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Minimizing Stress when Taking Your Cat to the Vet
When it comes to regular veterinary care, our feline friends often get the short end of the stick. Recent research shows that cats are far less likely to see a vet for the recommended annual visit than their canine counterparts. If we agree that wellness visits and “preventative care” are important for the longevity and wellness of our pets, why is it that cats miss out on this important part of their care?
By and large owners report their cat’s stress level as a primary reason for neglecting regular vet care. Their concerns are understandable. Cats are far less accepting of change to their environment than other pets and can react very strongly to travel. Even well-intentioned owners can be daunted by the idea of bringing their cat anywhere, much less to the veterinarian.
Luckily, there are some tricks that can help owners make travel less stressful and help cats get the regular veterinary care they need.
The pet carrier can be your cat’s first signal that a trip is imminent. Many owners report a “disappearing cat” at the mere thought of pulling the carrier out of storage. Using regular desensitization/counterconditioning techniques, you can help your cat develop a more positive association with carrier travel. This method takes time (weeks or even months), but it will be worth it in the long run.
Desensitization: Make your cat less reactive to the sight of the carrier. Leave the carrier out and open so that your cat can explore it on her own terms. Pick it up and move it occasionally so that the cat gets used to the carrier being moved.
Counterconditioning: This means training your cat to LIKE the carrier. Once your cat is desensitized to seeing the carrier, start placing toys and yummy treats inside. As your cat starts to have a positive view of the carrier, lock the cat in and move it around. Don’t make a big deal about the movement and remember to place your cat’s favorite food/treats inside the carrier while moving it.
Once your cat seems comfortable with being picked up and moved, pick up the carrier and put in in the car. Again, do this without fuss. Remove the carrier from the car, bring it back in the house. Quietly open the door and let your cat leave at will.
Once your cat seems calm about being moved around in the carrier, put carrier in the car and start the engine. As your cat becomes used to this behavior, start taking the cat for short trips in the car. Lengthen the trip time as your cat gets comfortable. Each time, remain calm and don’t “fuss” over your cat.
Cats love to hide when they are stressed. Placing a pillowcase inside the carrier and encouraging your cat to “hide” inside the pillowcase can help your cat remain calm during travel. Additionally, while inside the pillowcase, your cat cannot see out of the car windows, so the motion of travel will not add to their stress.
Being able to see out the car windows can add to your cat’s stress as it travels. You can prevent this by simply covering the carrier with a sheet while in the car.
Both for safety and stability, the ideal place to keep your crated cat while in the car is on the floor behind the passenger seat (you will need to slide the front passenger seat forward). This reduces movement, reduces stress and has been proven the safest place for the cat if you are in an accident. Placing the cat on the seat (even belted) increases rocking motion, exposes them to more stressful visual stimuli, and is less safe in the even of an accident.
When cats are calm and comfortable they “mark” their surroundings with a calming pheromone excreted from their nasal area. This scent cannot be detected by humans, but it can help to calm other cats. A product called Feliway effectively mimics this pheromone. The product is available in a spray or wipes and can be applied to the inside of your carrier just before travel.
Our office carries Feliway spray to use in our exam rooms. If you let us know that your cat is particularly stressed, we can spray the room with the pheromone scent before we bring you and your cat in to the room
Try to ask for an appointment first thing in the morning or just after lunch. These times may be the most quiet in the office, which can make the visit less stressful to your cat.
In severe cases, behavioral medications may be in order. Drugs similar to those used in humans to treat anxiety can be used in cats to help keep them calm. This is not the answer for all cats, so consult your veterinarian before resorting to prescription medications (and never use YOUR medications on your pets).
Do not let your cat run loose in the car. Even a travel-savvy cat can become scared and interfere with your driving. Worse, loose cats can bolt out of the car when the door is opened. We recommend a hard plastic carrier for transporting your cat.
A safe carrier is also a benefit while waiting for your exam time. The carrier will give your cat a place to hide while protecting him from dogs and other animals that may be in the waiting room.