The Mind of Your Cat: 02/02

Question: I have a new kitten. My other cat becomes terribly frightened when she visits her veterinarian. What can I do to assure that my new kitten will not experience such fear?

Answer: So many cats become frightened at the veterinary office. Some kittens exhibit fearful behavior by the time we adopt them. Still, there are measures we can take to give our kittens the best chance to tolerate or even enjoy their veterinary visits.

Lets think about what makes the trip to the veterinarian intimidating in the first place. A cats experience on vet day is very likely to include all of the following manipulations: The cat is captured and placed into a carrier, put into the car, transported in a moving car, carried into a building filled with unfamiliar scents and sounds, handled by unfamiliar people, and finally, physically restrained and possibly subjected to some physical discomfort. Overwhelming to say the least.

To assure a tolerable if not enjoyable day at the veterinarians, you should expose your kitten to each of the potentially troublesome manipulations. The exposures should be done gently, and they should always have a positive outcome.

First, introduce her to the carrier. Put treats, toys, and a soft towel in the carrier and encourage your kitten to investigate. Close her in the carrier and carry her from one room to another, releasing her for a play session or a delicious snack.

Once your kitten enjoys being transported in the carrier, place her in the carrier and bring it to the car. If your kitten appears to be relaxed in this environment, try a short trip-perhaps down the driveway or even around the block. When you return, remain in the stationary car for a few minutes, until you are sure that your kitten is calm, and then bring her into the house for some playtime.

If your kitten appears very agitated during car travel, then you will need to make some adjustments to this step. By the way, that recommendation applies to any basic behavior modification plan. That is, if you attempt to treat a behavior problem and notice that the problem behavior is intensifying, then the strategy needs to be reevaluated. A certified behaviorist would be able to help you to design the plan that would be best suited for your kitten. For instance, a rather nervous kitten might become very frightened with even a simple manipulation, and a simple treatment step might need to be subdivided into baby steps.

You will know that you are progressing nicely if your kitten appears to be adapting to her carrier. Continue to carry her through the house on a daily basis, and continue car rides once or twice per week. The distance you travel may be gradually increased until you reach your final goal, in this case the veterinary office.

In addition to working with the carrier, it is important to teach your kitten to accept handling and gentle restraint. Every day, gently examine her. Peek into her ears, gently open her mouth, and squeeze her feet lightly. Give her a gentle body hug, and put a little pressure on her scruff-much as your veterinarian would do to examine her.

Although many kittens do squirm a bit as they are introduced to gentle handling, some kittens are downright fearful or even aggressive. If your kitten exhibits more than a mild struggle, please discontinue all manipulation. Ask your veterinarian or a behaviorist to evaluate your kitten. Once identified, fear-based behavior as well as aggressive behavior can be treated.

You are now ready to put the steps together and take a trip to the veterinary office. Ask your veterinarian whether he or she would mind your bringing your kitten for socialization visits. Always advise the staff prior to your trip so that you can be sure to arrive at a time that is convenient for everyone.

Upon your arrival, bring your kitten to an empty examination room. Release your kitten from her carrier, and offer her some playtime. Invite a staff member to join you, offering play and/or gentle handling. Practice short exams, combining play and treats with physical manipulation and restraint. Try to spend about 30 to 60 minutes with your kitten and then return home. Weekly sessions would be ideal.

Finally, it would be helpful if your kitten could learn to tolerate spending time in her carrier in the waiting room. The room may be filled with various sounds including dogs barking, cats hissing, and people speaking. Spend a half-hour in the quietest corner possible. By using a toy on a string, you may be able to engage your kitten in play through the opening in the carrier. If your kitten has enjoyed the handling sessions, then offer a fun-filled session after the long wait.

When your kitten does need to see her doctor, bring some favorite treats and toys. Play with her through the openings in the carrier until the examination begins. Bring treats into the examination room so that she may nibble away while she receives her vaccinations. She may be able to focus her eyes on a toy while her ears are cleaned or her claws are trimmed. Demonstrate to the veterinary assistant the techniques that you have used – the assistant may be able to use the same method to help your kitten to relax during the examination.

For certain procedures, gentle physical restraint may need to be applied in order to assure the safety of the staff as well as your kitten. And certain procedures may be necessarily a little uncomfortable or frightening. Still, the steps you have taken should allow your kitten the opportunity to tolerate and possibly even enjoy her visits to her veterinarian.