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How to Minimize Fear in Cats Before a Visit to the Vet

Vets have improved in their approach to cats; here's how you can keep your cats calm.

Dr. Marty Becker  |  Oct 8th 2015


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

As a teenager growing up on a small family farm in rural southern Idaho, I
worked part time at a mixed-animal practice in a neighboring town. This meant examining and treating anything the Ark could throw at us — dairy and beef cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, chickens, and, yes, cats and dogs. Of all the species in this practice circa 1967, cats were the most rarely treated.

Cats were commonly seen in our area, but they were typically confined to the periphery of the farmstead, seen in the shadows of the buildings, inside haystacks, or, if in town, mostly outside. Few were seen inside people’s homes or at the vet’s office.

I remember seeing a plump, silver tabby sitting like a feline statue in the middle of a cold, concrete cage at Buhl Animal Clinic. Brought into the clinic in a cardboard box wrapped with baling twine, she was frozen with fear, cold, and frightened by a cacophony of moos, whinnies, bleats, and barks. I was surprised that somebody had brought her into the veterinary hospital and even more shocked that the cat’s owner was seeking high-tech veterinary care. I was accustomed to populations of cats rising and falling as disease or a new tom clawed his way onto our farm, or as speeding cars and canines decimated the clowder.

For decades, cats whose owners sought medical care were, pardon my language, f’d. Three things happened to cats at the vet: 1) They froze, 2) took flight, or 3) fought for their lives. Cats who froze were labeled as “good cats,” whereas felines who exhibited perfectly normal behaviors, such as trying to flee the threat or scare off the threat, were marked as “bad cats.”

Cats getting veterinary care in the 20th century and a decade into the 21st were largely manhandled, manipulated, threatened, and abused (in fairness, as a profession we didn’t know we were doing this or doing harm), putting their physical and emotional well-being at risk and making cat owners loath to bring their pets in. With “first do no harm” being one of the basic tenets of bioethics around the world, these were the bad old days of feline medicine, as we were causing harm with almost every single feline visit.

Luckily, things have dramatically changed over the past five years and, as a profession, we now know the damage that fear causes to cats and that it is the primary reason cat owners don’t seek veterinary care.

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An orange cat by Shutterstock

For these reasons we have developed and vigorously champion what we call Fear-Free veterinary visits where nobody — cat or owner — fears a trip to the vet.

Fear-Free veterinary visits bring many benefits to feline health and well-being. Cats are getting examinations, diagnostics, preventive care, and treatment because it’s not so stressful for the pet and the pet owner that they don’t come in (instead relying on getting a diagnosis and treatment plan from Dr. Google or Dr. Bing).

As veterinary health care professionals, we can practice a much higher quality of medicine with an examination that shows a more normal temperature, pulse, respiration rate, blood pressure, lab results, and physical exam (cats aren’t so jacked up with adrenaline that they hide pain and sensitivity). We can fulfill our veterinary oath “to prevent or relieve animal pain and suffering.” Our focus is to look after a feline’s physical and emotional well-being.

Increasingly, veterinary hospitals are set up to provide FF visits with you ushered directly into an exam room (without having to wait in the stewpot of stress called the waiting room); exam rooms that are more like spa oases; gentle handling of pets instead of harsh restraint; and procedures to distract and treat pets with tasty tidbits while procedures such as vaccinations are done. But you, the pet owner, have a new responsibility to help keep your cat calm at home (as you prepare for the visit), in transport, and during transfer from your vehicle to the exam room. Small things have a huge impact on keeping your cat calm and collected as he travels from living room to exam room and back.

Signs of fear in cats

  • Attempting to hide or escape
  • Attempting to curl up and look small, flattening the body
  • Becoming immobile
  • Ears held back on head
  • Sweating from foot pads
  • Dilated pupils
  • Involuntary urination/defecation — panting
  • Shedding hair
  • Shaking

“Fear aggression is characterized by dilated pupils, arched back, piloerection, hissing, and vocalizing, and can it progress to offensive attacks if the cat feels threatened enough,” says Dr. Susan Little, president of American Association of Feline Practitioners.

Here are the top six things you can do:

1. Prepare the carrier in advance

For years, the night before or the morning of V-Day (veterinary visit day), you got the cat carrier out of the garage, closet, or attic. Poof! Kitties gone.

Now, as part of an FF visit, we want you to take the carrier (soft-sided carriers are best) out three days before the scheduled visit and put it in a high-value location, such as by the cat’s food, a window, or favorite resting spot. Inside, put really tasty treats, toys, or both. With all openings swung wide, you are inviting your cat to enter and linger. On V-Day, with kitty inside, simply secure the openings and you’re ready to go.

2. Use pheromones

When cats rub up against furniture (or you) with their cheeks, they’re depositing a pheromone that is like the feline Good Housekeeping Seal of approval — you’re tested, approved, and known to be safe.

Another pheromone is the cat-appeasing one that’s secreted by the queen to keep kittens calm (but it works to chill throughout a cat’s life). Ask your veterinarian for a brand of synthetic pheromones that are clinically proven to work, and use the diffusers (like fragrance plug-ins) and cologne-like spray bottles to let your cat move in a Zen-like state from carrier to car to clinic.

3. Skip supper

Unless it’s medically contraindicated, feed your cat only a very light meal (25 percent of normal) within 12 hours of the vet visit. Yes, your cat will let you know she’s hungry, but at the clinic, she will be much more likely to respond to treats and food rewards — and will think of the veterinary team as gods who have filled her tummy.

Even for cats who won’t eat a treat that’s given, just the smell of hot deli turkey or cheddar-and-bacon spray cheese will light up your cat’s pleasure centers and help us create a positive experience at the vet.

4. Treat the carrier gently

Treat it like it holds a fragile gift. Use a commercial device (there are items available online to keep pizzas or computers flat on a car seat) or rolled up towels to make sure the carrier can lay flat in the seat (if pitched, your cat will feel uneasy) and face forward (toward the back of the passenger side seat is ideal).

Cover the carrier with a lightweight sheet or towel, leaving just the front open. This reduces visual stimuli and helps create a sense of calm. Think of a spa room that has no windows, a drawn privacy curtain, and subdued lighting.

5. Ban the baby talk

As an experiment, we put GoPro cameras in the vehicles of several cat owners taking their four-legged family members to the vet. Results were shocking.

It was bad enough that cat owners didn’t seem to watch the road, but they also baby talked to their cats. This made the cats more stressed, which then caused the person to become more stressed, amplifying this cycle. The obvious thing? No baby talk; better yet is to play clinically proven music, developed by a veterinary neurologist and a bioacoustic expert, to calm cats.

6. Plan the check-in process to allow calm

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Calm by Shutterstock

For decades, cat owners have worn a rut trudging along with a carrier bouncing off their leg from vehicle to front door of the practice to check-in desk to waiting area to exam room. This path is filled with many things that can cause cats anxiety or fear, including the smell and sound of stress; seeing many other cats, dogs, and people; being set down, moved to the waiting area, set back down or up, then moved to the exam room, and set down or up yet again. The cat feels like a yo-yo.

In an FF visit, you should have two options for your cat’s exam. First, if the practice has the facilities and technology to do so, you should be able to walk straight from your vehicle to the exam room to be checked in. You bypass the stressful reception and waiting area, and the cat is only picked up and set down once.

The second option for practices with limited exam rooms that are very busy, or lack the equipment to check a pet owner in remotely (like in the exam room), is to leave your pet in the vehicle (or outside with someone if you live in the city and take public transportation), check in at reception, and then go back outside and wait with your cat until an exam room is ready. Then you and your cat can move quickly though the front door and into the serenity of the exam room.

If your cat is still suffering from anxiety or fear, many new products and procedures are available from your veterinarian to help.

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A gray cat sleeps by Shutterstock

  • Chill pills: There are some excellent new products that work naturally, including a tasty (93 percent palatability in cats) chewable tablet that contains a calming green tea extract (Anxitane) and another that has a milk protein that calms adults just like it did when they got it as kittens from the queen (Zylkene).
  • Compression wraps: By acting like a tight hug or swaddling a baby, products such as the Thundershirt work to calm about 40 percent of cats. Many clinics have lending wardrobes of Thundershirts, and the company offers a guarantee.
  • Sedation: We’ve found during the past five years that about 20 percent to 30 percent of cats have been so psychologically damaged over the years because of vet visits that they need to be sedated by the owner before they leave home. These sedatives are simple, safe, and surefire with the most common one (gabapentin) being one that the cat will eat willingly with a small amount of food.

About the author: Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. The author of 24 books, Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the American Humane Association, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent; a founding member of Core Team Oz for The Dr. Oz Show; and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. When his schedule allows, he practises at North Idaho Animal Hospital. Connect with him on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and Google Plus.