When it comes to visits to an animal hospital, the latest buzzword in the veterinary world is “fear-free.” For dogs, a non-stressful experience is quite attainable. But where cats are concerned, I find that jargon amusing. The occasional easygoing critter aside, it’s disingenuous to claim that a veterinary visit with the typical feline is fear-free. More often, a realistic goal is simply to get your kitty to and from the animal hospital with the least amount of angst for both of you. And I can help with that!
According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, 38% of cat owners say they get stressed just thinking about taking their little buddy to the veterinarian, and 58% report that their cat hates going to the animal hospital. Sadly, that explains the grim statistics that show that dogs are far more likely than cats to get needed veterinary care. To ensure your special feline gets the best preventive care possible for a long, comfortable life, read on.
We need to start at the beginning, long before you leave home, and address the two things that scare most cats far more than the exam room and the doctor: the cat carrier and the car ride.
If you don’t have a carrier1 or crate, choose one with a hard plastic shell that includes a door on top, or one with an easily removable top (preferably with latches instead of screws). If you buy a soft carrier, pick one that provides easy access to the cat. It’s much less stressful for your kitty to be lifted out of the top or side of a carrier than to be pulled or dumped out the front. The carrier should be large enough for him to stand, sit, lie down, and turn around in.
It’s not difficult to get a cat to like his carrier, but it can take patience. Place it in the room where he spends the most time, but not in a confined space if he’s afraid of the carrier. He needs to be able to approach it at his own comfort level. Open all the carrier doors; place some soft, familiar-smelling bedding in it; and put a treat inside. Don’t give him any treats except the ones you put in the carrier. If he doesn’t eat treats, put a favorite toy inside. Then ignore the carrier. Don’t try to entice your cat to go in it. Once you notice that the treats you put there are missing, see if he’ll go into the carrier as you toss treats or a toy inside it. If he doesn’t, try the next technique.
You can acclimate your cat to the carrier by placing it a comfortable distance from his food bowl. If he shows fear of the carrier, the bowl is too close. Slowly move the food bowl closer to the carrier, day by day. Again, if he balks at being near it, you’ve moved it too fast. Eventually, you’ll be able to feed him inside the carrier. Once you can do that, close the doors and keep him inside for brief periods of time. When he accepts that, get him used to being carried around the house in it.
Now you can place him in the car for short sessions. Eventually you can progress to starting the car, and finally to taking a few mini car trips around the block. On your preliminary excursions, try to figure out where your cat prefers to ride. Some like having their carrier on a seat where they can see you, but some prefer the floor. Others prefer having the carrier covered. Don’t blast loud music on the radio! Try playing some soft, calming music instead.
Once you reach the animal hospital, you may want to cover the carrier with a towel or small blanket when you walk in the reception area. That is important if your cat is afraid of strangers and dogs. We have a basket of towels in the waiting area for that purpose. You can also give us a call when you arrive, and we’ll alert you when we’re ready for you. That way, you can walk straight into the exam room and avoid the waiting area altogether.
Despite your best efforts, your cat might still be nervous at our office. It’s helpful to spray or wipe his carrier with a calming pheromone, such as Feliway, at least 15 minutes before you put him in it. And feel free to ask us for a sedative. We have a powder, which we provide at no charge, that can be mixed into food a couple of hours before your appointment. There’s no reason why a healthy kitty should have to suffer with fear when we can safely use calming agents to take the edge off his anxiety.
Remember: You might be able to outwit your cat and stuff him unwillingly into his carrier, claws slashing, but we can’t examine a fractious, resistant cat very well. So get the most bang for your veterinary buck, and take the time to prepare your cat for his next visit.
1. 1 This isn’t an article about carrier safety, but if you’re interested in that, click here. Sadly, almost all pet crates failed accident simulations done by the Center for Pet Safety. It seems that placing the crate or carrier on the floor behind the front seats was actually safer than securing it with a seatbelt. Hard-shelled plastic crates are safer than soft carriers in the event of a car accident.