Behavior training

Fear at the Vet's Office - Using Low Stress Handling for Cats

Fear at the Vet's Office - Using Low Stress Handling for Cats

How long has it been since you've taken your cat to the vet? Does your cat hate going to the vet? Does taking your cat the vet stress you and your cat out?

You are not alone. According to the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, “40% of cats have not been to the veterinarian within the past year-in large part because the cats themselves resist so vehemently being put in a carrier and transported to the practice, where they encounter unfamiliar animals at the clinic. It's stressful to the cats, and often more so to the cat owner.” (1) 58% of cat owners report their cat “hates going to the vet.” (1) This means that cats are often not getting the preventative veterinary care they need. Therefore when they do go to their vet, they are sick and this means the stress and the bills are usually higher.

The veterinary profession is recognizing the fear that our pets do feel at the vet and the subsequent stress felt by their owners, and is in the process of developing principles and standards for low-stress handling for all pets during their vet visits. The American Veterinary Medical Association's Physical Restraint of Animals Policy states: “The method of restraint used should provide the least restraint required to allow the specific procedure(s) to be performed properly, should minimize fear, pain, stress and suffering for the animal, and should protect both the animal and personnel from harm. Every effort should be made to ensure adequate and ongoing training in animal handling and behavior by all parties involved, so that distress and physical restraint are minimized. In some situations, sedation may be the preferred method.

Whenever possible, restraint should be planned, formulated, and communicated prior to its application.”

Specifically for cats, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has recognized the sometimes overwhelming stress for you and your cat during visits to the vet, and in response has developed the Cat Friendly Practice (CFP) Program. From the AAFP: “When designated as “cat friendly,” veterinary practices have proven they have taken specific extra steps to assure they understand a cat's unique needs and have implemented feline friendly standards.”

There are things you and your veterinarian can do. Here are some suggestions to help you reduce you and your cat's stress with vet visits.

  • Find a “Cat Friendly Practice”. Follow this link for a directory of CFPs from the AAFP. Ask your vet to consider becoming a CFP.
  • Always use a carrier. Carriers not only help keep your cat feeling safe, they also prevent accidental escapes. I have seen multiple cases of cats escaping from owners' arms in parking lots. The best carriers for most cats are ones that come apart with ease in the middle so the top is easily removed. Avoid carriers that require her to be pulled out or 'dumped' out. Your vet may have other recommendations for your cat depending on her specific needs.
  • Get your cat used to the carrier. Leave the carrier out, feed her in it, and use treats, catnip and toys to entice her to feel comfortable. Do this for several days or even weeks ahead of a vet visit. Even better, keep the carrier out at all times in a play area for your cat, often adding favored treats and toys, and a nice comfortable sleeping area made of material she likes.
  • Use pheromones. Feliway® is a synthetic version of cheek pheromones (released when you cat rubs on you or your furniture). Feliway has been proven to have a calming effect on some cats. It comes as a spray that you can spray on a towel that can be place into the carrier, or as a wipe that you can wipe on the inside of the carrier. Never spray or wipe it directly on your cat. If you use the spray on a towel, air the towel out for 15 minutes before placing it near your cat.
  • Cover the carrier. When you are ready to transport your cat, be sure to cover the carrier with a sheet or towel on the way to the vet and in the lobby of the vet's office. This helps her feel safe and secure. You can also spray this cover with Feliway.
  • Carry her carrier high. Carriers are built with handles or shoulder straps that encourage us to carry them down by our knees like luggage. Cats like to be high and away from things they may perceive as threatening (such as dogs). It's best to carry your cat in the carrier up at waist level.
  • Keep her safe in the lobby. Keep her carrier up high and covered in the lobby or at the front desk. If there are dogs in the lobby and your vet does not have a separate cat waiting room, ask to be put directly into an exam room.
  • Have your vet examine in the carrier bottom if possible. Many cats feel more secure when they can be in the bottom of their carrier, with a blanket over them (that can be moved appropriately while your vet examines her). If that is not possible, ask your vet to make sure there is a soft, non-skid cover over the hard exam table surface. You can bring your own mat for this purpose as well.
  • Speak softly and sparingly. If your cat is fearful or nervous, ask your vet and the vet assistants to speak quietly, move slowly and use gentle handling when at all possible. If your cat responds positively to Feliway, ask the staff and vet to spray Feliway on their hands and the towels used for handling.
  • Give favorite treats and catnip before, during and after exam and procedures. If your cat is healthy and feeding isn't restricted, take her favorite treats to the vet's office with you. Ask the vet and the technicians to feed her before, during and after any handling or procedures such as blood draws. Feeding can change her emotional state to a less stressed level, and feeding can also help teach her that maybe the vet's office isn't the worst place to be after all.
  • Practice at home. Some things that your vet needs to do (feel the body, look in the mouth and ears) can be practiced at home. Always pair this practice with positive things (usually in the form of treats and favored foods). If at any time your cat resists any of this or stops eating, you should stop this and seek advice from your vet.
  • Try the ThunderShirt for cats. You may have heard of the ThunderShirt for dogs, but you may not be aware that Thundershirts may also help cats with anxiety. Anxiety experts believe that constant gentle pressure on the torso has a calming effect on the nervous system and may release calming hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin. It will take some training to help your cat become used to the shirt before her vet visits. Be sure to carefully test the shirt at home and also use favorite food treats while introducing her to wear the ThunderShirt. The sound of the Velcro closure or the shirt's application may actually be more stressful for her, in which case it may not be a tool you can use for her.
  • Try Clipnosis. Clipnosis (pinch-based inhibition) is a technique developed by researchers at The Ohio State University. The application of a special clip on the scruff of the neck can help some cats relax. According to the researchers, the clipping seems to evoke the same scruff response that renders kittens still so their mothers can carry them in their mouths. For more information on this technique and whether or not it can help your cat, ask your vet and see www.clipnosis.comIf all the above steps are not helping enough, then you can ask for additional help in the form of sedation.
  • Oral sedation. If you are able to medicate your cat at home without adding additional stress to you or her, ask your vet for an oral sedation. Oral sedatives generally need to be tested at home first, as some cats may actually become a little more agitated with some of these medications. Your vet can instruct you on how to do an at-home test of a sedative medication. These medications can be given in 'Pill Pockets'. Your vet can also have them compounded into usually tasty treats that can make administration easier - ask your vet for more information on medication compounding.
  • Heavier sedation at the vet's office. Some cats are still very fearful despite all the above preparations. Signs of this are cats that are hissing, swatting, hiding, growling, or screaming. If your cat is doing any of these things, please remember: she is not “mean” or “bad”. She is afraid. Ask your vet for sedation to be administered via injection immediately upon arrival to the office to reduce her stress and possibly help her not remember her scary experience. If she is already so afraid she is lunging, biting, swatting, hissing, etc. before sedation can be administered, it's ok to stop the visit and make a better plan for the next time with your vet. The more her fear escalates, the harder each subsequent visit will be.

To make all of the above steps work even better for your furry friend, start all of them when she is a kitten. More and more veterinarians are offering “kitten kindergarten” and “happy visits” to help your kitten be happier during her visits to the vet. Happy visits are short visits that are comprised of treats, fun interactions with the staff and nothing that is scary or painful. They build up your pet's confidence that the veterinary hospital is a fun, safe place to visit. Kitten kindergarten is also used to help her confidence with travel, new situations and the vet, and also to help you manage normal (and often rambunctious) kitten behavior.

While we may not be able to make every cat fear free at the vet, there are many things you and your vet can do to help your feline family member be less fearful.

References:

(1).Volk JO, Felsted KE, Thomas JG, et al. Executive summary of the Bayer veterinary care usage study. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011;238:1275-1282.