More than half of cat owners — 58 percent — report that their cat hates going to the veterinarian, according to a study by Bayer Veterinary Care. They hide, hiss and howl for one simple reason: They’re afraid. Through no fault of their own, cats’ native instinct to stay safe by avoiding the unfamiliar doesn’t serve them in the crate, the car and the clinic.
“Cats may be unfamiliar with loud noises, such as barking dogs or vocalizing cats, strange odors in the air and on the floor of the clinic, and that translates into fear,” says Leni K. Kaplan, MS, DVM, a lecturer in the Community Practice Service at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Cats are also routine-oriented, and going to the vet, which most likely involves traveling in a car, is not part of their regular routine.”
Missing Checkups. Owners aren’t immune to stress either. Thirty-eight percent in the Bayer study say that they become stressed just thinking about taking their cat to the clinic. Many avoid veterinary visits, resulting in 52 percent forgoing annual checkups for their cats.
“Sometimes I think the owners are more apprehensive about the visit than the pets — understandably so,” Dr. Kaplan says. “Their cats are their family members and owners perceive that their pets are stressed.”
In some cases, cats may be wary of vet visits because they had negative experiences previously, such as rough restraints and injections. You can reduce your cat’s anxiety, however, with this expert advice:
1. Be positive. “Cats can sense our anxiety or frustrations, which may cause them to become fearful or anxious,” according to “Getting Your Cat to the Veterinarian,” a brochure from the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
“Many owners are concerned about the veterinary visit as well. Perhaps they worry about controlling the pet or that something painful will happen or there is a serious medical problem,” said Debra Horwitz, DVM, ACVB, of Veterinary Behavior Consultations in St. Louis, Mo. “Either way, their unease may be transmitted to their pet, increasing pet anxiety as well. Remember, it is not necessarily problematic to be afraid of something new, especially if you then learn it can be a pleasant experience.”
2. Train your cat to accept touching. Begin at an early age by gently handling his head, feet and face, and using food as a reward. When the veterinary staff does the same, your cat won’t be so nervous. If he shows signs of distress or irritation when touched in certain areas, avoid those areas, and tell the veterinary staff so they can work at your cat’s comfort level.
3. Accustom him to a crate. Cats are usually cued about an impending vet visit when you pull out the cat carrier. Training him to accept the carrier is easier than you may think, says Ilona Rodan, DVM, ABVP (feline), at Cat Care Clinic and Feline Consultations in Madison, Wis. She was the co-chair of the committee of the American Association of Feline Practitioners that developed “Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines” for veterinarians, among other goals to reinforce “the veterinarian-client-cat bond, trust and confidence, and thus better lifelong medical care for the cat.”
“Positive reinforcement works very well in cats, and enticing them and rewarding them with what they love when they are close to or walk into the carrier works very well,” Dr. Rodan says. “Remember, though, it needs to seem like it is their choice.”
Start by placing the carrier in a permanent and familiar place, such as a family room. Put treats or toys on the floor near the carrier and gradually move them closer. Reward your cat if he approaches the carrier. Ignore him if he doesn’t and try again the next day.
Put treats inside the carrier, and when your cat goes inside, use a consistent word so that he associates the word with the act, Dr. Rodan says. “It could be ‘in,’ ‘carrier’ or anything you choose as long as it is said calmly and positively. Some cats will be trained to the carrier in a few hours and some in a few weeks.”
As you train your cat, the guidelines on vet visits say, “Often, you will first see that treats are removed from the carrier during the night,” adding that, “Adding bedding or clothing with your scent to the carrier can help your cat feel more secure.”
4. Practice car rides. Some cats are wary of cars because they develop motion sickness. If necessary, your cat’s veterinarian can prescribe medication to prevent it. To accustom him to the car, put him in his crate and briefly drive around the block. Praise and treat afterward. You can move on to longer rides as your cat becomes more at ease.
5. Visit a cats-only clinic. They’re extremely effective in curbing anxiety in their patients, Dr. Kaplan says. “These hospitals are quieter and implement low-stress tactics to help calm their patients, including having a team of staff and doctors who are very good at working with cats using low-stress restraint techniques.”
6. Try calming aids. Cat-appeasing pheromones are available in a variety of applications. “Using Feliway prior to a visit is helpful,” Dr. Kaplan says. “Feliway diffusers can be used in the house a few days prior to the veterinary visit. Wiping the carrier down with a Feliway wipe or spraying the carrier and blanket with Feliway about 30 minutes before travel will also have calming effects on your cat.”
An over-the counter product called Zylkene is intended to relax cats. It’s formulated with casein, a lactose-free protein in milk. “Research suggests that it does improve stress and anxiety in a proportion of patients,” Dr. Kaplan says.
7. Call ahead. If you have any reservations about taking your cat to the clinic, call ahead of time to discuss your concerns so the staff can prepare accordingly. “If we have a cat who is very stressed, for example, we will make that pet a first appointment when no other pets are expected to be at the clinic in order to minimize the stress for the owner and pet,” Dr. Kaplan says. “We can also escort them directly into an exam room instead of having them in waiting room.”
“Employing these simple steps can make cat veterinary visits relaxed and happy for everyone — and promotes longer, healthier lives.” Dr. Kaplan says. “It is such a great feeling when an appointment finishes and the owner is surprised but happy that everything went so well.”