Previously I wrote a lamentation about cats’ second-class citizen status in veterinary medicine. One of the key reasons that cats continually to lag behind dogs in my profession is that many cat owners don’t seek regular veterinary care for their cats.
Various groups have engaged in significant hand-wringing over this matter in recent years. Veterinary trade journals stress that veterinarians need to work to strengthen cat owners’ bonds with their pets. They state that we need to make cat owners understand the importance of veterinary care, and encourage them to value their cats as much as dog owners value their dogs. This, it is claimed, will lead to more wellness care for cats.
Although I don’t deny that some cat owners have a “cats don’t need to go the vet unless they’re sick” mentality, I suspect that for many cat owners there is a different motivation for avoiding the vet except in cases of emergency. These owners believe that their cat hates going to the vet. And they’re often correct.
I hear the following statement come from an owner’s mouth nearly every day: “My cat is really bad at the vet.”
And indeed at first impression the cat may seem “bad.” Everyone who has worked at a veterinarian’s office is familiar with extremely fractious cats. These cats are so worked up that they hiss and growl when their carrier is approached. In extreme cases the carrier may visibly bounce around as the cat lunges back and forth within it. And no amount of luck can make these cats handleable — they bite, scratch, howl, and flee with seemingly relentless ambition.
Cats punch way above their weight. They are well-armed with teeth and claws, and they know how to use them. Teeth and claws harbor bacteria, and anyone unfortunate enough to be scratched or bitten may suffer from a serious infection; in fact, a cat bite nearly always results in a serious infection if it’s not treated immediately. Complications from cat bites are a leading cause of permanent disability for veterinarians and their staff.
Making matters worse is the fact that cats are fast. This is not just a subjective fact. It is a scientific fact. I was taught in vet school that nerve conduction velocity studies have shown that cats’ nerves — and subsequently their actions and reactions — are faster than those of other animals. When a cat strikes, we and our plodding nervous systems are at a significant disadvantage.
It is a fact of life that no person, regardless of training, can hold a cat that is very seriously determined not to be held. In fact, letting go of such cats is a sign of experience in cat handling. New vets and inexperienced techs often don’t see the warning signs and hang on. This leads to mauling. When I’m holding a cat and I realize he’s about to blow, I let him go. For this reason such cats must always be worked with in confined areas so that they cannot escape.
Cats who blow their tops at the vets cause significant stress for their owners and the vet staff. It is tempting to call them bad. But they’re not bad. They act out because they’re scared. And as stressful as fractious cats are for me, I always remember a key point: The individual suffering by far the most stress in these situations is the cat.
Why do some cats act out at veterinary offices? A better question might be why don’t other cats act out? Considering the circumstances, I’m amazed that any cat can get through a vet visit without going ballistic.
Vet visits have the potential to provide the perfect storm of stress for some cats. It starts with the carrier, which has negative associations for many felines. Then the cat must leave its home territory, which is naturally stressful. Next comes a car ride, which for most cats means more anxiety. Then come the strange smells, sights, and sounds of the veterinary office. The office is generally replete with dogs and other cats (everyone knows that most cats don’t like strange dogs, but not as many realize that generally cats do not react well to other cats). And next comes the coup de grace: A stranger inserts a thermometer into the cat’s anus.
Heck, I get stressed when I go to the doctor or the dentist; I at least know why I’m there and I know that the people in the office are trying to help me. If I had no understanding of these matters I would probably punch and claw my way out of the dentist’s chair when the first instrument made contact with my teeth.
So the matter is settled. Cats that act up at the vet’s office are not bad. They are scared and stressed. What can be done about the matter?
What you can do
Feline vet office anxiety usually ramps up over time. The anxiety often begins with the first sighting of the carrier. In fact, many owners find it difficult to get their cats into their carriers; struggling with your cat in your home does not portend well for a low-stress veterinary visit.
Therefore carrier habituation is the simplest and probably the most effective way for cat owners to reduce the stress of vet visits. Don’t let your carrier accumulate dust in the garage for 364 days of the year. Keep it out, and work to change your cat’s relationship with it. Make the carrier into a safe place.
In fact, carriers have the potential to be comfortable refuges for cats. Nervous cats like to retreat to enclosed or confined safe places (think of hiding under the bed). A comfortable carrier that is always available with cozy bedding can provide exactly such a place. You can further encourage this by feeding the cat in the carrier, and not harassing the cat when he or she has taken refuge in it (it’s supposed to be a safe place). The stress of going to the vet will be markedly reduced if the cat feels secure in the carrier.
General socialization also helps. Cats who are unafraid of strangers will feel less stressed when a stranger takes their temperature. Some people even habituate their cats to car rides by driving them around the block regularly.
What your vet can do
Vets are increasingly realizing that it’s not strictly on the owners in this matter. In fact, there is a growing movement to make vet offices more cat-friendly. The American Association of Feline Practitioners is leading the charge on this matter. It offers a full feline-friendly certification for veterinary offices.
The certification program goes far beyond not allowing German Shepherds to bark at cats in the waiting room. The process begins with a mindset: Everyone at the office must resolve to make the place pleasant for cats. Other steps include training on cat behavior and handling for the entire staff. There are recommendation for waiting room and facility design. The recommendations progress through pain management, anesthetic and surgical techniques, and wellness care recommendations. The goal of the program is to raise the status of cats in the veterinary world. I wholeheartedly support it.
Don’t be shy about asking your vet what steps he takes to make the office cat-friendly. Your vet should want to be cat-friendly — that is the very first step.
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)