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Ask a Vet: Why Are Some Cats Holy Terrors at the Vet's Office?

Some people wonder why their cats get fractious, but we're surprised by cats who DON'T do this.

 |  Apr 15th 2014  |   37 Contributions


A few weeks ago a very nice woman brought her sick cat to my office. Before I evaluated him she gave me a warning.

"I don't know why, but he's really bad at the vet's office," she said.

I appreciated the warning, but it really wasn't necessary. The cat's foul mood was self-evident. A perpetual growling sound emanated from his carrier. The carrier occasionally jostled around on the ground as the cat lunged back and forth in it. A feline foot, with claws at the ready, intermittently emerged from one of the carrier's air holes.

Vets refer to such cats as "fractious." But I need to be emphatic: Such cats may be hard to work with, but they're not bad.

Many owners of such cats, who often are the sweetest furry balls of love imaginable at home, cannot understand why their pets behave in such an contrary fashion when they're out of the house. In fact, I believe the explanation is quite simple, and I actually wonder about the opposite question: Why on earth would any cat not behave in such a fashion at the vet's office?

Most house cats lead quiet lives. Cats generally like to settle into routines, and most of their routine lives are quite enviable. Their enjoyable routines are seriously disrupted by trips to the vet.

Consider, for instance, a young indoor male cat with idiopathic cystitis, also known as FIC or FLUTD. For a few days he suffers from bladder pain and unpleasant burning when he urinates. That would be enough to put anyone into a bad mood.

Then things progress from bad to worse. He develops urinary obstruction. His bladder fills to a painful size. He desperately needs to urinate but he can't. When his bladder is too full to hold any more urine his kidneys shut down and he begins to feel sick and nauseated. Until this point he has hidden his symptoms from his owners, who now realize that something is wrong and they react by retrieving the scariest object in the house: the cat carrier.

Next comes a car ride, and a visit to a frightening and unfamiliar place that smells, in all probability, like dogs. When the vet evaluates the cat, the most sensitive area of the cat's body -- his bladder -- is of special interest to this unfamiliar person. The cat is whisked to the treatment area and placed under anesthesia. He awakens with an IV catheter in his front leg, a urinary catheter in his penis, and a cone collar around his face. The thought of it almost makes me want to go ballistic -- so who could possibly blame the cat if he's not in any mood to be handled?

Heck, merely sitting in the dentist's chair and feeling that scraping sensation on my teeth nearly drives me to distraction. I don't go ballistic only because I know why I'm there and I know the dentist is actually helping me. Cats can't know such things.

Angry cat by Shutterstock

So the fact is that some cats become really fractious at the vet's office. And no reasonable vet could possibly blame such cats for their behavior.

However, fractious behavior can be a significant impediment to helping sick cats. There are many different potential methods of working with such cats, including wrapping them with towels, muzzling them, and placing them in "cat bags" that restrain them. But over the years I have come to the conclusion that in many circumstances one method is markedly superior to all the others. That method is chemical restraint.

"Chemical restraint" is a fancy way of saying that, in my experience, stressed-out cats respond best to medications that alleviate the stress. In other words, tranquilization is in my opinion the best way to handle fractious cats because it reduces their stress.

Non-chemical restraint, which means physically restraining the cat, is counter productive in many circumstances. Although some cats feel less stressed and more secure when wrapped in towels (and towel wrapping is therefore a good option for them), other cats respond to any form of physical restraint by becoming more stressed. This is dangerous for the people handling the cat, but more importantly it's dangerous for the cat.

Also, as a practical matter, it should be remembered that cats punch (metaphorically speaking) way, way above their weight. Trust me when I say that a cat who is absolutely determined not to be held cannot be held safely by any person. I have seen experienced technicians bested by six-pound cats. I have been bested by such cats myself. Tranquilization is the safest option for all involved in such circumstances.

If your cat is fractious, which is to say stressed at the vet's office, there are several tips you can consider. Habituation to the carrier at home may reduce the wind up of stress on the way to the clinic. The carrier can be kept out, and cats can even be fed in their carriers to foster the sentiment that the carrier is a safe refuge rather than a one-way ticket to a scary place. Feline facial pheromone (Feliway) is purported to reduce carrier anxiety for some individuals.

Feline-friendly and feline-only vet practices are becoming ever more common. Many cats feel less stress in such environments.

House call veterinarians are available in most areas. Use of their services eliminates a scary trip to the vet's office, but for seriously ill cats a hospital facility may be the only option.

Finally, remember that sometimes trips to the vet are unavoidable, and even under the best of circumstances some cats will be stressed and fractious. If your vet suggests tranquilization for your cat, I recommend that you approve the suggestion for your cat's sake more than any other reason.

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