An orange cat annoyed and scared at the vet. Photography by pyotr021/Thinkstock.
An orange cat annoyed and scared at the vet. Photography by pyotr021/Thinkstock.

How to Get Your Cat to the Vet — Even If He Really, Truly Hates It

Here’s how to get your cat to the vet — no matter what issues he has with checkups (or, if your cat is like mine, if he has ALL of the issues).
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Do you have a cat who’s difficult at the vet? And what if you have trouble even getting your cat to the vet in the first place? I get it — my rescue tabby, Gabby, is usually lovable and lazy but becomes a stealth monster when we try to get him in his carrier, poops and pees in the car on the way to the vet and yowls like an undead zombie once we get into the exam room.

Even though our whole family (that includes Gabby, his kitty sister, my husband and me) dreads vet visits, I know that checkups are important. So, here’s an unsettling fact: a recent Royal Canin survey found that while 92 percent of cat owners agree that their cat’s health is a priority, only 41 percent take their cat to the vet for regular checkups. Like I said, I get it — it’s not easy to take some cats to the vet. I’ve cried en route to vet visits in frustration and definitely all-out sobbed in exam rooms when an entire vet staff has been unable to handle Gabby (true story — “But he’s not like this at home!!!” I’ve choked out, both embarrassed by his behavior and feeling like I’ve betrayed poor Gabby by bringing him to the exam).

I’ve tried tons of different ways to make vet visits enjoyable (er, tolerable) — with varying degrees of success. Gabby’s still not the poster kitty for good vet visits, but they’re certainly more manageable and less stressful. Here are a few things that have worked for me, as well as expert advice from Dr. Jane Brunt, CATalyst Council executive director and American Association of Feline Practitioners’ past president, on how to get your cat to the vet:

1. How to get your cat to the vet if … your cat hates his carrier:

A brown and white cat peeking out of a cardboard box.
A brown tabby cat in a red carrier. Photography by Sokratyks/Thinkstock

Chances are you probably have at least one cat bed around your house. What I bet you didn’t know is that you actually have an extra cat bed. Turn your cat’s carrier into a cool sleeping spot/hangout instead of a place of dread and fear!

“Cats do best when they are familiar with people, places and things,” Dr. Brunt says. “It makes a big difference when we consider the cat’s perspective in new, unfamiliar or unfavorable situations — that helps us realize they’re just scared. As both predators and prey (cats are hunters and are hunted), they are responding normally in ‘get me outta here’ escape mode. Having the cat become familiar with this traveling box (and we all know cats love to explore boxes) by leaving it out with the doors and top open, putting it in a familiar room in a warm, quiet place and even lining it with some clothing worn by their most trusted person, should help decrease the fear factor. Add in frequent praise, rewards with treats and toys and some time, and your cat should feel more comfortable being in the carrier. You can ease into closing the doors for short, then longer periods, without going anywhere at first. If you think your cat associates his current carrier with any situation where he might be scared, get a new one that’s been approved by the Center for Pet Safety, and always leave it out and make it appealing!”

2. How to get your cat to the vet if … your cat hates the car:

As mentioned, Gabby is prone to pooping, peeing and/or throwing up on even the shortest car rides.

“Just as with the carrier, if the cat hasn’t had positive experiences riding in the car or doesn’t like motion and exhibits physical responses, you might be serenaded with sad yowls or he might even urinate or defecate in the carrier when you’re off to the vet,” Dr. Brunt says. “Pre-planning with gradual introduction by placing the cat in the carrier in the car, initially without going anywhere, is best. Many cats respond to synthetic facial pheromones sprayed or wiped in the carrier or car in advance of travel to help soothe them. Many cats benefit from medications obtained from your veterinarian to reduce nausea and anxiety.”

Other tips that I find handy — lining Gabby’s carrier with Wee Wee Pads just in case, traveling in an oversized carrier so he doesn’t feel as restricted and keeping the carrier open just enough so that I can pet him (my husband drives, I do the petting!). I also find that if I allow his kitty sister, Merritt, to ride in the same carrier with him, he gets too distracted by her to be truly upset. Other cat parents suggested music specifically made for cats. It didn’t work for us but it was an interesting listen — think: jam band from space.

3. How to get your cat to the vet if … your cat hates other pets in the waiting room:

Gabby lives with another cat, and while they don’t live in perfect harmony, they certainly get along. But, when we get to the vet and see other cats in their carriers, he turns into a hissing and growling machine.

“Definitely work with your veterinarian at a cat-friendly practice, and call them in advance and when you arrive so they can have an exam room ready for you and your cat to go right into, bypassing the other animals to minimize the arousal they experience in the presence of ‘competitors,’” Dr. Brunt advises.

4. How to get your cat to the vet if … your cat had a previously traumatic vet experience:

A cat getting examined by a vet.
A cat getting examined by a vet. Photography by Shutterstock.

Important note — Gabby used to be totally chill about his carrier, traveling and vet visits. I could even take him on public transportation in New York City and he would hang out in his carrier without as much as a peep (or a poop, for that matter). I’m convinced his vet behavior stems from an experience when he swallowed an Easter basket ribbon and had no choice but to be taken to a small-town vet while I was staying with my parents. He was super uncomfortable and the entire vet staff didn’t know how to handle him, which led to trauma on both of our parts and convinced me to research cats-only vets. Now, we take him to Just Cats, a cats-only vet hospital that’s familiar with handling kitties of all personality types. They are up to speed with Gabby and his needs and know how to handle him safely and appropriately.

“Make sure your veterinarian is using cat-friendly and low-stress handling techniques, and is knowledgeable about safe anti-anxiety medications (not tranquilizers) and even diet, which can be given in advance of the visit,” Dr. Brunt advises. “Some cats benefit greatly by sedation.”

5. How to get your cat to the vet if … your cat is unmanageable during the exam itself:

“If even carrier habituation, pretreatment with pheromones and anti-anxiety medications from your veterinarian aren’t enough, be kind to your cat and allow the veterinarian to administer sedation or other medications so it’s not fearful,” Dr. Brunt says. “A cat with arousal and heightened anxiety is causing harm to itself far more than by administering medications to sedate or even anesthetize them. Additionally, those medications can be ‘reversed’ once the exam or procedure is complete.”

After trying a lot of pretreatments and having them fail (picking up a kitty prescription for Prozac was interesting to say the least), we now have Gabby sedated at every vet visit. I admit that it made me a little uncomfortable at first, but it’s effective, not too costly at our vet ($20 extra) and very worth it. Remember — if your cat is sedated, make sure that you or someone you trust can monitor him for a few hours following his vet visit. Cats who are sedated are sort of “drunk” and don’t have their regular motor functions. Sedated kitties need to be kept in their carriers for a bit and then slowly reintroduced into their surroundings as sedation wears off. Make sure a sedated cat doesn’t have access to anywhere or anything where he could accidentally fall — keep him away from any high furniture, cat trees and stairs.

Want more advice on taking your cat to the vet? Here’s even more advice on how to get a difficult cat to the vet — calmly >>

Tell us: Do you have a cat who hates the vet? What tips and tricks work for you?

Thumbnail: Photography by pyotr021/Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2017.

Read more about cats and vet visits on Catster.com:

43 thoughts on “How to Get Your Cat to the Vet — Even If He Really, Truly Hates It”

  1. My cat Sasha is extremely skiddish. She is 12 years old and has not been to the vet since she was a tiny kitten. She has a rodent ulcer – and it’s not going away no matter what I tried.

    I’m honestly afraid she won’t make it to the vet. She has Feline Herpes – and if I have a frined over she hides – and comes out with her eyes running. I don’t know what to do. Even if I go near her with mediction she flips out and hides for hours. I feel like it would be cruel to do this to her. Please help.

  2. Connie Longenecker

    We have a female (formerly feral) cat who we fed and gave shelter to for about 6 years. I always encouraged her to be afraid of me and any other humans. One day, she came with her forehead scraped and her one eye damaged. After unsuccessfully attempting to catch her to take her to the vet, we kept our sunroom door open to her eventual entering. When she ran into the hooded cat box, I quickly closed it and the tied doored box complete with litter and cat went to the vet for surgery. She now is living in the sunroom and occasionally walks into the house for a brief visit. We have 3 other inside cats. She has had a chronic breathing problem and I need to take her back to the vet. She is no longer afraid of me, but will not allow me to touch her. I am thinking of asking for a sedative for her, so that I can put her in a carrier. I would really welcome some humane advice.

    1. Hi Connie,

      Did you end up getting the cat to the vet? And if so how? Did you require sedation at home prior to departure to the vet?

      I am in a very siminlar situation with a feral cat who I rescued and adopted and brough home 8 months ago. She lived outside for 5 years.

      I am also still NOT able to touch her and I need to take her to the vet .

  3. ToMas ‘s Mom

    This is what I ended up doing for ToMas the Cat……had a large dog stroller for when I had small dogs. I put ToMas in the stroller with his favorite Kat-Nip toy and pad I made for him which is very soft and washable. Walked around the house (inside) while talking to him…opened the front door and sat on the porch with him still in the stroller. Started to walk up and down the driveway with him on his leash hooked to stroller—put him back into stroller and started walking the street slowly so he could see his places he would see when I walked him on his leash. It took a couple of times riding in the stroller before he accepted his new venture. We now walk the two miles to the vet with him relaxed until you STOP!!! He still will not go into a cage or a carrier no matter what I try to do…What we wouldn’t do for our animals….WHO RULES WHO ?????

  4. My cat loves her vet! Getting her there is another story. I have tried every suggestion i have ever seen. The confinement in any carrier is the problem. She scratches her front paws on the metal door or the air holes and by the time we get to the vet office, about 20 min away, both of her front paws and nails are bloody. I think she was trapped and while in the trap was shot in the eye because when she came to the shelter she had an eye injury and loss of vision. She was examined by an eye vet and we were advised to have the eye removed as her injury was pre cancerous. A BB was found behind her eye and removed. She is the perfect cat if she is confined even if she is allowed to be free in the car. Did I mention she screams while in the car or carrier. No matter what I do. Any suggestions?

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  6. Look for a house call vet like me. Why go through the stress? And I LOVE seeing cats in their home environment – I stay for an hour, learn all about the cat’s living situation, and can make really informed recommendations for helping your cat lead his or her best life. Yes, I cost a little more up front than a regular vet, but the relationship I have with my patients and their guardians is priceless.

    1. I have a vet who comes to the house. My Max is like the cat in the article. He is a 25 lb very strong Maine Coon so I really don’t want to fight to get him into a carrier.

  7. We had a vet whose printer made a high pitched sound when printing. Every cat I brought in became very nervous on hearing that. We switched vets. No problem now.

  8. We must be the luckiest cat parents around!!! We adopted a male cat “Smokey” several years ago and he’s a sweetheart! Last year a feral female cat mysteriously appeared and we fed her. Several weeks later we opened our door to feed her and she strolled in and never left. We named her “Missy” and the two are now inseparable. When we take them to the vet for their checkups, they’re amazingly docile to the point that the vet first thought we had given them “something” before we brought them to her. We consider ourselves very lucky cat parents!!!

  9. Because of the size of my cats and my health problems I got a stroller/carrier. It opens at the top with a zipper, it has windows that I can cover if need be. I can get the cats in and out without any problem. They still call me every name in the kitty book on the drive but that’s the biggest issue we have. One cat Twister is 16 now and likes the carrier, he just doesn’t like the car. He hated regular carriers and needed stitches his paws after trying to get out at his first vet visit at 6 weeks old. Never did that again.

  10. Geoffrey Gallagher

    Where live they have home visit Vets it costs around the same and it’s better for everyone concerned. Cat Vet and the cats human Less stress all round

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  12. My cat was born wild.. and I can’t get him within 20 feet of a carrier without bleedin g .. any ideas how too.. he wont stop doing a chewing motion with his mouth . Even when not eating.. helppp!!!

    1. Put treats in the carrier when there is no vet appointment. They get used to having treats in there & will walk in & out all the time. Put a clean towel or small blanket in the carrier & they will get used to sleeping & having treats in the carrier

  13. You people are all braver than I am. I gave up on taking Dinah to the vet years ago. She was born in summer 2003 and is now a geriactic cat. I am not concerned about scratches because both my cats know that if you want to live in Daddy’s house you MUST have your nails clipped now and again (more often again). My other cat Miss Eliza is 7 and I just cannot bear to hear her cry when shes placed in a cat carrier.

  14. Thanks for the idea to call a veterinarian in advance so that they can extra room ready if your cat doesn’t get along with other pets. My cat really needs to get his claws looked at, but he does have issues when he is around other animals. When I find a vet I can take my cat to, I will be sure to call them in advance to make necessary arrangements.

    1. Most of the vets I’ve gone to are quite busy. They almost never have a room empty for my cat to go right into. However, I have arranged with them that I will call to “check in” when I arrive at their office. Then I will wait in my car with my cat until an exam room becomes available, at which point we go straight into the room. (Please Note: I am NOT recommending anyone leave their cat -or any other animal- unattended in their car!)

  15. I use a mobile vet service (Vetter) that comes to me. It’s great, except my cat needed dental work a couple of weeks ago. I stressed more about getting her there than her getting 11 teeth pulled. But, we survived and she had a really fast recovery.

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  17. One of my cats cries the entire time she is in the carrier (and I’ve done all the tricks to make the carrier likable), and sometimes pees (one time pooped) in the carrier so I always have a puppy pad lining the carrier.
    I’ve tried pheromone sprays and they make her vomit, so no help from them. I tried iCat music to calm her and it worked a little bit to cut out the crying but it didn’t last long and only switching tracks momentarily distracted her. That was on the way to the vet, on the way home it didn’t work at all. She was only going in for a laser therapy treatment but a trip in the carrier is not high on her list of places she likes to be.
    I’ve tried having my sister along to pet her and talk to her, but that didn’t help either. I even tried a house call from the vet and that was more traumatic since we had to chase her down and pull her out from a back corner table to even see the vet. (and it cost extra for a house call)
    Short of knock out drops, I don’t know how to fix this problem.

    1. Hi Nancy,
      We would suggest having a chat with your vet before your cat’s next appointment to see if they might be able to prescribe any calming medications beforehand. Best of luck with this situation!

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  19. My 15 month old Maine Coon survived his neutering and shots, etc. and seemed to love the attention from the doctor/techs the first three visits. Then I took him for his annual exam. He’s 11 pounds and he hid in the carrier under the blanket. When I got him out to sit on my lap to wait on the doc, he buried his head under my elbow and shook. On the exam table he locked his legs so tight they couldn’t stand him up and was shaking like a leaf. It makes you feel horrible when this is the guy at home who rules the house and is spoiled rotten. I really dread taking him next year because he was absolutely paralyzed with fear.

  20. How does sedation work for a cat visit? I can’t get her out of her carrier when we get to the vet – and the last time they tried pulling her out, they hurt her back legs (we think she has arthritis).

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Here’s more info on sedation:
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/cats-and-anesthesia-risks-after-anesthesia-care

    2. Michelle, I’ve had a cat who absolutely would not come out of her carrier. Most of the carriers I’ve seen/purchased, are made to come apart. When I had to take my Tiff to the vet, we would simply unscrew the nuts & lift the top off. In fact, the vet usually did the complete exam while she stayed in the bottom part of the carrier in her bed.

  21. I like how you suggested turning a cat carrier into a sleeping area instead of a place they are afraid of. I have to take my cat to the vet next week and she isn’t a fan of her carrier. I really appreciate the tips for getting a cat to the vet.

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  24. We use a plastic clothes hamper,with vents in the lid and in front, to take our large and fearsome kitty, to the vet.I put a large towel as a cushion on the bottom.Then have my husband keep the lid top open. Pick up the kitty under two front legs.Place QUICKLY in carrier and slam the lid down. Then place a strip of tape on it to keep shut.The cat can see out of the front(lattice type air vents in front).He is much too big and feisty to put into a cat carrier.We have on occasion both ended up with injuries trying that. The vet suggested this and it has been a life saver. Not expensive. I believe the clothes hamper runs around 12.00 at Walmart.Make certain it is the one with vented lid and vents in front.

    1. Katrina Schurter

      This is a FANTASTIC idea!!!! One of my cats is SO difficult to get into the carrier and this much larger way of doing it would work great. I actually had to cancel her appointment once because I couldn’t get her in there! Our hamper is covered in holes and I can just bungee cord the top!!! Thanks so much for this idea!!!

  25. Marlitt Arnouville

    I put Albert s favorite blanket and toy in his carrier and I pet him and talk to him(hubby driving) luckily, I have a vet who has divided offices, one side for dogs and the other for cats only.

  26. In some situations you may not have had time to habituate your cat to the carrier. So here’s what to do if you have a solid carrier.

    1) Tip the carrier on end so the doorway faces upward.

    2) Open the door.

    3) Pick up the cat so that the rear legs hang down.

    4) Lower the cat into the carrier so that the rear legs go in first.

    5) When the cat is completely in and back legs are on what is currently the base of the carrier. release the cat and close the door. Keep one hand ready to press down on the cat’s head as it is likely to do a jack-in-the-box until you get the door closed.

    6) Gently rotate carrier back to normal orientation.

    Works every time.

    1. That may work for some but I have one that won’t buy into that trick. We learned that the hard and painful way. Hubby ended up with deep scratches from elbow to wrist when ours climbed his arm to get out. Of course it didn’t help that it was for the second vet visit 2 days in a row and the 3rd in 3 weeks. (He had a minor UTI that was treated with antibiotics and was doing great, took for a follow up and the stress made him flair up again. Ended up spending a total of 7 nights in the hospital to get him better and was given a sedative to get back home).

      1. All the vets I have gone to in Seattle charge $80-100 to sedate my cat for an exam.

        I use a medium size ( small dog size ?) carrier with secure but easy to take top off ( not the clip kind , but the type with the “ bolt” turns once to “unscrew” ) I always make sure the door closed and double check it’s locked once cat is in. I cover entire carrier with. Towel before leaving the house . When I get to vet, if lobby is crowded or loud, I wait in car with cat and have front desk let me know when I can come in.
        Inside the exam room, I ask that all doors be closed and I speak softly and
        Hopefully this encourages vet and techs to do so . Even the door opening and closing and
        How the dr enters the room can have an impact on my cat.
        I unclick the latched all around the carrier and standing in front of the carrier door, holding it so it does not fall off, I lift the top of the carrier about 1/2-1 inch and slide an extra towel over my cat, taking note as to where his head is . When he is totally covered I remove carrier door, and slowly lift top off using one hand to out on my Towel covered cat. ( cat is completely covered including head) If cat can be examined this way fine, but mine needs sedation injection and dr does that and I either put cover back in carrier ( cat is sitting /laying in bottom of carrier . Or I just have both arms around him while he is covered and sedation takes affect.

    2. It doesn’t work for my cats. They use their feet like in the cartoons to avoid the opening. I finally got a large soft sides dog crate and I leave it open all the time with a soft blanket in it. It works for them most of the time, except with my shy guy. I was so glad it was soft sided, because he nearly hurt himself jumping around in it to try to escape the closed crate.

    3. I learned that trick when I had my feral Oliver. Although I did it a little quicker because he was fighting to not go in. They will use their back legs to stop from being lowered. I just worked as quick as I could getting his back legs in and then kinda dropped him in. He was ok. He didn’t get hurt. I think that is a good way for cat owners who have a difficult time getting their baby into the crate. But at the vets he was always an angel. Scared but an angel.

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