Taking the stress out of a visit to the vets: what helps for cats?


At the time of writing this, the UK (and many countries) are still in ‘lockdown’ as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic limiting access to veterinary services to emergency and urgent cases. Many cats may secretly (or perhaps even openly!) be appreciative of this since for them, a visit to a vet clinic is often a highly stressful and unpleasant experience. Cats are ‘control freaks’ – they like to feel in control of their environment and once this is taken away (eg being placed in a cat carrier), this can cause a great degree of stress. It’s not only stressful for the cats though – a number of surveys have also indicated that a visit to a vet clinic is also very stressful for the cats’ owners. 

What do you think? What has been your experience of visiting a vet clinic with your cat/s?

My business Vet Professionals has an online survey inviting cat owners to share their experiences and perspectives on the stress associated with a visit to a vet clinic and would love to hear from you! Please beware this is a very long and detailed survey, it takes most people about 45 minutes to complete. There is a save and return feature so the whole survey does not need to be done in one go. Results received will be used to support education of vet clinics and their staff with the aim of reducing stress in future feline patients and their owners.

To access the survey please click here (https://bit.ly/2yVsypP) Thank you!

What can a carer do to reduce the stress associated with a vet visit? 

1. Choose a suitable cat carrier: not all cat carriers are equal! The ‘best’ cat carriers are easy to get cats in and out of, secure so the cat cannot escape and easy to clean. They should be large enough so that the cat can stand up and change position: many carriers are too small. Ideal from a veterinary perspective are carriers that have a large top opening and/or carriers which can be easily dismantled if the cat does not want to come out voluntarily.

Image: Cleo examined in the base of her carrier

2. Don’t keep your cat carrier in a dusty attic or shed! Ideally the cat carrier should be a normal part of the home, as one of the sleeping options for your cat so that they do not only associate the carrier only with travel and a visit to the clinic.

3. Make the carrier an inviting place for your cat to spend time in at home. If it has a detachable top, then remove this and the door so that the cat now has a low sided sleeping ‘basket’ they can enjoy. Put in some soft bedding, favourite toys and perhaps some treats. Feliway spray can also be helpful. Feliway contains a synthetic version of a pheromone which cats secrete from cheek glands and which they then rub onto familiar surfaces such as walls of the home and their carer’s legs. Spray Feliway into an empty carrier 20-30 minutes before allowing your cat access to the carrier and your cat will feel more reassured that their carrier is safe. Don’t spray Feliway on or near your cat as the alcohol carrier is unpleasant for them.

4. On the day of the vet visit it can be helpful to:

  • Prevent your cat from going outdoors, if applicable
  • Spray the carrier and a towel or blanket which can be used to cover the carrier during the journey and in the waiting room with Feliway 20-30 mins before use
  • Remember to always use one carrier per cat: even best friends may fall out if confined together in a stressful situation
  • Consider restricting access to food, especially if your cat is often sick on the journey. Restricting access to food may also be required by your vet clinic if certain tests, sedation or anaesthesia are needed

5. Place the cat carrier securely in the car – either on a seat with a seat-belt to hold in place or in a foot well.

Image: Cat basket in car

6. Drive as smoothly and calmly as you can. 

7. If your cat is very stressed in the waiting area of the clinic, consider waiting in your car until the clinician is ready to see you (ask the clinic receptionists to assist with this)

8. If using a clinic waiting area

  • Choose somewhere to sit that is as far away from other pets and people as possible
  • Try and place the cat carrier off the ground: cats feel safer if not at floor level
  • Cover the carrier with a Feliway-sprayed towel or blanket 

Image: Covered cat basket being carried

9. In the consultation, where possible allow your cat to choose when they wish to come out of the carrier by opening (and possibly removing) the door of the carrier. 

10. In terms of cat handling and restraint, remember that ‘less is more’. If a cat feels that they are being held or restrained they are more likely to resist this and may, as a last resort, become aggressive. 

Finally some common questions that I am asked about vet visits:

1. What if my cat does not want to come out of their carrier? 

They should be lifted out gently (if in a top opening carrier) or, if the top half of the carrier can be removed, this should be done and the cat examined in the base.

2. Is scruffing a cat an OK way to hold it? 

Scruffing is the procedure whereby someone restrains a cat by firmly gripping the loose skin at the back of the neck in a similar way to how a mother cat lifts and carries her kittens. Scruffing is not a kind or appropriate way to handle cats – they should not be restrained or lifted by their scruff. Indeed, the UK charity International Cat Care has a campaign for all vet clinics to go scruff-free which you can read more about here: https://icatcare.org/our-campaigns/pledge-to-go-scruff-free/
Handling cats should always be done gently and with respect. If cats feel they still have some sense of control of their environment they are likely to be calmer and much less inclined to resist restraint or become aggressive. Gentle handler results in a cat that is easier to examine. If restraint is needed then wrapping a towel is much kinder than scruffing. 

Image: Cat wrapped in towel to restrain

3. My cat is really stressed at the vets and they find it very difficult to examine them – what else can I try? 

The first thing is always to speak to your vet clinic and voice your concerns. It may be that there are solutions which can be considered including, where appropriate

  • A phone or video consultation to follow up on test results or treatment rather than the cat needing to attend the clinic
  • An appointment at a quieter time of day when the waiting room is likely to be emptier and less stressful for your cat
  • Pre-visit sedation which can reduce the stress of the clinic visit
  • A home visit may be an option although this can still be quite a stressful experience for cats

Sarah is currently hosting a free weekly live zoom webinar (including Q&A) for cat owners – what she is calling her ‘cat café’ initiative. Sessions occur every Thursday at 4pm and last around 45 minutes. In May the focus is on feline hypertension (high blood pressure), in June the focus will be lower urinary tract disease. To find out more about the cat café sessions please visit www.vetprofessionals.com and click on the green cat café banner. 

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