Pet Factsheets

Low stress veterinary visits

It is extremely common for cats to find going to the veterinary practice stressful - they often show signs of distress from the time that they are put in the carrier until after they return home. Cats often freeze or lie still when fearful. Because of this, they may be not recognised as being terrified so it is important to recognise the signs of stress and learn how to make the visit to the vets as enjoyable as possible.

How do I know if my cat is stressed or anxious?

Every step of going to the vet can cause fear for your cat. It is even worse for indoor cats who never leave their home. From being put in a carrier, to entering the vet practice, moving from waiting room to examination room, being weighed to being examined, pets can find every stage stressful.

Owners usually recognise that their pet does not like to go to the vet but the physical and behavioural signs of stress, distress and anxiety may be ignored because they are considered ‘normal’.

While most people recognise shaking or trembling as signs of anxiety and distress, they might not recognise the following signs:

  • Social withdrawal with or without complete freezing
  • Physical freezing and rigidity
  • Salivation and/or clear nasal discharge
  • Shaking/tremor
  • Increased shedding of hair/exfoliation of dry skin
  • Avoidance of stimulus that triggers response, eg metal table, flooring that isn’t non-slip
  • Vocalisation, eg hissing, whimpering
  • Dilated eyes
  • Escape behaviours
  • Grabbing with mouth or paws
  • Yawning/licking lips
  • Scratching
  • Hiding, crouching, low body posture
  • Tucking tail
  • Panting, fast heart rate and breathing, hyperthermia
  • Increased or decreased pain sensitivity
  • Increased or decreased reactivity to touch or approach
  • Exacerbation of any cardiac, respiratory or skeletal condition
  • Urination and/or defaecation in the carrier.

How can I prepare my cat for the vet examination?

Getting your cat used to being in a carrier

Cats must be taught how to use a carrier. The carrier should have good ventilation, space for a thick towel and for the cat to stand up, open from the front and the top, be easy to clean and have a rigid floor. Any favourite toys can also be put in the carrier and the cat regularly put into the carrier so that they learn not to fear it. Once your cat is comfortable going into, and staying in the carrier to nap, eat or play, close the door and allow them to stay inside for gradually increasing periods of time. Closed carriers can be traps for any scared animal so ensure that the cat is never distressed.

Once your cat is used to going in and out of the carrier and can stay in a closed carrier without distress, pick up the carrier and carry it around. Put it down in different places and leave it for varying times. If you do this gradually, your cat shouldn’t find this stressful.

Finally, pick up and leave the carrier with a towel over it. Take the carrier and cat indoors and outdoors, covered and uncovered, working with the cat’s tolerance and distress levels. If the cat must go into a car, you will need to learn how to secure the carrier without the cat in it first.

If you still have problems getting your cat used to being transported in a carrier, ask your vet to recommend a specialist who can help.

Getting into the veterinary practice reception and waiting room

Now to get the cat into the veterinary practice! Ask if your vet has a cat-friendly approach, ie has separate dog and cat waiting rooms, consultation rooms etc. Cat-friendly clinics can be found at www.catfriendlyclinic.org ( www.catvets.com/cfp/cfp in the US).

If your cat suffers from motion sickness from the journey, check for any signs of nausea, salivation or wooziness. Your cat may benefit from mild sedation or anti-emetic medication for travel sickness before the next visit.

Practices may have scales in the waiting room and for large cats, weighing in the carrier is acceptable and the staff can later record the weight of the carrier. Small cats can be wrapped in a towel, gently placed on the scale and the towel weighed separately. Many hospitals have "baby scales" which can be used to weigh cats in the examination room. Often, cats will walk onto the scale when they have become used to it. Talk to the veterinary team before the appointment to see if they can take your cat directly into the examination room or if you and your cat can wait together in your car until the room is ready.

How can the visit to the vets be made less stressful?

Fear worsens with time so early appointments should involve treats, play, massage and lots of fun activities before anything threatening is attempted, eg vaccinations. Kitten visits should therefore be longer and pets should be allowed to interact with the staff and explore the surgery. On-site kitten classes are excellent for this.

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