BERLIN — There is a current shift in veterinary medicine toward creating a fear-free practice that reduces anxiety and stress for both pets and owners.
Onion River Animal Hospital, a full-service operation, has made fear-free practice one of its top priorities at its new, state-of-the-art facility on Airport Road in Berlin.
“Some of what stresses our patients happens at the level of the facility. Noises, odors and face-to-face meetings with other patients can be anxiety triggers for some pets,” said Dr. Karen Bradley, owner of Onion River, and one of six veterinarians at the clinic. “Reducing the anxiety and stress that some of our patients feel when visiting us is one of our most important goals right now.”
“It is certainly trending now,” said Dr. Sara White, president of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, about fear-free practices. “The goal is to make clinics less stressful, more enjoyable places for the owners and their pets, and provide better care for everyone.”
White, of Hartland, runs a mobile, low-cost, high-volume, spay/neuter service that serves Vermont and New Hampshire.
One tool for fear-free practice is to separate the dogs from the cats, said Erin Preston, practice manager at the Berlin facility. At the new building, separation starts right at the entrance: Cats go to the left and dogs go to the right. The examination rooms are specifically designed for the animals. Cat rooms include climbing structures that allow the cats to find comfortable viewing windows, and small cubbies for shy cats to hide in. Each side has wall outlets that spritz pheromones into the air to help calm and relieve the stressed pets.
“In our new facility, cats have their own nook, away from curious dog noses. Dogs who enjoy other dogs can still say hello, but those who find other dogs threatening or who grow more worried around new people will be able to enter their exam rooms directly from a side door,” Bradley said.
Dr. Maria Dunton, owner of All Points Animal Care in Rutland, agrees fear-free care is important for the patients, their owners, and the clinic’s staff. Like Onion River, All Points has separate examination rooms for cats and dogs, and also uses pheromones to calm the animals.
It isn’t just cats who are skittish, Dunton said, some dogs are equally as nervous as cats. She treated one dog who was so nervous that he was initially too aggressive for care. “We had the dog owner and the dog come in every Thursday evening for weeks,” she said, explaining this was not for treatment, but to get acquainted so fear levels diminished. Eventually, the dog was calm enough for care.
The Onion River clinic, which has been in business since 1983, moved from its renovated barn in Middlesex to Berlin in July. Dr. Colleen Bloom, who started the business, said she moved to Vermont to escape city life. Her first task was to transform the old 19th-century barn into a veterinary hospital.
Bradley, a partner with Bloom and with Dr. Lauren Quinn at the earlier facility, is now the owner of the business. She joined the practice in 2000, and became a co-owner in 2003. She has a 15-year lease with the building owner, developer Wayne Lamberton, who recently opened the new Maplewood rest stop and tourist information center off Exit 7 in Berlin.
Bradley said she and her colleagues have known for several years that the practice had outgrown the renovated barn facility. “For a medical facility, there were obvious challenges in terms of heating, cooling and ventilating the space to our liking throughout the seasons,” she said.
The new building also is handicapped accessible, which was not the case at the Middlesex facility; has more parking; town water and sewer, which is a plus; and more space — 6,000 square feet of work space compared with less than 3,000.
“We loved our porch, but having stairs to climb simply to get in the building was a challenge for some.” Bradley said about the old building.
Preston said one business challenge the new facility has not solved is the difficulty in finding qualified veterinarian technicians.
“I’d love to have two more,” she said, but they are not readily available.
“There certainly is a shortage of veterinary technicians,” said Kathy Finnie, executive director of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, “just check the jobs listings on our website.”
Vermont Technical College offers the only in-state certification program. The Onion River clinic serves as a teaching hospital for students from VTC who intern at the Berlin facility.
“We are big advocates of being mentors,” Preston said.
There will be an open house at the Berlin clinic mid- to late-August.