When I was 6 years old, I fell off the top of a swing set and broke my arm. After putting a cast on it, the doctor gave me a pill to take, which I refused, not knowing how to swallow pills. His response was that if I didn’t swallow it right then, he would hold my mouth closed until I did. I swallowed it, but it set up a lifetime of reluctance to go to the doctor.
Now, imagine what our cats must go through during an exam or procedure at the veterinarian — or at home when they need medication or must go for a ride in the car or even get groomed. Think how anxious they must be when they don’t have any way of understanding what’s happening to them.
In many ways, cats have a better nine lives than ever before, but fear, anxiety, and stress can still be a part of their daily lives if we and other caretakers fail to recognize or properly deal with scary situations. Those cats and their people often “drop out” of health care, said Dr. Marty Becker, founder and CEO of Fear Free Veterinary Visits.
Create a portable safe zone
Cats tend to be less socialized to experiences and change because they don’t require “potty visits” outdoors, let alone training classes, like dogs, said Dr. Kathryn Primm of Applebrook Animal Hospital, the nation’s first Fear Free-certified professional. While change is scary for cats, they can learn to become accustomed to new experiences, she said. Patience and preparation are the keys.
To help your cat be comfortable in different situations, give her a portable safe zone: her carrier. Line it with her favorite blanket. Feed all her meals in it. Take her for rides around the house in it so it becomes commonplace, not scary. Hide treats inside it for her to find. Once she’s in love with her carrier, she’ll willingly enter it and feel secure during car rides and at the veterinary clinic.
Take the scare out of grooming care
When it’s done right, cats love being groomed. Brushing can be as relaxing for them as a massage — as long as you don’t snag any tangles. But toothbrushing and nail trimming? Your cat can love those, too, if you go gently and slowly.
Wait until she’s relaxed and half asleep. Gently grasp a paw and press down, extending a claw, and use a nail trimmer to clip just before the claw curves. Done. If she’s comfortable with that, try another one. If she jerks away, come back another time. Before then, practice touching and stroking the paws to get her used to your touch.
Teach toothbrushing the same way. Start by lifting the lip in different areas to look at the teeth. When your cat is comfortable with that, rub one or two teeth with a gauze-wrapped finger. Eventually, graduate to a finger brush with tasty fishflavored toothpaste. Easy-peasy.
Make it a fear-free vet visit
“In cats, one of the main reasons for pet owners not bringing cats in more often is because of the fear their cat experiences in the car ride and the visit to the vet,” said Dr. John Talmadge of Bigger Road Veterinary Center in Ohio.
Take the 16-year-old cat he just examined for the first time in four years. The owner had been reluctant to bring the cat because in the past she had been so stressed during visits. This time was different.
“We immediately put the cat into an exam room so she didn’t have to be in a waiting area with dogs,” Talmadge said. “We draped the kennel with a towel sprayed with Feliway to help calm the cat.”
The staff allowed the cat time to come out of the kennel on her own and let her sit in the sink for the exam because she was comfortable there. They sprinkled catnip around the sink to relax the cat further. These are all basic Fear Free techniques that any veterinary clinic can adopt.
“We were able to get a complete exam with just a few hisses,” Talmadge said. “We were able to draw blood with minimal restraint, never having to muzzle the cat. It was a much better experience for the cat, the owner, and for us.”
3 things to know about fighting feline fear
Common feline fears comprise the three Vs: veterinary visits, vaccinations, and vehicular travel.
Keeping cat qualms at bay begins at home. Accustom cats to carriers from day one by leaving the carrier out all the time so the cat can explore it at his leisure and discover surprise yummy treats inside it.
Help cats relax at home, in the car, and at the veterinary clinic with pheromone sprays, wipes, or diffusers to spread the chemical message of mother love.
About the author: Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning writer in Southern California. Her subjects include pet care, health and behavior, and wildlife and marine life conservation.