Nervous dogs are soothed by the funky tones of reggae in one exam room of Robin Downing’s veterinary practice on Main Street in Windsor. In another room a continuous loop of classical music lulls distrustful cats while they are being looked at by Downing and her staff.
The animals are also calmed by low doses of pheromones streamed into the exam room. The chemicals, produced naturally, remind her patients of the comfort and safety of the den or the fur of a protective mother.
Downing and her staff are attuned to the early signs of stress, sickness or fear in the companion animals they treat. Music is key and, she found, different musical styles help quiet the minds of dogs and cats.
Dogs, as it turns out, are Bob Marley fans. Cats lean more toward Bach.
Downing’s practice has been a pioneer in a new breed of veterinary care that reflects Coloradans’ changing relationship with their companion animals. Even the longstanding term “pet” is becoming obsolete as dogs, cats and other animals are embraced as family — and receive health care climbing into the billions of dollars nationally.
While music plays, exams are often performed in a carrier, on the floor, or depending on the animal’s size, in Downing’s lap. Downing also avoids eye contact with an animal on the first visit and instead focuses her gaze on the pet owner to reduce anxiety in the animal.
Downing said she may also prescribe anti-anxiety or other medications to mellow out the dog or cat before they see her.
She eschews the standard manhandling of pets just to settle them down to be examined. Downing also says many vets see the “freeze response” among dogs and cats as good because it makes them easier to handle.
“In reality, that is wrong. The animal is so petrified it can’t move. They are terrified,” Downing said. “That’s not good.”
Downing, 61, is a pioneer of the “fear-free” method of treating companion animals and her work has attracted national acclaim. She recently received the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award.
The award is one of the highest accolades a veterinarian can earn and came because of her dedication to protecting and promoting the human-animal bond, association president John Howe said.
“Dr. Downing has devoted her career to improving the health of animals and strengthening and prolonging the bond between people and animals,” Howe said in early May, when the award was given.
Downing is also riding the crest of a generational shift in how people regard their pets, said Erin Allen, who offers counseling and support services at Colorado State University’s Argus Institute. The facility provides free grief counseling related to pet loss and support to people making end-of-life decisions for their pets.
In just a few years, pooches and tabbies have been promoted from being herders, ratters and front porch guardians to being fixtures in family Christmas photos and bedrooms, she said.
“For some reason, how we see our pets has changed in a really dramatic way in a short period of time,” Allen said. “People I work with refer to their pets as kids even if they have kids. The relationship now is that it’s much more than just having a furry friend around. They are absolutely now family members.”
The transformation came largely because agriculture gave way to cities and suburbs where people started to live in smaller spaces, Downing said. People discovered they still wanted animals to live with them.
“Our view of companion animals evolved and we started to better understand them more,” Downing said. “We discovered they can offer unconditional love, like members of our families.”
Pets, Allen adds, have become especially important as families become physically cut off from friends and other family members during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“My son (who is 9) joked that since he can’t play with his friends, he spends all of his time with our dog,” Allen said. “He said the dog has become more like a brother than a pet.”
For fur babies, only the best care
People also demanded better, more comprehensive care for their companion pets, Downing said. “I recognized the shift in thinking about companion animals in the 1990s, and I am proud to be part of that change, the whole evolution on how we treat our companions.”
The result is that Americans spent over $17 billion on veterinary care in 2017, and that spending is expected to continue to rise annually, according to the American Pet Products Association. At the same time, fear-free certification of veterinary practices is now available from Denver-based Fear Free, an organization for which Downing serves as an adviser. The group also counts Temple Grandin, another northern Colorado advocate for improving the emotional well-being of animals, among its advocates.
The first visit to the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management — which operates alongside Downing’s standard practice — can run from $700 to $1,000, Downing said.
The pain management center provides non-surgical therapies and pain control, ranging from acupuncture to wheelchair fittings. That first visit usually details the rehabilitation plans for the animal, and follow up visits — which run about $50 — typically are minimal.
Downing and others who tackle quality of life issues for companion animals as well as livestock have opened up whole new areas of study and research, said Khursheed Mama, faculty member of the clinical sciences department at CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“There are so many more opportunities now regarding pain management,” Mama said. “We now look at the whole picture from diet, physical therapy and assessing the anxiety component.”
Even some food producers are doing more to relieve the stress and anxiety on livestock, Mama said. “In food production, we are seeing that happy cows make better cheese.”
Downing, who grew up in a Chicago suburb and dreamed of being a veterinarian, says her low-key methods were developed while working farms and ranches during her first years of practice.
She started practicing in Worland, Wyoming, in 1986 after getting her degree from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. She was not only the first female veterinarian in those parts of Wyoming but also the first to care for companion animals.
“They really were treated as second-class citizens, and I just saw a way to fill a much-needed gap in care,” Downing said.
She learned to fit into the local culture, even becoming a first-class old-time fiddle player. She also went to people’s homes to tend to their sick and injured pets. There, cattle and other livestock got priority care.
“Livestock got all the attention because they were responsible for the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers,” Downing said. “Companion animals, like dogs and cats, were really an afterthought. They almost had to fend for themselves.”
But she wanted her own solo practice and in 1991, she and her wife, Sharon DeNayer, jumped at the chance to purchase the Windsor clinic. DeNayer now is the practice manager.
The clinic expanded in 1996 and Downing began attracting a following because of her leadership in the “fear-free” animal care movement. She began speaking nationally and writing about bioethics among animals, according to her biography.
She earned multiple advanced degrees in areas that not long ago didn’t exist — clinical bioethics, animal chiropractic care, canine medical massage and medical acupuncture. She also serves as an affiliate faculty member at CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.”
Downing said she is guided by a pain scale when treating companion animals. While humans are asked by their doctors to assign a number from 1 to 10 to their pain levels, hurting dogs often have their tails tucked between their legs, have an arched or hunched back, tucked abdomen and are unusually aggressive, according to the scale.
Cats in pain often claw and attack and are not interested in food or play, the scale says.
She shares the scale with veterinary students and pet owners so they can also assess where their animals stand in the pain spectrum. “This is a key tool toward managing pain and deciding what treatment to follow,” Downing said. “It’s an important guide to making their lives better.”
Downing shares her practice with a group of longtime volunteers and client “specialists.” Also on board is Kula, a golden retriever who serves as a companion animal in the clinic. Kula calms nerves and is a “teaching partner” for veterinary students, Downing said.
Muffin, a 24-year-old dark grey cat, pads around the practice despite her many health problems and her advanced age. She lives in a condominium of crates near the practice’s underwater treadmill and the “comfort room.”
It’s in the comfort room that pet owners can quietly consider weighty questions including whether they should end their pet’s life. “It’s just a place to think and contemplate,” Downing said.
She has about 2,000 clients, including Walter Cooper, who breeds Rhodesian ridgebacks in Longmont. Cooper said he became loyal to Downing after one of his dogs hurt his leg and other vets immediately lobbied for surgery.
Downing wanted instead to emphasize acupuncture and underwater treadmill therapy, Cooper said.
“We got her back at 98 or 99% of where she was before, she is definitely not in any pain,” Cooper said.
Downing considers every aspect of a dog’s lifestyle before deciding on a treatment, Cooper said, adding that she’s unlike most vets he has encountered.
“She is constantly studying, constantly reading, always trying to improve herself,” he said. “She has my complete trust.”