How Can I Help My Cat Relax at the Vet?
Q. I avoid going to regular veterinary appointments because my cat hates the office so much. What can I do to help her relax?
A. Cats can easily become stressed when taken out of their normal environment. Add in unfamiliar sights and sounds, being handled and probed, and even the occasional injection, and it’s no wonder the vet's office is a scary place for your cat.
Kittens, particularly those in their prime learning period (roughly 2-14 weeks), can be taught that the veterinary office means treats, toys, play and petting, which helps create a lasting, positive association. Unfortunately, if your cat was adopted later in life or has only limited or negative experiences with car rides and the vet office, you may have a harder time dispelling vet-related fears.
Teach Your Cat to Love Her Crate
One of the most stressful parts of going to the veterinarian is the car ride. Usually, the cat is already in a state of panic before she has even left the garage. To help your cat relax in the car, teach her to get comfortable in her crate. Be sure to start weeks before the veterinary visit happens, not at the last minute.
Rather than forcing your cat to go inside the crate, let her venture inside on her own. Leave the crate open, with a cushy blanket inside, in a room your cat likes to frequent. Make a trail of treats that leads to the crate, and place treats on the inside lip of the crate. Place a really tasty food treat inside the crate — something that will take her longer to eat, such as a small amount of tuna in a bowl or Kitty Kong. Put treats inside the crate randomly throughout the day; this will entice her to check out the crate regularly to see what amazing goodies are hidden inside. You don’t need many treats, though; think of the carrier as a slot machine that pays off randomly, but frequently enough to encourage consistent interaction.
Once your cat is voluntarily getting in the crate, start to shut the door for short amounts of time (one minute, to begin) while she enjoys a longer-lasting treat inside the crate. Keep the periods where the door is closed short and immediately let your cat out when the time is up. As she becomes more relaxed about being in the crate, shut the door for longer amounts of time while she has a longer-lasting reward. You should still randomly include shorter stays in the crate as well, to keep it varied. Once you can reliably close the door of the crate with your cat inside, practice picking the crate up and putting it back down while your cat enjoys a tasty treat, such as a bit of cheese.
Teach Your Cat to Love the Car
Now that your cat is comfortable having her closed crate lifted, put it in the car for short periods while the car remains stationary. Once she's used to this, turn the car on but don't drive anywhere. If your cat remains settled, take her for a little drive, but start slowly, perhaps by just going down the driveway and back. Add longer drives — around the block, several blocks and so on — until your cat can stay relaxed for drives that are as long as the one to your veterinarian’s office.
If your cat needs a little help calming down, you can use Feliway, a synthetic version of a natural cheek pheromone for cats. Spritz it in her crate or use a car diffuser (which requires a simple adapter to go from 9-volt to 110-volt in the car). You can also ask your veterinarian about Anxitane, which is an edible product derived from a green tea extract. It can have a calming effect on cats without staying in their system for long periods of time.
Teach Your Cat to Love the Vet
Work with your veterinarian to make the experience as easy as possible for your cat. Veterinary hospitals are becoming more progressive in their efforts to make the veterinary experience gentle and non-threatening to cats. The right veterinary hospital will have specific techniques, such as counter conditioning, for procedures and handling.
Your veterinarian's office should optimally have separate waiting areas for cats and dogs or, better yet, a policy of putting you and your pet immediately into an exam room. If not, consider keeping your cat in the car until a room is available; have the staff come outside or call your cell phone when an exam room is ready. If it is not possible to avoid the waiting room, drape a towel over the crate to block your cat’s view of scary sights.
Once in the exam room, if there's time, let your cat come out of the crate on her own, rather than pulling her out or tipping the crate at an angle so that she falls out. Turn the carrier so that it is facing the wall, and coax your cat out with rewards, such as a trail of treats or catnip. If given enough time, many cats will come out on their own. But some cats are more comfortable in their crates; choosing a crate with a removable top means that these cats can be examined without ever leaving the bottom half of the carrier.
Bring in a blanket or towel from home that you’ve previously laid down in one of your cat’s regular resting areas so that it has her familiar scent already on it. Lay the blanket or towel on the scale when your cat is weighed to decrease the chances of your cat bolting off the scale, which would be more likely on a cold scale than it would on a soft and cozy blanket with her scent already on it.
A tasty treat, such as canned tuna, licks from a meat-based baby food jar or licks of cream cheese or canned cheese from a tongue depressor, can help your cat stay relaxed — but ask your veterinarian first if it's OK for you to feed her during the hands-on exam. Many veterinary clinics already use this type of counter conditioning technique, or would be willing to accommodate if asked.
With the use of patient training and gradual reintroduction to a gentle and reward-based veterinary experience, you can help your cat tolerate vet visits. This will allow your feline to get the medical care she needs and will give you more peace in the process.