Reducing Fear of Veterinary Visits for Cats

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

Why is my cat so stressed when I take her to the veterinary clinic?

Cats are very attached to their home territory, and most of our pet cats live a sheltered life with a predictable routine that does not involve traveling away from home. For most cats, a visit to the veterinarian is an overwhelming experience. The cat is taken out of the familiar home environment, pushed into a carrier, then taken for a bumpy, noisy car ride.

Upon entering the veterinary clinic, cats encounter the sights, scents, and sounds of unfamiliar people and animals. Once in the examination room, they are extracted from their save haven (carrier) and manipulated by unfamiliar people. Any one of these things can be stressful, and when they are all combined, it’s not surprising that your cat is frightened or stressed.

My veterinarian says I should put my cat in a carrier for travel. Why?

Carriers are important for your cat’s safety from the moment they leave the house. If the car door or window opens unexpectedly, your cat could escape. If there is an emergency, you can quickly pick up the carrier and leave with your cat. Finally, many cats are frightened when looking out the car window and watching the world speed by. They are more likely to rest when contained in a snug carrier.

"Carriers are important for your cat’s safety from the moment they leave the house."

When you arrive at your veterinarian’s office, the secure carrier will keep your cat safe from curious pets and people. If you hold your cat in your arms, without a carrier, your cat could become frightened by something and leap out of your arms, potentially injuring you, escaping, or being injured by another animal.

What is the best type of carrier?

Individual cats may have preferences for their carrier, but some options are better than others. Although cardboard cat carriers (available from pet stores and animal shelters) are inexpensive and disposable, they should be used only as a temporary form of transport, because a determined cat can break out of them easily.

Durable options for transporting your cat range from soft-sided carriers, to wire crates, to hard plastic carriers with wire doors. Whatever the type of permanent carrier you choose, it should be easy to clean, and you should be able to get your cat in and out of it without a struggle. Purchase a carrier that fits your cat’s size. If you have several cats, bring each one in a separate carrier.

"If you have several cats, bring each one in a separate carrier."

The ideal carrier is strong, lightweight, and waterproof, with a large opening to allow easy access to the cat and an easy-to-remove top with “quick release” fasteners. If you have a carrier with a removable top, your cat may be able to remain nestled in the bottom of the carrier while your veterinarian performs some parts of the routine physical examination. And if your cat needs to stay in the hospital for any reason, the bottom part of the carrier can be put into the hospital cage to provide a familiar and comforting bed.

Whatever you choose for a carrier, you should put a towel or blanket in the bottom to provide a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and to soak up fluids if she has an accident on the way to the clinic. It may be wise to take along a spare blanket and a plastic bag for any soiled bedding, just in case.

My cat struggles when I try to put her in her carrier. Do you have any tips?

For most cats, the only time they ever see their carrier is immediately before a vet visit. Even if a veterinary visit is routine, with no painful procedures, cats often experience some level of distress related to the car ride or the unfamiliar sounds and smells of the veterinary office. From a cat’s point of view, entering the carrier was the behavior that led to the cascade of emotional discomfort and so the attentive cat may resist getting into the carrier in the future.

You can reduce your cat’s fear of the carrier by creating positive associations. Instead of storing the carrier in the garage or basement, only bringing it out when a trip to the veterinarian is imminent, always keep the carrier available near one of your favorite resting or play places. Make it your cat’s private sleeping quarters by putting a favored bed inside, or placing her food and water dishes in the carrier to create a private dining room. Or you can simply use the carrier as the spot where she gets treats.

If your cat enjoys treats, you can easily teach your cat to enter the carrier when asked. This training, done using positive reinforcement, can greatly reduce the level of distress associated with veterinary visits. If your cat is very frightened of her current carrier, consider purchasing a new style of carrier.

If you need to travel with your cat before you have developed these positive associations, place a familiar blanket, towel, or even an old item of your clothing into the carrier.

Natural pheromones in a cat’s body can create a sense of familiarity or security in the home environment. Synthetic pheromones, such as Feliway Optimum®, may comfort your cat during the car ride. About 15–30 minutes before traveling, lightly spritz the blanket with the pheromone.

My cat doesn’t like the car ride. Do you have any suggestions for reducing that stress?

First, never travel with your cat free to move around in the car. Use a cat carrier that can be secured on the seat or floor so that it does not bounce around. Then, cover the carrier with a blanket or towel to reduce visual stimulation.

Pheromones such as Feliway Optimum® may help your cat relax in the car. Apply the product 15–30 minutes before you need to leave. Once you start driving, avoid any sudden braking, acceleration, or sharp turns. Tune the radio to a soothing station and make sure the heater or air conditioner does not blow directly into the carrier.

What should I do when I arrive at the clinic?

Try to schedule your appointment for a time when the clinic is usually quiet. Pack up a familiar towel and favored treats. If possible, rather than waiting in the reception area, wait with your cat in the car and bring her directly to the examination room when your veterinarian or nurse is ready to start the visit.

When you enter, hold the carrier securely: close to your body, taking care not to swing it or bang it into any doorways or walls. If your carrier lid can be removed, your cat can be examined inside their own carrier. Otherwise, put a familiar blanket or towel onto the examination table.

Can I give my cat anti-anxiety medication to decrease stress?

If you are concerned about your cat’s level of stress, ask your veterinarian whether pre-visit medication is an option. Since medications can have side effects, your veterinarian will consider your cat’s general health and current medications to determine whether medication would be appropriate.

"Ask your veterinarian before giving your cat any over-the-counter products, including those that claim to be natural or food-based."

A word of caution about non-prescription products: The marketplace is full of products that claim to treat anxiety. Not all products are safe for cats, and most over-the-counter products have not been researched for purity or effectiveness. Ask your veterinarian before giving your cat any over-the-counter products, including those that claim to be natural or food-based.

Are there any other tips to reduce my cat’s stress levels during veterinary visits?

Unless otherwise directed by your veterinarian, do not feed your cat for several hours before her appointment to reduce the chance of vomiting or defecating.

Bring favored treats and canned food that your veterinary team can offer your cat as a comforting distraction during the examination. If your cat is too worried to eat, she may be comfortable swaddled in a towel large enough to allow her to bury her head. Many cats are calmer when they cannot see or interact with the veterinary team. For cats that tolerate clothing, a Thundershirt® may reduce anxiety, by swaddling the cat much the way one would swaddle an infant.

If you adopt a young kitten, start acclimating them to car rides as soon as they have adjusted to your home. Include “happy visits” to the veterinary clinic, where your cat can play with unfamiliar people and get treats.

Talk to your veterinarian about behavior modification that can be used to reduce stress during the visit. This may include practice exams at home and practice “no-treatment just treats” visits to the office.

Unlike dogs, who often associate car trips with fun destinations such as the park or trail, few cats go in the car for a pleasant adventure. You can teach your cat to relax in the car by taking short trips that have a positive outcome. For example, put your cat in the carrier, give her one of her favorite treats or toys, and take a short drive that ends up back home. During the entire process, speak to her in a calm and reassuring voice.

One of the most effective ways to decrease your cat’s anxiety is to remain calm and relaxed during the visit. Speak to your cat in a calm and soothing voice. If you notice that your cat looks uncomfortable, let the veterinary team know.

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