At a glance
Visiting the veterinarian is a stressful event for both cat and carer but it doesn’t have to be. One study conducted by Bayer and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) found that 52% of cat owners in the United States had not taken their cat to the veterinarian in the past year, 38% of cat owners get stressed at the thought of a veterinary visit and 58% of owners believe their cat hates visiting the veterinarian.
Cats who do not receive regular (annual or bi-annual) wellness checks are at increased risk of common age-related diseases such as cancer, chronic kidney disease and hyperthyroidism progressing unnoticed until the cat is in an advanced stage of the disease. Cats are hardwired to hide symptoms of pain or discomfort, which makes it difficult for pet owners to pick up changes in the early stages and it can also be hard to notice changes because we are with our cats every day. One veterinary oncologist said that she hadn’t noticed her cat had lost weight until her mother in law commented on it.
Taking the stress out of a visit to the vet means pet owners will be more likely to schedule annual wellness checks so that diseases can be picked up in the early stages, which provides more treatment options and in some cases, can cure or slow down the progression of a disease.
How to take the stress out of a trip to the veterinarian
Get your cat used to being handled
Most pet owners restrict physical contact with their cat to a chin scritch, belly rub, or stroke, so when the veterinarian performs a physical examination on the cat, the cat is not used to being touched in these areas. We can teach the cat from a young age to being handled by performing a monthly home exam which also can pick up changes between veterinary visits. This can also make nail trimming easier.
Start at the head and work your way towards the tail checking for lumps, bumps or any abnormalities. Look in the ears and open the mouth, feel between the toes and lift the tail. Start slow and always reward the cat with a high-value treat, such as some BBQ or poached chicken meat afterwards.
Accustomise the cat to its carrier
If the carrier is only brought out for trips to the veterinarian, the cat is going to quickly associate it with negative experiences and it won’t be long before the cat flees as soon as the carrier is brought out.
Turning the carrier into a comfy den turns this negative association into a positive association. Leave the carrier out in a location the cat enjoys (next to a window for example), add a soft blanket or item of your clothing, and let the cat enter the carrier in his or her own time, don’t force them inside. Once they are in the carrier, give the cat a treat. It may take a few days, but by turning the carrier into a safe den, the cat will not hide under the nearest bed as soon as the carrier comes out.
Take the cat to the veterinarian for hello visits
Once the cat is used to his or her carrier, schedule short trips in the car to the veterinary practice to say hello. You can keep the cat in the carrier, or open it and allow the veterinary staff to give the cat a treat and then leave. By visiting the veterinarian without the usual physical examination, the cat learns it’s not a place to fear.
Note: Check with your veterinarian about hello visits during the current COVID pandemic. Even if you can’t visit the veterinarian, a quick drive around the block in the carrier can help desensitise the cat to the stress of car trips.
Choose a Fear Free or Cat-Friendly veterinary practice
Fear Free and Cat Friendly are practices aimed at reducing stress during veterinary visits by following several cat-friendly protocols such as soft hands and limited restraint, provide treats to earn trust and distract the cat, limit eye contact, play gentle music and maintaining separate areas for cats and dogs.
Related: Fear Free for cats
Book a home visit
Most cats are creatures of habit and don’t like being taken out of their home, which adds to their anxiety. Most veterinary practices provide home visits for routine health checks, vaccinations and in some cases, follow-up care (stitches removal etc).
One small study of cats in their home environment vs the veterinary practice found an increase in pulse, blood pressure, temperature, blood cortisol and blood glucose in cats examined in the clinic vs the home.
See the same veterinarian
Obviously, this is not always possible, especially if there is an emergency. The same study mentioned above also found that cats displayed fewer signs of stress when handled by veterinary staff they were familiar with, as well as utilising low-stress handling techniques.
Use synthetic pheromones before leaving home
Feliway is a synthetic pheromone that mimics the cat’s own feel-good facial pheromones which the cat uses to mark his or her territory to feel secure. Feliway is available as a plug-in or spray, which can be used in the cat carrier before a trip to the veterinarian.
Cats who experience extreme anxiety before and during a trip to the veterinarian may benefit from a light sedative that the owner administers before their appointment. This can reduce anxiety and stress. Do not administer human medication to cats as they lack the necessary liver enzymes to metabolise most drugs. Speak to your veterinarian when you schedule the appointment to see if this is an option.