Taking a cat to the vet is seldom a pleasant experience. Unlike dogs, cats are not sociable creatures, they often dislike travel, any form or restraint, new environments and strangers touching them. A veterinary visit usually involves all these stressors. This means that many owners are reluctant to take their cat to a vet. As cats mask illness effectively, this can prevent early detection of disease and successful treatment.  Many vets are aware of the problem and are taking measures to reduce the stress of a veterinary visit in order to treat cats more effectively.

Many simple measures can be taken to make a practice cat-friendly. The ISFM (International Society of Feline Medicine) is part of the cat charity International Cat Care. This organisation runs a global scheme to educate and advise vets on cat friendly practices and allows owners to find a cat friendly practice nearby. The aim of the scheme is to minimise stress, handle cats respectfully, be aware of special needs of cats and facilitate the bond between vet and cat owner. We will look at the measures recommended and consider how they can improve the veterinary experience for the cat and owner.

Sensitive souls

Cats are sensitive animals, they are a prey species for larger mammals, including dogs, so they often become anxious around dogs. They are also a predator species with highly developed senses, a keen sense of smell, exceptional hearing and have excellent vision. So, noisy, bright waiting rooms with an array of powerful smells can be overwhelming. 

Solo hunters

Although they live in our homes and enjoy interaction, cats are solitary hunters with established territories. They mark their territories with scratches and facial pheromones, they rub their faces on the borders of their territory. Cats do not seek out physical fights and marking their territory protects them. If an animal or person enters their territory or threatens them, they will avoid conflict by changing their body posture and facial expressions. Unfortunately, as humans we often miss these cues and if a cat feels frightened or threatened, they may resort to aggression to protect themselves. This can happen at the vets and is tremendously upsetting to witness. 

Cat-friendly practices work to reduce the fear, anxiety and frustration experienced by the cat in many ways. 

The recommendations begin when the cat is still at home.

Making the cat carrier a positive part of normal life 

This helps to reduce the fear of being shut in the carrier on the day of the visit. This may involve 2-3 weeks training at home, using toys and treats and leaving the carrier open. Bedding covered in familiar smells or synthetic feline pheromones provides comfort and a place to hide. Cats who can control their environment are less stressed, so a hiding place soothes them. Securing the cat carrier can prevent movement and keep a cat calmer. A back seat footwell is the safest place in the car. Covering the carrier with a towel or blanket can help the cat to feel hidden.  

Cat-friendly practices manage the waiting room dilemma in several ways. 

Exposure to dogs and other cats can be stressful. Some practices have cat only consulting times, others advise that cats stay in the car until the consulting room is ready for their appointment. A separate cat waiting room is ideal, but some practices are not large enough so segregate dogs and cats by temporary or permanent barriers. Cats feel safer if up high so shelving or furniture to elevate cat baskets prevent cats feeling vulnerable on the floor. A quiet room with soft lighting is ideal. Staff in cat-friendly practices aim to provide a soothing atmosphere without shouting and disruption to keep cats calm.

Cat only consulting rooms are ideal as they do not smell of dog. 

Cleaning any areas marked by a previous cat prevents anxiety over territory. A well-equipped consulting room means less disruption during the examination as everything required is to hand. Non-slip surfaces mean that cats feel safe on the consulting table. Some cats prefer to be examined on a lap so chairs may be useful. Synthetic pheromone sprays and diffusers can be used to calm the patients.

Less is more when handling cats.

Cats respond defensively to excessive restraint, they may freeze or become frustrated and aggressive. Painful or poorly cats are more likely to feel threatened and react defensively. ‘Less is more’ with cats as they prefer sympathetic handling and like to feel safe and in control. Veterinary staff with empathy for cats and those trained to handle cats will be gentle and respectful. They may give the cat time to leave the carrier themselves or simply take the top off the carrier to examine the cat. 

Performing a physical examination can be done tactfully without looming over a cat and scaring them. Allowing them to hide and return to the carrier as soon as the examination is over will calm the cat. Being aware of facial expressions, body posture and behaviour of the cat allows veterinary staff to keep the cat calm and comfortable. Cats may need a break during an examination or procedure so that they stay calm. Treats and food can be used to calm cats and make an examination a positive experience.

Cat friendly kennels are invaluable in maintaining a relaxed patient.

If a cat requires hospitalisation, cat-friendly recommendations suggest toys and familiar beds are used to the cage and boxes, carriers or high sided beds allow the cat to hide. A quiet cat ward is ideal with low lighting.  

Cat-friendly practices undertake to stay abreast of recent developments in feline medicine and surgery. 

A vet who enjoys working with cats is likely to know more about cat specific illnesses improving the management and outcome of most diseases. They can also provide more relevant healthcare advice to the cat owner.

So, cat-friendly practices are a thing, and generally a good thing. 

Understanding the specific needs of cats’ leads to changes in the use of the building and the behaviour of all veterinary staff. Providing a comfortable, safe environment for a cat transforms the experience of visiting the vet for the owner and the cat. Reducing stress means that cats can be examined more regularly. This improves early detection and treatment of disease and preventative healthcare. Any investigations necessary also provide more accurate information when the cat is less stressed improving management and treatment outcomes. 

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Further Reading:

Nolen RS. “Feline-friendly handling guidelines aim for perfect veterinary visits”. (2011) Journal of American veterinary medicine

The ISFM Cat Friendly Clinic Scheme