Fear in Cats: More Than Just an Emotional Problem During Veterinary Visits

fear-in-cats

Did you know that you can actually find the word “scaredy-cat” in the Merriam Webster dictionary? If you have one of those fearful cats, you already know that her fear may be affecting her quality of life. A fearful cat is a stressed cat. Fear or anxiety is more than just an emotional problem for cats. It can also cause many serious physical health problems and aggravate others.

Fear and anxiety in the veterinary clinic

Fear and anxiety are common for cats when they have to visit the veterinarian, and for far too long, this has been accepted as “that’s just way cats are” by both cat guardians and veterinarians. Thankfully, this is changing. The American Association of Feline Practitioners’ Cat Friendly Practice Initiative was designed to transform the experience of a veterinary visit for cats and their guardians by providing support and training for veterinarians and their teams to deliver care in a way that incorporates a better understanding of cats unique needs and behaviors.

Cats who are scared from the moment they enter a veterinary practice (and often even before that, when they are put in a carrier at home,) will not show the same behaviors or symptoms they may have shown in the safety of their own home. Since stress affects body chemistry, blood and urine samples collected during an exam will be skewed by the cat’s stress response to the situation.

An even bigger concern is that a negative experience at the veterinary clinic will traumatize cats and can have lingering effects on the cat’s emotional health and ultimately, her physical health. Guardians and veterinary staff must stop accepting that fear is normal in a veterinary setting, and focus on recognizing and relieving anxiety rather than reinforcing it.

Identify signs of fear

The first step to changing this dynamic is for cat guardians and veterinary staff to be able to identify the signs of fear. Signs can be as subtle as clinging to the guardian and avoiding eye contact to hissing and growling. By moving slowly, speaking with quiet voices, handling the cat gently and with a minimum of restraint and giving plenty of treats before, during and after the exam, veterinarians and staff can make a vet visit as pleasant as possible for scared cats.

There is nothing to be gained by proceeding with a veterinary exam or procedure if a cat is terrified. The cat will not forget, and will only be even more scared and more difficult to handle at the next visit.

Fear affects the body

The stress of the fear response affects virtually every system within the cat’s body. A continued or frequent stress response can affect the heart, thyroid, gastrointestinal tract, and immune system. Chronic stress has also been linked to urinary tract problems in cats. Chronic stress can is not something that should be taken lightly, as it can cause permanent damage.

It is imperative that cat guardians and veterinarians work together to reduce the stress of vet visits. There’s no question that vet visits are important, but muscling cats who are fearful into diagnostics or procedures does not serve anyone. These cats need to be approached with care and understanding, not brute force.

What does your vet and his/her staff do to make your cat’s visit less stressful?

 

17 Comments on Fear in Cats: More Than Just an Emotional Problem During Veterinary Visits

  1. Mary
    March 27, 2018 at 3:17 pm (1 year ago)

    Reading the post on the traumatized cat and was amazed how similar this is to our 11 year old male cat. Our cat, who is an indoor/outdoor cat, has always been a loving lap cat, disappeared during Hurricane Irma. We searched everywhere for him but to no avail. About 3 weeks later he came home but he is not the same cat. Sometimes he will let us pet him, but other times he runs away, hiding until we are out of sight. Now, he is alternating between our garage and our neighbors garage, but will have nothing to do with humans at all.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 27, 2018 at 3:24 pm (1 year ago)

      I’m so sorry, Mary. I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for you.

      Reply
  2. Adry
    August 4, 2017 at 9:38 am (2 years ago)

    Our 10 yr old cat was acting oddly. Staying in places she never stayed before. Diminished eating. Hiding under couch, tables, chairs.
    We took her to vet. Had to chase her all over the house to get her into carrier which make her shriek in terror.
    Took her in the car which she was not used to.
    Vet took blood sample, gave her an antibiotic, cut one toe nail.

    Came home stayed under couch for 2 days…….no food , no water.
    First opportunity , when door was opened , left………disappeared.

    We found her in yard behind a shed. A neighbor’s yard. Under some equipment outside.
    She acts like she doesn’t know who we are. Will not come out into the open.
    Seems very fearful of us, and going too close to house.
    It is now 2 weeks.
    Any chance she will go back to the sweetie she was who loved pets and belly rubs?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 4, 2017 at 3:56 pm (2 years ago)

      It sounds like she was really traumatized by the vet appointment, but even at that, this sounds like pretty extreme behavior. I would continue to try to get her inside – if you have to, you may need to consider a humane trap. Once you get her inside, you have a better chance of trying to figure out what’s going on with her. You may need to bring in a feline behaviorist to help you.

      Reply
      • Adry
        August 4, 2017 at 7:39 pm (2 years ago)

        Thank you.
        Still trying to lure her with food but it’s not working.

        Reply
          • Adry
            August 5, 2017 at 10:18 am (2 years ago)

            Thank you. Ill try that.
            She is in the yard, but won’t come to the owners she once loved…..so devastating.
            She was always skittish with strangers, but never us, other than fear of bags (maybe from her kittenhood – she’s a rescue at a few months old).
            Always affectionate in the past.
            I can’t believe it’s the same cat.

          • Ingrid
            August 5, 2017 at 3:06 pm (2 years ago)

            I can’t even imagine how devastating this must be for you and your husband. Since nothing else seems to be working, I would consider a have-a-heart trap. At least then, you could get her inside the house into a closed off room, and you could start working with her to regain her trust in a controlled environment. If you get that far, I would bring in a feline behaviorist and/or a vet well versed in feline behavior.

          • Adry
            August 5, 2017 at 12:34 pm (2 years ago)

            Thank you for your suggestion ; we will try everything.
            She’s hanging out in our yard, but won’t come near myself or husband.
            She was such a loving affectionate cat – it’s hard to believe she could change so radically.
            I’ve been feeding her but she won’t come out to eat unless I leave and close the back door. I used to leave the food UNDER her hiding place , a big stand up saw, but now I can put it next to it and she will eat when I leave.

  3. Jean
    May 6, 2015 at 8:53 am (4 years ago)

    I was going back and reading some of your older posts and wanted to comment on this one, hope you don’t mind. My 10 year old Siamese mix, Isabelle is terrified of the vet. She growls and howls and everyone can hear her all the way to the waiting room, even though the vet and tech are being very careful with her. This last checkup I took my 1 year old Lincoln at the same time and she was much, much calmer having him with her. She only growled and grumbled a little bit when the vet examined her. Lincoln didn’t give the vet any problems at all. So from now on, anytime I need to take Isabelle to the vet, I will also take Lincoln to help keep her calm. Fortunately, Lincoln seemed to view it as a big adventure and didn’t appear scared. Maybe it was because treats were involved.

    Reply
  4. Monica Ackerman
    January 30, 2015 at 7:16 pm (5 years ago)

    Taking my feral kitten Maxximus to the vet created what I would call an emotion of not so much fear but just anger. He howled and hissed and growled and bit and scratched to a point where they had to sedate him just go get him out of the carrier. He loved the carrier and was happy in the car but the minute the vet looked at him he lost it. He developed what they called “stress diarrhea” and his hair came out in clumps. It was such a disaster and so stressful that we tried to keep him healthy and happy without routine visits for shots. Toward the end of his life when he began showing signs of aging I did take him in to see if he needed pain meds but the vet said no he was fine except for some arthritis in his back and to bring him back in 6 months. By then he was dead. Just died in his sleep, totally unexpected but understandable. The vet said you never can tell with ferals what their background is and whether they were with mom long enough to be taught behavior. This was a kitten a couple of weeks old and left at my back door with all hbis siblings.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 31, 2015 at 6:53 am (5 years ago)

      Sometimes, the stress of a vet visit outweighs the benefits, Monica. If that’s the case, the cat’s guardian needs to be extra vigilant to monitor for any changes, which is clearly what you did. It must have been hard for you that he died in his sleep, but don’t we all wish we could go like that?

      Reply
  5. Glogirly
    January 26, 2015 at 11:03 pm (5 years ago)

    It’s no secret that Katie is very scared of the vet. I believe it has something to do with a very traumatic incident when she was quite young. She ate ribbon and required emergency surgery to save her life. Ever since then, vet visits have been a problem. Fortunately I have a very cat-friendly clinic we visit with an extremely patient and caring staff. Whenever Katie is coming in, they allow extra time so that they can go very, very slow. They use very calming voices and handle her with an extremely gentle touch. There have been times when we ended the exam early because it was just too much. And we haven’t had her temperature taken for a number of years. My vet has said that stress and fear can affect the temperature, so whatever it is wouldn’t necessarily change anything depending on the reason for our visit.

    I use Feliway, Spirit Essences and I always bring Katie in a large round Sleepypod. The vets and techs LOVE this carrier because it’s so easy to open and close during the visit.

    They also are very planful with how much time she’s actually out of her carrier.

    It will never be stress free for Katie. But they go above and beyond to make her as comfortable as possible.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 27, 2015 at 7:25 am (5 years ago)

      It sounds like your vet is doing everything right, Debbie – I LOVE hearing that.

      Reply
  6. Janet
    January 26, 2015 at 11:28 am (5 years ago)

    This is why I wish more vets made house calls. If stress affects blood tests, how can we depend on their accuracy when taken at the vets office?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 26, 2015 at 11:51 am (5 years ago)

      Housecall vets can be a good option for fearful cats, although for some cats, having a stranger come into their territory may be equally stressful.

      Reply
  7. eric
    January 26, 2015 at 9:12 am (5 years ago)

    My mom’s cat hardly ever sheds but after a trip to the vet it comes out almost in clumps. When I saw it I could hardly believe how much fur he lost. Poor boy

    Reply

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