Trying to Decrease the Stress of Veterinary Visits

If your cats are anything like mine, going to visit the vet is not something they enjoy.  My female cat, Keiki, meows a bit when she first gets in the carrier, but my male Shaka sings to me during the entire car ride.  His complaining stops once he enters the clinic and he knows he will have to stay for a bit.

Cats don’t like changes and unpredictability in their environments, so putting them in a carrier and then taking them out of their homes creates stress.  Most cats are able to deal with this stress, but some don’t deal as well.  Regardless of how your cat reacts, there are several things that help to make a veterinary visit more pleasant for your cat.

A cat carrier is a must for any travel outside of your home.  Even the most gentle and calm cat can become startled and bolt in unfamiliar conditions.  We urge every client to bring their cat to our clinic in a carrier, and despite our warnings, several times a year we chase cats around the parking lot when they escape from their owner’s arms.  It is even more urgent to have a carrier when picking up a cat from surgery, since medications may alter the cat’s senses and reactions.

There are numerous styles of carriers, but I prefer the soft sided ones that can open from the top or the front.  This allows different options for quietly removing the cat.  Be sure that the zippers or latches are easy for you to use and are tightly secured once the cat is inside.  Taking a carrier out for a day or two before a planned vet visit will allow the cat to be around the carrier and not be as frightened of it.  Try putting treats or toys inside so that your cat sees the carrier as a safe and friendly place.

Another style of carrier that works for some very scared cats is one that has a removable top.  The top can be removed and the cat can remain in the bottom part of the carrier for the first part of his examination.

There are some tricks to getting your cat into his carrier.  If you cannot simply open the top and place him in, use gravity to place the carrier on end and carefully drop him in.  As funny as it seems, using a pillow case with very frightened cats can be effective.  Cats like being in closed, dark places, and you can put your cat in a pillow case and then place the pillow case loosely in the carrier.  Some people just use a pillow case for transport, but it is not as safe.

Your cat should never be shaken out of his carrier.  This scares the cat and increases the stress of the visit.  If your cat doesn’t walk out on his own, open the top or remove the screws or clips to remove him.

For most cats, the only time they get placed in a carrier and driven in a car is for a visit to the vet.  You can try to desensitize your cat to travel by putting him in his carrier and taking him on other short car trips.  This training method works best with young cats.  You can increase the length of the car trip as the cat becomes more tolerant.  Consider taking your cat to the vet for simple visits like weight checks.  These visits help make your cat comfortable with the staff and the smells and sounds of the clinic.

Many cats get car sick, so traveling on an empty stomach is recommended.  Do not feed your cat for a couple of hours before leaving your home.  If your cat associates travel with nausea and vomiting, this also increases his stress and dislike for leaving the house.  It is okay to reward your cat with treats and attention after a successful ride in the car or vet visit.

You can bring your cat’s favorite toys or treats with you to his vet visit, but he may not enjoy them as he would at home.  It is worth a try.  I often try to bribe cats with treats after good visits or as distractions, but am not always successful.

One of the most important things you can do as a cat owner that will make your cat’s vet visit easier is start working with your kitten at home and practice combing, nail trimming, and even tooth brushing on a weekly or semi-monthly basis.  The more your cat is used to being handled and touched, the more relaxed he will be with strangers doing the same.

The next part of training is “playing vet” at home with your cat.  On a regular basis you should touch your cat’s face, ears, feet, and tail.  Have your vet show you how to open your cat’s mouth.  If you practice this at home, medicating your cat if he ever gets sick is much easier.  I try to show new kitten owners how to do this during their first visit, especially if the kitten seems shy or scared.

Despite these suggestions, there are some cats that have their minds made up and will absolutely not relax or cooperate with travel or a vet exam.  In these cases oral or injectable tranquilizers are needed.  If you are the owner of a cat like this, do consider drugs that will allow the cat to be calm and less likely to hurt himself or others.  The cat is happier with sedation and the veterinary staff can do a better and more thorough job of handling him.

Cats and kittens can be trained, you just have to be willing to do so.  Following these suggestions will help make your cat’s vet visits and travel less stressful for both you and your cat.  Getting routine health care and having regular veterinary exams will help keep him as healthy as possible so don’t be afraid of taking your cat to the vet.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic

About Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell is the owner of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
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