Cat in carrier being examined by vet

My cat is terrified of the vet. Normally, she’s friendly and affectionate, but she goes into panic mode at the vet’s office and tries to attack or run away when anyone approaches her. She has to be sedated at every visit — otherwise the staff can’t lay a hand on her. Is there anything I can do to help her?

A cat’s fear of the veterinarian can make visits stressful for an owner, but it can also be detrimental for the cat. Fear of the vet is one of the top reasons felines fail to see the veterinarian as often as is recommended. Your cat isn’t the only feline who fears the veterinary office, though, and you’ve taken the right first step in asking for help.

The key to helping your cat lies in managing her anxiety about veterinary visits before you get to the vet’s office. To do this, it is important that you work in concert with the veterinary team to help your feline feel safe. A good place to begin is with some simple at-home training.

Start With Crate-Training

The first step is to work with your cat at home to get her used to being in a crate and riding in the car. Many cats dislike being crated, because they’ve never been properly crate-trained, and because the crate comes out only when they are going somewhere unfamiliar and potentially frightening. As a result, most experiences cats have with crates are negative: The cat is forced inside the unfamiliar crate and then taken in the car to an unfamiliar place like the vet or the groomer. In the end, the crate itself becomes a signal to the cat to freak out, because something bad is likely to happen anytime the crate makes an appearance.

Your goal is to condition your cat to see the crate as a sign that something good is about to happen. Start by choosing the right crate. I recommend a crate with a removable top for cats who are fearful at the vet. This will allow your cat to be examined from the comfort of her crate, which can help to lower her anxiety level.

The first step in allaying your cat’s fears is accustoming her to the sight of the crate. Keep it out where she can see and explore it. Leave the door open and drop treats into the crate during the day to encourage her to venture inside on her own. Teach her that the crate is really just a piece of fun furniture.

Eventually, work up to feed your cat’s meals close to the crate. As she gets more relaxed around the crate, move her food dish closer to it. Once she is willingly going into the crate on her own, move her food inside the crate. The goal is to teach her that good things — like meals and treats — happen when she’s in her crate.

Next, practice closing the door for short periods of time while she’s in the crate. Drop treats into the crate through the side, so that your cat learns to associate a closed door with delicious rewards.

Go for a Car Ride

Now that your cat is comfortable in her crate, it’s time to work on the car ride. Practice putting the cat inside of her crate and putting the crate into the car. Start by carrying the crate the right way: Hold it evenly from underneath, as if you were carrying a fragile package, rather than grabbing it by the handle. This helps the crate stay evenly balanced, which helps keep your cat comfortable and calm.

When the crate is placed in the car, it needs to be secured, so it doesn’t tilt or slide. Rolled towels can be placed underneath part of the crate if needed to keep it from slanting with the slope of the seat.

For many cats, car travel signals that something scary is going to happen, like a visit to the vet or groomer. Condition your cat to think of riding in the car as a happy event by putting her in her crate in the vehicle for short periods and offering positive rewards. Place the crate in the car for only a minute or two and give your cat something she thoroughly enjoys, like a delicious longer-lasting treat, a favorite toy or some catnip. Then take the crate out and carry it back into the house again. Do this multiple times without even putting the car into drive until your cat is calm and relaxed when her crate is in the car.

Now, it’s time to practice going places. Start slowly by taking short drives — pull out of the garage and pull right back in, for example, or drive around the block. Continue to pair time in the car with treats or anything else your cat finds enjoyable, like following up an outing with a favorite game or some petting.

Talk With Your Vet

Some cats may get comfortable with the crate and the car but still be nervous at the vet clinic; in these cases, sedation may be helpful in order to have a proper vet exam. For particularly fearful felines, sedation protocols may begin at home before the cat even sets a paw inside the hospital. It’s much easier to keep an already-relaxed cat calm than it is to try to relax an agitated and upset feline. Medications or supplements may be recommended as a way to help keep your cat’s anxiety to a minimum during the trip to the vet and while the cat is settling into the office. Ask your vet if there are sedation options that are right for your cat.

You should also speak with your vet if your cat still panics in the crate or in the car despite training efforts. There may be other issues contributing to your feline’s heightened anxiety; your vet can work with you or refer you to a behaviorist for additional assistance.

This is only the very tip of the tail when it comes to helping your cat stay relaxed on veterinary visits. But these three elements — crate training, car rides and sedation — are key in helping your cat start her move from fearful to fearless on her next vet visit.

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