Does your cat run from the carrier or hide at the vet?
Read on to learn how to make the process of going to the vet less stressful for your feline friend!
Using Happy visits to make vet visits fun!
Happy visits are recommended for all animals, but especially for those who are puppies, kittens or nervous adults. “Happy vet visits” are a way to work on counterconditioning (changing emotions from scared to happy) and desensitization (slowly getting used to something over time) to all of the scary things a vet visit can present (carriers, car rides, new smells, unfamiliar people, barking dogs, body handling, restraint, and needles). Teaching your pet to be comfortable during a vet exam should be approached slowly and in a step wise fashion, carefully monitoring your pet for signs of fear, anxiety, and stress along the way.
Signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in cats include dilated pupils (eyes that look round and dark), crouching with legs and tail under body, freezing, hiding, trying to escape, loud meowing, hissing, swatting, and trying to bite. Learn more about how cats communicate here!
The key to a happy kitty vet visit is teaching your cat to love her carrier and setting up a comfortable exam site for her next vet visit. Below is a guide to helping her overcome each hurdle. The ideal carrier is large enough to turn around in, comfortable to lay in, has a front and top opening, and is easy to take apart. The carrier should be held to minimize swinging and rocking motions.
1. Begin by leaving your carrier sitting out in one of the main areas of your house, where your cats enjoys spending time. Place a soft blanket or piece of familiar clothing in the carrier. Start to put your cat's favorite treats (or just kibble if they're on a special diet) and toys near the carrier.
2. As your cat becomes used to the carrier sitting out in the house, start to move the treats and toys closer to the carrier door and eventually (possibly after several days to weeks) place the treats and toys in the carrier. You can also spray the carrier bedding with Feliway (sold as Comfort Zone in the pet store) 20 minutes before you place the treats by the carrier. Feliway contains feline facial pheromone, which is the chemical that your cat rubs on your pants and the couch when she is happy and comfortable. Using Feliway helps signal to her that the carrier is a safe, familiar space where she can feel relaxed. Learn more about Feliway!
3. Once your cat enjoys being inside the carrier, try walking up and moving the door, but not shutting her in. You can feed her part of her canned or dry food meals in the kennel. Eventually you will be able to shut the door for short periods of time as she gets used to this process.
4. After your cat is comfortable remaining in the carrier for 5 minutes at a time, you can carry her around the house and then promptly let her back out. You can then practice going out to the car and taking short trips.
5. When it is time to go to your vet, place a thin sheet or towel over the carrier before taking her outside or into the lobby. Cats tend to feel safer when they can hide from view of people and other animals, especially in a veterinary lobby. If you have Feliway, you can spray that on the sheet covering the carrier.
6. Once you arrive at your vet clinic, avoid placing your cat’s carrier on the ground and try to find a place to sit away from other pets, especially dogs. Ensure the towel covers her carrier fully so that she won’t be surprised by dogs or children attempting to peek in.
7. Once in the exam room, leave the sheet over three sides of the carrier but open the carrier door and place a familiar, Feliway covered non-slip bath mat or rug directly in front of the carrier. Cats feel safer on surfaces that are not shiny, slippery, or loud. You can also try playing calming music to block out other clinic noises.
8. If it is OK with your vet (your cat may need to have an empty stomach for certain tests), spread some high values treats like tuna, baby food and crunchy treats over the mat to encourage your cat to come out. If your cat enjoys catnip or toys and does not become too excitable, you can try that as well. Give your cat time to explore the room on her terms. Avoid forcing her out of the carrier or scruffing her.
9. If your cat is too fearful to leave her carrier, you can prepare for the vet exam by unsnapping the top part of the carrier so that it can be easily lifted off to allow the vet to examine your cat while she remains "hidden" in her carrier. Placing a towel or calming cap over her face may help her feel more relaxed during the exam if she likes to hide.
10. Give your vet and veterinary nurse your cat's favorite treats so that they can distract and counter condition her during the appointment. Squeeze tubes of soft flavored cat food can help with delivery during the exam and scary/painful procedures.
If your cat is extremely stressed by vet visits and does not allow any part of the exam to be performed, I recommend working with a low-stress or fear free certified veterinarian in your area or scheduling an in-home behavior consult to help future visits run smoother by developing a behavior modification and management plan potentially including calming drugs.