Experts recommend that all adult pets see a veterinarian once a year for a wellness visit. These exams allow the veterinary team to screen for medical, husbandry, and behavioral concerns on a regular basis. This gives owners tools to help their pet live as long and as happy a life as possible, while potentially identifying early signs of illness and disease allowing for early intervention. Unfortunately, studies have shown that many cats are not getting these visits on a regular basis. This is not because cat owners do not love their feline family members, but because they are concerned about the emotional well-being of their pets.
Many feline owners report that their cats feel an extreme level of stress when going to the vet, which may manifest as hiding, cowering, howling, and even aggression. As a result, many cat owners avoid veterinary visits, sometimes until their pet is very sick.
There are, however, ways to make a cat’s veterinary visit a much lower-stress experience. Working in concert with your pet’s veterinarian and staff, techniques can be employed to lower your cat’s anxiety level before, during, and after the veterinary visit. These calming techniques begin at home, days before your scheduled appointment.
Start with the Carrier: The choice of carrier/crate is extremely important. You may choose a hard or soft carrier depending on your and your cat’s preference, but whichever you choose, it should have a few traits:
- It should be big enough for your cat to lie down in while still being light enough for you to carry from the bottom
- The carrier should have at least two openings – one at the front and one on the top
- It should be easy to take apart so that the cat doesn’t have to be dragged out of the carrier for the exam
- It should be sturdy, secure, and quiet
Most cats flee at the sight of the carrier because they only see it when they are being taken to the vet. This does not need to be the case. You can train your cat to love its carrier! First off, do not “hide” the carrier; this will only signal your cat to flee and become stressed when you remove the crate from its hiding place. Leave the carrier out at all times and fill it with soft bedding. Place it in an area that the cat likes to rest and leave the door open, encouraging your cat to use it as a sanctuary. Many cats prefer elevated surfaces, so place the carrier on a secure table or shelf off of the floor. Play with your cat near the carrier, so it becomes part of an enjoyable environment. You may also place favorite toys, treats, or feline calming pheromone spray (“Feliway”) to encourage your cat to go into its carrier. If your cat is reluctant at first, take the top off or the carrier leaving only the bottom tray and the soft bedding. Once your cat starts to use the carrier for sleep, you can put the top back on and continue to encourage your cat to use the carrier as a safe space.
When it comes time to take your cat to the vet, give yourself time to make it a calmer experience. Don’t rush to shove your cat into the carrier and go. Take the time to lure your cat into the carrier with treats or toys. Place familiar smelling objects in the crate before transport.
Once your cat is in the carrier, cover the carrier with a familiar smelling towel and/or one infused with calming pheromone spray. When moving the crate, carry it from the bottom, at chest height, to prevent too much movement/swinging.
In the car, place the carrier somewhere with lower visual stimuli and little motion. The ideal place is on the floor behind the passenger seat. Keep the towel over the carrier on three sides so the cat has the option to look out of the carrier or hunker in a darker space. Play quiet, calming music while driving as cats may become stimulated by loud noises, and drive calmly trying to avoid sudden starts and stops.
At the Vet*:
Working with the veterinary team, you can make your cat’s time at the veterinary clinic a calmer experience. Leave your cat in the safe space in the car for as long as possible. This may mean calling the reception for check in or walking to the reception desk to check in while leaving your cat in the car, weather permitting. Once in the hospital, keep your cat’s carrier on an elevated surface facing away from the open space of the waiting room where other animals may over-stimulate your pet.
Once in the exam room, remain quiet and calm. Open your cat’s carrier, but do not force them to exit. Offer tasty treats and play with toys if your cat is interested.
*If your veterinarian is currently offering curbside service, leave your cat comfortably in their secure spot in the car until the veterinary staff member comes to get them for the exam.
The Return Home
Remember that your cat may still be in a heightened state of arousal when they come home. This may interfere with their interactions with other pets in the household. When you come home, take the carrier to a quiet, safe space and allow your pet to leave the carrier on its own. Watch for signs of stress or aggression between pets due to behavioral changes or foreign smells on your cat. Distract other pets with treats or play while your cat acclimates to being back home.
Other Tips and Tricks
- Bring your cat’s favorite high-value treats along to the veterinary visit. Encourage staff members to feed your cat if your pet is willing to eat
- Feed your cat less that morning so they arrive to the appointment hungry and willing to take treats
- Purchase calming pheromone spray (“Feliway”) and spray covers, blankets, your car, and yourself 15 minutes before leaving for the vet
For very stressed cats, anti-anxiety medication can make veterinary trips a much calmer experience. Appropriate use of these medications can help your pet immensely, resulting in less fearful visits which will ultimately benefit your pet’s health by decreasing stress and allowing for more comprehensive examinations. Talk to your veterinarian about options for your specific pet.
If your cat has significant fear issues when going to the vet, discuss these concerns with your veterinarian so that their team can devise a plan to make the visit as low-stress as possible. This will help your pet get the wellness care it needs to help it live as long and happy a life as possible.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our hospital at (760) 736-3636.