Going to See the Vet? Calming Tips for Fearful Cats
If you are a cat owner, you’ve probably experienced the challenge of getting your feline companion into a carrier for a ride in the car. Not to mention, a visit to see the veterinarian! So, when the time comes for that annual exam or other check-up, it can be tempting to put it off or just forget it altogether. If this describes life with your cat, you are not alone.
An Independent Nature
By nature, our cats are independent creatures, which means they like their daily routine to remain undisturbed and on their terms. Unlike their canine counterparts, being lured from a comfortable nap or hiding place to go somewhere in a confining carrier can be the ultimate disruption to a cat’s peaceful day. As a result, cats are more likely than dogs to miss out on their annual checkups and the preventive care they need to stay healthy.
At Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center, we understand that cats are usually not very happy when they come in to see us. The many unfamiliar distractions in the lobby and being touched or handled by unfamiliar humans during the visit can create an overwhelming experience for a cat, triggering fearful or aggressive behaviors such as hissing, scratching, and biting.
An anxious, fearful cat can make it difficult for our veterinarian to properly perform a physical exam, a nail trim, administer a medication or diagnostic test, which limits the care that the veterinary team can safely provide. While, in some cases, it may be necessary to sedate a fearful cat for its exam or tests, there are many things that owners can do at home to help their cats respond more calmly to potentially stressful situations.
Nurture Human Interaction
Cats may not be the social creatures that dogs are, but they can still learn to enjoy spending time with humans, especially with their own family members and friends. While it is ideal to start socializing your cat when it’s a kitten, many cats are older when brought into their forever homes. No matter the age, encouraging your cat to be comfortable with humans and human touch through play, toys and indoor cat trees is a great way to help it adapt to people and new situations with less stress or fear.
Create a Safe-Haven Carrier
Since the carrier is necessary for safely transporting your cat to and from our facility, it is important that your cat is comfortable being in it, since this sets the tone for the rest of the trip. How you introduce your cat to a carrier and work to reduce your cat’s fear of being in the carrier is key.
Start by selecting a carrier with a removable top. This allows easy access to your cat once in the exam room. Place the carrier near one of your cat’s favorite resting places in your home. Put a familiar blanket or its bed inside the carrier, along with your cat’s favorite treats and/or a bit of catnip as an enticement. Leave the carrier in place with the door open and allow your cat to explore the carrier at its leisure. Keep the carrier in its place and replenish treats and catnip as needed over the course of several days. The goal is for the carrier to become a familiar place that is comfortable and safe, and a place not to be feared.
A common technique for calming an animal is to cover it or its enclosure with a sheet or towel. For a cat, this technique can have the same effect and be useful while traveling in the car or when in the exam room. At home, begin a ritual of calmly covering your cat’s head with a towel for a few seconds during play, then remove the towel. Slowly increase the amount of time you keep the towel over your cat’s head, but only for as long as your cat remains calm. Follow the same steps for covering the carrier while your cat is in it. Both techniques can be helpful if your cat starts showing signs of stress during a visit with us.
Master the Car Ride
When your cat has adapted to being in the carrier, begin taking your cat in the carrier with its door closed on short ‘trips’ around the house. Be sure to hold the carrier steady so it doesn’t sway or bump into walls or furniture. Practice setting it down and removing the top. Practice taking your cat out of the carrier for a while, then putting it back in. Provide a treat reward and happy play while the top is off. Then, with your cat in it, put the top back on and move the carrier back to its original place where you started, leaving the door open. Always end the trip with treats and happy play time.
When these household trips become familiar and well-tolerated, start taking your cat in the carrier for short rides around the block in the car to continue the process of desensitizing your cat to being in the carrier while in a moving vehicle. Once home, place the carrier back in its original place with the door open. Always end the trips with treats or other things your cat enjoys.
Acing the Visit
We know that by the time you reach our front entrance, your cat has already experienced the car ride, and any anxiety already on board could easily get worse. To help your cat have a better, calmer experience once here at our facility, we recommend the following anxiety-reducing tips:
- Wait in the Wings – When you enter our lobby, ask to wait in the designated cat waiting area or seek an out of-the-way spot that provides the most seclusion.
- The Power of Touch – We all know that many cats enjoy touch, but when they are stressed, certain types of touch can be irritating. During your visit, focus on touching your cat around its head, including, the forehead and behind the ears. Be gentle and avoid too much stroking, especially on the lower half of the body, as this can be over-stimulating and lead to more anxiety.
- Check Your Mood – Your cat is aware of your moods and quite adept at sensing when you are stressed. Your anxiety can cause your cat to also become nervous or anxious. During your visit, work at remaining calm and relaxed. Use a calm voice just as you would with your cat at home. This tells your cat that you are not afraid and there’s nothing for your cat to fear.
- How Does it Smell? – Cats feel the safest in places that are familiar, more specifically, places that smell familiar. Bring along a blanket or towel from your home and place it on the exam table during your cat’s visit. Lying on something that smells like home can help reduce anxiety and provide comfort.
- Make a Friend – An exam room can be strange and confusing to a cat. When the veterinarian and/or technician enters the room, stand up, step forward and greet them in a calm, happy voice. This lets your cat see that you consider these people to be friends and there’s no need to be afraid.
- Ask For Help – If you or the veterinary team are concerned about your cat’s anxious behavior, schedule an appointment with our Behavior Specialist in advance of your cat’s visit. Coaching on the above techniques and other methods that help cats react calmly in anxiety-inducing situations can lead to happier, less stressful visits for your cat and for you. Consider scheduling your cat for a private consult customized to your cat’s specific fear behavior needs. In situations where a cat’s anxiety level cannot be safely managed using desensitization techniques, a discussion with our veterinarian regarding sedation for a visit may be needed.
Striving for Happy Visits
At Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center, we’re here to help pets, whether it’s for an annual exam, illness, injury or other reason, and it’s important that visits are not overly stressful for pets or their human companions. Hopefully, these tips will be useful and, as always, please contact us if you need additional assistance helping your cat with its next visit to see us.