Visits to a veterinary clinic can be stressful for both cats and owners. Reducing the fear and anxiety in cats is a win-win. Good for the cat and just as good for the people!
Veterinarians, in general, are moving towards more pet-centric methods of handling. This involves utilising gentle handling techniques and avoiding heavy restraint. However, efforts to improve your cat’s experience should start long before they set foot (or paw!) in the veterinary clinic. There are a lot of steps that you, as the owner, can perform beforehand to help make your cat’s check-ups as stress-free as possible.
Before the visit
Choosing the correct transport carrier, and acclimatising your cat to it prior to the visit can go a long way to reducing stress and anxiety. The best type of carriers are rigid cages that can be taken apart easily. In particular, being able to remove the top half of the carrier can be beneficial in anxious cats.
In an unfamiliar environment, cats tend to seek out familiar people and objects, or alternatively seek out hiding spots. The bottom half of their carrier can fulfil either of those needs; for example, during an examination, a fearful cat may feel more comfortable crouching in the bottom of their own cage, amongst their own bedding. Or, if they are seeking a hiding spot, crouching in the bottom of their own cage covered with blankets or towels can provide good refuge when they are not being directly handled.
Acclimatising your cat to their carrier prior to the visit can also help reduce anxiety by limiting negative associations with the carrier itself. We’ve all experienced the situation where our cat spies the carrier and then promptly disappears! It can help to leave the carrier out for a prolonged period (for example, several days to a week) prior to a planned visit. You can also place familiar bedding, toys, cat treats, or feed meals in the carrier to create positive associations.
Some cats respond really well to non-drug calming substances such as Feliway®. This mimics the calming ‘facial pheromone’ that cats release when they rub their faces against people or objects. It comes in spray or diffuser form and can be utilised before the veterinary visit to help calm your cat. There are other potential products that may be useful also – it’s best to discuss use of these with your veterinarian.
In the waiting room
Preferably, the veterinary clinic will have a quiet area away from strong odours, noise, and foot traffic. Many cats prefer to be higher off the ground, especially when restrained in a carrier, so being able to place the carrier in an elevated position (for example, a chair or a table) may be useful in reducing stress.
It is a good idea to keep your cat enclosed in the carrier rather than trying to remove them from the carrier. They will feel more secure being protected from the unfamiliar environment and from other animals. A startled cat may bolt and run. This can endanger the cat – for example if they run out of the front door and onto the road. Alternatively, it may cause logistical problems. Frightened cats tend to seek out small hiding places such as under furniture or in small spaces, and coaxing them out of these places can be very challenging.
A minority of cats prefer to be on a harness and lead. However usually only confident cats that are experienced with harness-walking prefer this option. It is not recommended in most instances.
In the consultation room
A slow, steady approach works best for most cats. Often ‘less is more’ with cats – they tend to react more cooperatively when restraint is gentle and deliberate. Heavy-handed restraint techniques such as scruffing or squashing will often escalate fear and should be avoided. Attempts should be made to create positive clinic associations and avoid creating negative or fear-based associations.
The ability to acclimatise to the room is extremely useful; I will often allow the cat to come out of the carrier of their own accord while I collect a history from the owner. Some cats will remain in their carrier but most cats eventually venture out. Particularly when they think no one is watching! Usually, once it exits the carrier, the cat will spend considerable time exploring and sniffing the room.
Prior to handling, it can be beneficial to hold out a hand for them to sniff. This should be done before gently touching or petting them on the head or back of the neck. However, in some cats, this gesture can increase fear. So it is important the veterinary staff member is experienced in reading and understanding cat behavioural cues.
Some cats respond better to being examined under a light towel or blanket. They also usually feel more secure when standing, sitting, or crouching on a non-slip surface. Some cats also respond to their owners stroking them or talking to them in a soothing voice.
There are many techniques that help to reduce the stress of veterinary visits for your cat. Seeking out an accredited cat-friendly clinic or cat-friendly practice is a good way to find veterinary clinics that employ fear-free handling techniques.