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      Fear-Free Clinic Design

      Fear-free is a trending topic. Creating a fear-free clinic depends on what level you’d like to take it to.

      If there were a social media channel dedicated solely to veterinary practices, the hashtag that’s been trending for quite some time would be #FearFree. You can look at fear-free as a sliding scale, from placing towels on exam room tables to a 100 percent separate entry and treatment area. In thinking about adopting fear-free techniques, looking at your patient base makes sense. But also, what you want your patient base to be.

      We talked with Patterson Veterinary’s staff clinic design manager, Michael Reynolds. Reynolds has designed hundreds of clinics. It’s a service free of charge that comes with your equipment purchases from Patterson.




      “Yes – there are definitely layers – that is a good term. In its most basic form, it’s just having seating areas that can be separated, whether it’s for dogs and cats or nervous or aggressive dogs,” Reynolds said. “And then the opposite end of the spectrum is almost entirely different: areas and tables and spaces for cats and dogs. It really depends on what percentage of cats they’re seeing. Typically, it’s 80/20. But some people really want to target cats without necessarily being a cat-only clinic.”

      “You can go further, too. I designed one recently with a separate entrance for cats. You walk right into the cat waiting area; you can leave your cat carrier there, check in, then straight into one of two cat-only exam rooms that dogs theoretically will never go in.  So it doesn’t smell like a dog in there. And then out the back of those two exam rooms, you go to the cat treatment area with the cat ward right off of that. The cat not only never crosses paths with a dog, but they don’t go in an area that smells like a dog.”

      Though this approach requires additional square footage and duplicate equipment furnishings, practices can advertise to cat owners who know their cat doesn’t do well at the vet. “If the owner knows that the cat’s not going to be freaked out, they’re more likely to come in.”


      Smaller spaces


      Many of the practices Reynolds designs are leaseholds. A little creativity is all you need to be more fear-free friendly. It starts at the entrance and waiting area. “We’ll separate seating and put up dividers, whether they’re half walls or fish tanks, so cats can be on the other side. It’s helpful, but not totally effective because they still definitely smell and hear the dogs. In a smaller space, it’s not likely there will be space to have a room just for cats. But I’ve seen practices will sometimes do Cat Days, where they will have dedicated an exam room and just have cats.”

      When working with veterinarians, Reynolds also incorporates separate HVAC zones, so smells from the kennel area don’t make their way to the exam rooms. “The biggest triggers are definitely seeing, hearing and smelling dogs. So controlling those three things is probably the biggest and hardest to do.” Soundproofing is another consideration many practice owners ask for.


      Fear-free and the effects of the pandemic


      The world is still adapting to the ripple effect of the acute changes brought on by COVID-19. If some of these changes stick around post pandemic, fear-free design feeds right into curbside care. “I’ve seen designs where each exam room had its own door and people didn’t really even come into the waiting room. They just came and pulled up in their car and either took their own animals straight from the car into an exam room, or, you know, now it’s curbside. So that was originally a fear-free design idea that may very well play into the curbside idea, too,” Reynolds said.

      If you’re short on space, another way to reallocate it is by streamlining check-in and check-out. If you’ve ever been to an Apple Store, you’ll know exactly what this means.

      “Being able to check out in the exam room or leaving without having to go back through the waiting area is another fear-free aspect. More veterinarians are considering it more and I think it’s driven by technology. A lot of them have the same practice management system they’ve had for decades. And it’s very cumbersome to try and check out in the exam room. Whereas for someone who’s just updated their system, it’s just easier.”

      A streamlined check-in/check-out greatly affects the design of a practice. It reduces quite a bit of the front desk space needed. If check-out occurs in the exam rooms, you don’t need a big front desk area or as many people staffing it. (Side note: A practice management software such as NaVetor can help streamline check in and check out. Its mobile app makes it easy, even for payment processing.) “I’ve seen some practices with a kiosk where people just walk in and click that they’re here and that’s about all there is for check-in. That’s still pretty rare. But as the younger people who are more used to the Apple Store are opening practices, that’s probably going to trend a little bit more.”

      See more of Michael Reynolds’ designs at