Small animal veterinary practices can have a hard time reversing permanent emotional scars in shelter-raised dogs and cats if a shelter’s husbandry, environment and human interactions were lacking. As Dr. Marty Becker, the founder of Fear Free, has stated: “We can’t bring frightened pets into shelters, make them worse, then send them out without tools to reduce fear, anxiety and stress.”

3. Shelter staff members aren’t the only people who can benefit from the course. The target audience also includes animal-control officers, adoption counselors, foster caregivers and administrative staff.

Extended stays in shelters aren’t the only way for fearful imprints to occur. They also can happen during relinquishment, handling, intake, transition to a foster home or at adoption events. The course modules provide touchpoints for all these situations and address low-stress handling and other restraint options.

4. The Fear Free Shelter Program addresses not only the needs of a pet in an organized setting but also the emotional health of people who care for homeless animals. While you or a colleague might have experienced compassion fatigue in the hospital setting, we often forget that shelter personnel, whether hired or volunteer, suffer from it, too.

Emotionally healthy humans are better able to improve the emotional health of animals, preparing these pets for adoption and hopefully a long relationship with their veterinarian.

5. The program includes a discussion of enrichment within shelters. Enrichment sometimes is not a priority in shelters because of the expense and fear that toys will be eaten, causing gastrointestinal obstructions or clogged drains, or that treats will lead to diarrhea or vomiting.

We must encourage shelters to enrich their interactions with dogs and cats just like we do in our hospitals. Reinforcing positive emotions in dogs and cats reduces negative triggers and memories. This is an integral part of decreasing fear, anxiety and stress.

While the module’s authors understand that change can be difficult in shelters, Dr. Griffin emphasizes, “Every animal matters, and every action matters.”

As I lecture across the country, one of the most common frustrations I hear from veterinary teams is that helping to manage recently adopted patients’ behavior problems is exhausting and unrewarding. The clients are unhappy and often point to a lack of transparency at adoption. The patients are stressed and fearful from Day One. All this spills over to the veterinarian and support staff, who often internalize the transferred emotions.

Too often this situation ends with destruction of the human-animal bond, a broken home, and the emotionally unhealthy dog or cat returning to the shelter, creating and triggering fearful memories.

We have an opportunity to partner with and encourage shelters, foster groups and other animal organizations to educate and elevate themselves. Not only will completion of the Fear Free Shelter Program drastically improve the emotional health of homeless dogs and cats, but it also will create stronger pet families and happier long-term clients.

For more information about the Fear Free Shelter Program, visit

Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie Marks is co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She is Fear Free certified. Protection Status