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?


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

  1. I have a very playful cat who will be 4 years old in June, we have two other cats with one being his brother. We had to take him to veterinarian in Dec 2019 he had a respiratory infection but it had not gone down in lungs. He did great at the Vet and sent home with antibiotics. He was awful trying to get him to take the medicine, would gag drool and make himself throw it up. We did manage to get some down him during that time. But he was still his normal playful self during all of that. We noticed he started coughing again recently thinking he probably did not get over the December infection. We took he back to Vet 3 days ago and they said never really got over the respiratory infec. he had. Because he was so bad about taking the medicine at home, we had to take him to the vet 3 days in row to get a shot of the antibiotics. My question is, the first day we took him to vet, we had to drop him off because they were busy and then pick him back up few hours later. When we picked him back up the first day, at about 2 pm in afternoon, he was completely traumatized the rest of the night. I have never seen him act like this and this was not the first time he had ever seen the Vet. He had seen this same vet prior in Dec. and never acted like this. He was scared to death, would hiss at his brother and jump at any kind of sound. Even walking odd, his pupils dilated, just very scared. This bothered me, when we took him back 2nd day we asked the tech why he was acting like this, they didn’t know they said it was just antibiotics that they gave him. They did tell us he was mad at them the first day even scratching one of the techs. She said maybe it was because of other animals there barking etc. We have 3 dogs and my cat is use to hearing dogs bark, does not bother him. He basically has never acted so scared like this. He was still little scared the 2nd day but nothing like he came back acting like from the first day. Today the 3rd day, he is still jumpy and been very quiet the last 3 days. I just do not understand his behavior and has me worried why he is acting like this. He has never had a problem going to vet and been multiply times and never came back acting like this. Can someone give me advice on why he would be acting so traumatized? I was not able to pick him up today my son took him since I had to work. I am going to call and talk to Vet and ask them Monday, but it just bothers me right now. The vet has been really good with my cat and I do trust the Veterinarian. I am just not understanding why my cat is so traumatized by the visit.

    • I’m so sorry, Kim, your poor kitty! And I know this is incredibly stressful for you, too. It’s impossible to tell for sure why he was so traumatized by this particular vet visit, but I suspect since he was already super stressed about vet visits before this happened, the cumulative stress of consecutive visits may have pushed him over the edge. It’s also possible that the staff at this particular vet clinic is not trained well in handling fearful cats. Having to leave him there because they were “too busy” probably compounded the problem – I don’t think that’s an acceptable reason to hospitalize an already stressed cat. You may want to look for a cat-friendly or Fear Free certified vet clinic, or find a housecall vet for future vet visits. In the meantime, you may want to consider working with a feline behaviorist to give you some pointers on how you can support him as he gets over the trauma. I can highly recommend Mikel Delgado http://www.felineminds.com/ and Dr. Marci Koski http://www.felinebehaviorsolutions.com/ Both offer remote consultations.

  2. I recently took our cat (10 yrs. old) to the Vet due to changes in her
    daily BM’s. She was clogged up all the way to her small intestines.
    When we brought her home she retreated to hide under the bed,
    eating little and very distant from us (a total reversal of her loving personality). We are now into the eleventh day since her Vet appt. Will she eventually snap out of this or do we need to re-visit the Vet?.

    • That seems like a long time to me for a cat to be traumatized by a negative experience. I would be concerned that there’s something else going on. Is she eating and using the litter box normally?

      • Thank you Ingrid for your reply. Yes she is eating (but small amounts) and drinking water. She is also using the Litter box as well. We
        are taking her for another Vet appt. this Thursday just to be sure there isn’t another
        issue going on.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

    • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

    • Our Cat has a bladder (cystitis)infection -We had to go to the Vet and he was traumatized as usual-He is now acting very strange and distant but he did finally sit on my lap tonight-He hardly ever has to go , but every time we go through this for a few days afterwards-It saddens me but still he has to go if he is ill or to get his rabies injection-Last year he ate some plastic from our Christmas tree and had to have surgery which didn’t help at all in his fear/: Our Vet treats Cats only so it it is the best for him-He is always upset for days afterwards-! We use Feliway before and after to keep him calm and it works well for him-Our Vet is also treating his anxiety with medicine as well as she says his anxiety and stress he also experiences contributes to these infections-

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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

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