The idea of creating a “fear-free” veterinary clinic environment is one that has recently been experiencing a surge in popularity. And why not? Designing an experience which results in calmer cats and more placid pups has an obvious upside for animals, but it turns out there are plenty of benefits for pet owners and practitioners as well.
What steps can a practice take to become more fear-free? What sort of investment does it require? Would such an investment be justified, or is fear-free a passing fancy? To break it all down, we spoke with seasoned office design specialist Michael Reynolds, who has been a pillar of the Patterson Veterinary team for over two decades. His expert perspective allowed us to assemble this list of eight do’s and don’ts when it comes to fear-free veterinary clinic design.
1. DON’T write off fear-free as a passing trend
Though it may currently be experiencing a swell in popularity, the concept of fear-free veterinary clinics has actually been around for quite some time. Reynolds has been designing vet offices for over 13 years now, and he recalls the term being used for at least 10 of those. He believes that fear-free has always been, and still remains, a great concept. “From the doctor’s perspective, you make your clients happy by not terrorizing their animals, and they’re more likely to come back. So it’s a good thing for the health of the animal, but also for the health of your business.”
Unlike the passing craze of “spa-like veterinary practices” that Reynolds saw quickly rise and fall from a demand perspective, only remaining in a handful of cities like Miami and Los Angeles, he believes that fear-free has true staying power. In fact, he has observed it quickly becoming the norm. “Most veterinarians want as fear-free of a practice as possible. If you have the space, there’s really nothing bad about the idea. It all just boils down to how much of your resources you are able to dedicate to it.”
2. DON’T think of fear-free design as a one-size-fits-all prescription
✔️Decide you want to become fear-free, ✔️tick the “opt-in” box, and ✔️get access to the industry-standard, one-size-fits-all, fear-free checklist. Right? Nope! According to Reynolds, fear-free is “whatever the practice wants to make it.”
One of the driving factors behind what a particular practice’s fear-free setup will look like is how much space they choose to dedicate. On the end of the spectrum where very little space is dedicated, fear-free could take shape in the form of segregated seating in the waiting area, which serves to keep cats apart from dogs, or aggressive dogs away from other dogs. A common solution is to install a half-wall, or even utilize an aquarium as a divider.
On the other end of the spectrum where dedicated space is plentiful, you may have completely separate facilities within the same building. Reynolds has helped lay out practices with separate exam rooms, separate treatment areas, and even separate entrances.
3. DO keep in mind your patient mix, along with any plans to change that ratio
Besides the available space, another element that helps designers like Reynolds determine the most appropriate level of fear-free for a clinic, is their species mix. In a general practice that treats dogs, cats, and exotics, cats typically make up about 15% of the business. Clinics with this type of ratio tend to opt for a more modest fear-free space commitment. “They look at it mostly as the separation of dogs and cats, so they don’t tend to want to dedicate a lot of space when that’s not a large portion of their business,” says Reynolds.
On the other hand, clinics that see a higher ratio of cats, and those clinics that are interested in growing their cat business, may find that allocating more space to fear-free is a winning strategy. “Cats are nothing but teeth and claws, so when you’re trying to deal with a really scared cat, it can be pretty painful. The more relaxed of an environment you can create, the better. If you can keep animals calm and happy, they’re much easier to work on.”
4. DON’T think you can only become fear-free through a new practice build
Of course, things like constructing dedicated exam rooms and separate building entrances are easier to accomplish with a new clinic build. But for existing practices looking to become more fear-free without taking on major renovations, there are options!
One relatively easy option is to designate just one exam room as a cat-specific treatment room. If you go this route, Reynolds recommends doing a full cleaning of the room, and even removing and replacing the furniture in order to eliminate the scents left by dogs.
Another tactic is to set up your cage banks so that they’re not facing each other. When cage banks face each other, it can add a lot of stress. “We also try and put cat cages in a separate area where they can’t see the dogs. Most practitioners want to be able to see the cat cages from a treatment area, but cats generally relax more if they don’t see too much activity. So we try and find a balance there. We’ll look for a spot that’s lower traffic, but still provides that visibility.”
Lastly, something as simple as a bird house can make all the difference. Reynolds suggests, “If you can give cats a window to see outside, and set a bird house out there, that will keep them entertained and make their owners very happy.”
5. DO consider all of the senses
The best fear-free clinics are those designed around controlling all the senses of the animals. Chiefly, they limit the sight of other animals, smells of other animals, and sounds of other animals.
The most effective way to tackle these sensory issues is by having rooms for cats that dogs will never go into, and vice versa. “On the far end of the spectrum,” shares Reynolds, “we would advise completely separate instances. Separate waiting areas, separate exam rooms, separate treatment spaces, and separate holding areas. If you’re seeing dogs in the same room two days a week and cats the other three days a week, as soon as the cats go in they will smell the dogs.”
This best-case scenario also involves having separate HVAC zones for dog and cat areas, so smells cannot circulate that way. Luckily, though, HVAC zones and soundproofing measures are elements that most new clinics already have on their “musts” list. “Practitioners want a quieter place to work, and they don’t want unpleasant smells, so those are things that we always try and incorporate into the design,” says Reynolds. “There are a lot of elements like these that make for a more pleasant working environment, and carry the added benefit of being best practices in fear-free design.”
6. DO take advantage of natural light
Remember that note about putting cats near a window when possible? We’re doubling down! “Natural lighting is something that makes a big difference for both people and animals,” shares Reynolds. “I always try to design in as much natural light as possible.”
Some research even suggests that animals in a closed, windowless environment don’t tend to recover as quickly, and that dogs in particular have a better recovery process when they have a window.
So, wherever possible in your space, opt for natural light instead of bright white fluorescent fixtures.
7. DON’T think fear-free design is only for the benefit of animals
From a health perspective, being able to get animals in and out of your clinic in a less stressful way is better for the patients. But, as we’ve noted, the benefits of being fear-free extend beyond our pets.
Reynolds always considers the perspective of the doctors and staff when making design decisions. “If it’s an unpleasant place to work, and it’s loud and dark and everyone is bumping into each other, you’re going to have a tough time keeping staff. And it’s hard to run a practice when you’re constantly hiring people!”
Perhaps the biggest benefit of having a fear-free practice is that it will allow you to attract more clients. Healthier, happier pets = healthier, happier business. #BottomLine
8. DO reach out to our team for more resources
In addition to design dynamos like Michael Reynolds, Patterson Veterinary has many other resources when it comes to helping you with all aspects of your clinic design from start to finish.
Whether it’s coordinating the installation and training on the equipment that will fill your fear-free space, offering flexible financing, or providing continuing education, our total team approach will help make your dream practice a reality.
Visit us online here, to find out how to get in touch with your local team: Pattersonvet.com/Equipment/ClinicDesign