Why don’t cats go to the vet?
Imagine this: you are put in a box, driven through some noisy streets, and find yourself on the floor, in your box, surrounded by loud, smelly strangers. By the time someone lets you out, you’ve reached your breaking point. You are ready to fight your way out.
Welcome to the life of a cat at the vet's.
Dramatic? Perhaps, but accurate. Cats’ thresholds for stress have already been pushed to their limit long before their arrival in the exam room. In fact, feline stress is enough to cause owners to skip routine checkups altogether, and this in turn can lead to veterinarians missing important health developments until it is too late. It is imperative to work to prevent feline stress and to better accommodate feline patients. Doing so allows for an improved veterinarian-client-patient relationship as well as improved veterinary care.
It starts with the carrier
More than one appointment has been cancelled on account of the absolute inability to get a cat into its carrier. As soon as the carrier comes out, the cat dashes under the bed or behind the fridge. Why? Because the cat associates the carrier with the vet, and associates the vet with stress. The first step to reducing veterinary-related stress is to associate the carrier with something positive.
The carrier should not just be used for travel. It should represent a safe place, a home, somewhere comfortable, and should be left out at all times. The cat should be allowed to wander in and out. A client could even spray pheromones such as Feliway, or give treats in the carrier; the goal is to make sure that the carrier is associated with more than just travel to the vet.
Optimize the waiting area
In an ideal world, cats would be allowed their own waiting areas. These spaces would be quiet and separate from the stressors of anxious dogs. However, this is not always possible, so an effort must be made to optimize the waiting area. It should not be too noisy, and ideally clients would have room to place their cat’s carrier on the seat next to them instead of on the floor. Cats like to be in higher places; placing them on the floor in a box where passing dogs may stop and sniff can cause unneeded stress. If at all possible, clients with cats should be allowed to wait in an empty exam room away from the hustle and bustle. If not, it is essential that wait times be as short as possible; the longer a cat waits, the more stress builds up.
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Handle with care
Ideally, we would like to handle cats without causing unnecessary stress. It would be best to avoid tipping and shaking the cat out of its carrier. Time permitting, open the carrier and allow the cat to walk out on its own. If this isn’t possible, try removing the top of the carrier and gently scooping the cat out. For a particularly fearful cat, it would be best to cover the cat with a towel, preferably one with a familiar scent or one sprayed with pheromones, before removing them from their carrier. Avoid reaching into the carrier from the front directly, as this could cause a cat to swipe or bite in fear.
Scruffing and stretching, although sometimes necessary, can be very stressful and can cause an otherwise calm cat to become fractious. Some cats do far better with minimal restraint. Be sure to read and pay attention to the cat’s body language. If a cat is showing signs of stress, do not push or escalate the situation; instead consider slowing down or giving the cat occasional breaks. At times it may be best to cover the cat’s head with a towel or blanket, or to swaddle the cat. Covering the head reduces visual stimuli, and swaddling the cat can make it feel more secure. Wrapping a cat in a towel or blanket is a simple way to perform a blood draw or other necessary procedures without resorting to scruffing or stretching.
What if the patient is still stressed?
There will be times that, no matter how much you try to control external stimuli or how much Feliway you spray, a cat will simply be too fearful and fractious to examine. In those situations, instead of stressing the cat further, it may be necessary to consider a medicinal approach.
Gabapentin has been used as a sedative in anxious cats just as Trazodone has been used in dogs. It is inexpensive and can help otherwise untouchable cats become a bit more indifferent to the experience. Getting the correct dosage and timing for a client’s cat may require a bit of trial and error, but the end result of significantly reducing feline stress and allowing for a full examination is worth the effort.
In-hospital chemical restraint is also an option, but would be more costly to the client. Sedating a particularly fractious cat with the use of an injectable medication will allow for a more thorough exam and may be the best option when all other options have been exhausted, or when urgent treatment is necessary.
What else can be done?
If a client is willing, it may be worth finding the time in a client’s day and a hospital’s workday for a cat to come in for a “happy visit.” In this visit, no procedure or exam will be performed; the cat will simply enter an unoccupied exam room with its owner and be given a treat, some catnip, or any other positive stimulus to begin to have a positive association with the hospital. This is, of course, entirely dependent upon a client’s schedule and requires dedication from said client to minimize the stress of their cat.
It will take some time
Ultimately, adapting a cat to its vet visits is easier said than done. All cats are individuals and the process takes both client and hospital dedication; both parties must be willing to work together to improve the cat’s experience from home, to car, to exam room. If both parties put their best foot forward, it will be possible for feline patients to have more positive experiences and receive the regular veterinary care they need.
About the Author
Mara DePena has been working as a veterinary assistant in a number of hospitals and vaccine clinics since 2016. She obtained her B.S. in Animal and Poultry Sciences from Virginia Tech in 2018 with a companion and laboratory animal emphasis. She is especially interested in animal behavior and training.