Fear-Free Veterinary Visits for Your Cat

cat-vet-exam

“Fear is the worst thing a social species can experience.” This is how Dr. Marty Becker opened a presentation on his Fear-Free™ Initiative which I attended at the Central Veterinary Conference in Washington DC last month. Dr. Becker’s initiative is part of a growing and long overdue trend in the veterinary profession to minimize the fear and anxiety associated with veterinary visits for both pets and their guardians.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) was the first major veterinary organization to recognize the need for this movement when they launched their Cat-Friendly Practice Initiative three years ago at the North American Veterinary Conference, one of the largest veterinary conferences in the world. This initiative is a comprehensive program designed to make veterinary visits less stressful for cats by providing support for veterinarians and staff to create a cat-friendly practice environment and deliver care in a way that acknowledges the essential role of the cat guardian before and during the veterinary visit, as well as cats’ unique needs and behaviors.

Dr. Becker’s initiative takes a multi-pronged approach to creating Fear-Free™ veterinary visits:

Bringing a calm cat to the clinic

Cat guardians should get cats used to the carrier prior to the trip to the vet so the carrier becomes a familiar, rather than frightening object. Spraying the carrier with Comfort Zone Feliway Spray can help keep cat calm (it’s also a great tool to use when training cats to accept the carrier.) Calming remedies such as Stress Stopper or Rescue Remedy can also keep kitty calm (and if you get stressed about taking your cat to the vet, you may want to take a hit or two of these remedies yourself!)

Limit food and treats prior to the appointment, if appropriate

If the vet appointment is close to the cat’s meal time, delay feeding or feed only a small amount prior to the trip. This will not only reduce the chande of vomiting, should your cat get car sick, it will also make her more receptive to treats during the veterinary exam. Playing calming music specifically designed for cats during the car trip may also help.

Minimal or no waiting time at the clinic

Practices should have separate cat and dog waiting areas. Ideally, your cat should be taken straight to an exam room. Alternately, you may want to consider calling the clinic’s receptionist before entering the clinic to make sure an exam room is available. If there isn’t, ask that the receptionist comes and gets you once a room opens up so you and your cat can wait in the car.

Species-specific exam rooms for mixed practices

Ideally, your vet should have an exam room dedicated to cats only. Pheromone sprays, calming music and appropriate wall coverings can all contribute to a calm atmosphere. Interestingly, Dr. Becker suggested that practices should not use photographs or paintings of cats on the walls, as seeing these images may trigger territorial aggression in some cats.

A sense of calm in the exam room

Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, a feline veterinarian and owner of two cat practices, believes that the fewer people go into the exam room, the less stressed the cat will be. Rather than having a technician go into the room first, Dr. Colleran prefers to go in by herself. She will talk to the cat’s guardian for several minutes before she even begins to acknowledge the cat so the cat has time to acclimate to her presence. Speaking in a calm voice and moving slowly is key to reducing stress for cats.

The best location to examine the pet

Cat carriers with removable tops or tops that open are ideal, as exams can often be conducted without the cat having to leave the comfort of the carrier. Exam tables should be covered with non-slip, soft surfaces. Exams can also be performed on the floor, or while the cat is on the guardian’s lap. Veterinarians or staff should note in the medical record what is most comfortable for the cat.

The AAFP’s Feline Friendly Handling Guidelines provide comprehensive instructions for veterinary staff to make feline vet visits less stressful.

Improved veterinary visits for cats

I’m delighted to see this trend. It’s quite a change from how I was trained when I worked in the veterinary profession from the mid-1990’s to the mid-2000’s. More often than not, forceful restraint was used when working with cats. Now, this approach is discouraged. Practices are even advised to no longer use the term “fractious” when it comes to working with challenging cats. Dr. Becker suggests using the term “fearful” instead. This may seem like semantics, but I believe it’s more than that: it shows a better understanding of cat’s unique needs in the veterinary clinic.

I am encouraged by this focus on reducing the stress of veterinary visits. America’s cats will be healthier and happier as a result of the AAFP’s and Dr. Becker’s initiatives.

Photo by Kami Jo, Flickr Creative Commons

42 Comments on Fear-Free Veterinary Visits for Your Cat

  1. ELLA BROTHERS
    January 11, 2017 at 10:02 pm (11 months ago)

    I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHAT I CAN DO FOR MY CAT WHO LOOKS LIKE SHES BLOATED AN LOOKS LIKE SHES GONNA HAVE KITTENS BUT SHES NOT,,AN NOW SHES BIG SHE HAS NO PEE HOLE TO PEE OUT OF .MAY I ASK WHAT CAUSES THIS AN WHAT TO DO.DONT HAVE MONEY TO TAKE HER TO VET THATS WHY IM ASKING YOU….THANKS IT WORRIES ME NEED ANSWER ASAP PLEASE

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 12, 2017 at 6:25 am (11 months ago)

      You need to take your cat to a vet immediately, Ella. What you’re describing sounds like a potentially life-threatening condition.

      Reply
  2. carrie
    July 21, 2015 at 4:01 pm (2 years ago)

    They mentioned Dr Colleran. She is an awesome vet and I take my 16 year old baby to her vet practice. What I absolutely love is it is a cat only hospital and specialize only in cats. I have learned that my cat does better if I am not with her in exam room. If I am with her she throws a big fit, growling and trying to get away. They said she is “playing me”!! That is definitely her personality.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 21, 2015 at 4:17 pm (2 years ago)

      Dr. Colleran is one of the best feline vets I know, Carrie – you’re very fortunate that she’s your vet.

      Reply
  3. Michelle
    July 7, 2015 at 6:54 pm (2 years ago)

    Our vet is actually very cat-conscious. They allow her to look around the exam room, check things out and even let me hold her for procedures (she’s much more comfortable with me and puts up less of a fuss–its safer for everyone.)
    The trouble isn’t so much the vet, its getting her there that’s the problem. She hates the carrier and the car ride. My old Kitty was great on a leash, he acclimated to his environment better being on the leash. My Bella can’t handle being on a leash, she’s like a houdini and can slip out of it. I need strategies for desensitizing her to the carrier.

    Reply
  4. John
    July 7, 2015 at 6:46 pm (2 years ago)

    I have never seen a hard carrier with top opening. Do they really exist? I think they would have several advantages, gravity working with getting the cat in, and easy to have full and partial opening on top. Or perhaps an angled opening coming part way down the side to make it easier for the Vet to work “in the box” Hmm, I must think about this.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 8, 2015 at 6:12 am (2 years ago)

      Yes, hard carriers with easily removable tops do exist, John.

      Reply
      • Betsy
        July 8, 2015 at 6:57 am (2 years ago)

        I bought a top opening carrier from Amazon.

        Reply
  5. Betsy Kinne
    July 7, 2015 at 12:40 pm (2 years ago)

    I’ve read some of these comments and my cat, Molly, is just the opposite. She’s calm at the vet, seems to enjoy looking around at the other animals from her carrier while we wait, and doesn’t mind vet handling her. But we have a terrible time getting her into carrier to go to vet. She runs and hides when she sees us even go near it. Once we get her in, she just meows something awful riding to vet. It is stressful for all of us.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 7, 2015 at 1:03 pm (2 years ago)

      How interesting that Molly puts up a fight getting into the carrier, but then is totally calm at the vet’s!

      Reply
    • Michelle
      July 7, 2015 at 6:56 pm (2 years ago)

      that’s my problem too–she’s great at the vets. I need a way to desensitize her to the carrier

      Reply
      • Sarah
        July 22, 2015 at 8:33 am (2 years ago)

        I keep the carrier (open) in the hall; my cat quite often sleeps in it, especially if she doesn’t want to be noticed.

        You could try doing something similar; perhaps leave a little trail of cat biscuits leading into it every day or so.

        The other thing is not to touch the carrier before you pick up the cat to put her in it. Cats are not stupid! I put the cat in the bathroom (small, no hiding places), then take the carrier in and put her in there.

        Reply
  6. JoAnn
    July 7, 2015 at 12:16 pm (2 years ago)

    My vet comes to me and costs less (even with the travel fee) than any of the local mortar and stone practices. Very little trauma drama.

    Reply
  7. Katie
    July 7, 2015 at 12:07 pm (2 years ago)

    House calls are a good idea when applicable. I also like to leave a shirt in the carrier with my scent on it for our cats familiarity.

    Reply
  8. Sandi
    July 7, 2015 at 9:16 am (2 years ago)

    The cat carrier is always out where the cat sees it all time time (right next to his food bowl). But a few days before a vet visit, I get it out in a high traffic area, leave the door open so he can go in and out of it at his leisure. I usually get him into it for vet visits really easy. My vet’s office is a popular one in our town, so it is always busy. It is a 20 minute drive across town to the vet, and usually at least a 25-30 minute wait at the vet. By this time my poor guy is busting at the seams to get out of his carrier. My vet does have a cat entrance and a dog entrance. Sometimes I think my guy would do better if I sat on the dog side. He LOVES dogs, but not other cats. Once taken back to a room, I still usually have to wait. I always ask if I can let the cat out of the crate to roam around the room. The new sights and smells are usually enough to keep him engaged until the vet comes in. He allows these strangers to do whatever they are going to do to him with no complaint. By the time it is time to go, he usually puts himself back into his crate. Enough with these two legged creatures poking him! I feel bad at how much he stress sheds while there. He leaves so much of himself on the vet’s clothes. But regardless of my brushing him, a stressful situation is a major shedding moment.

    Reply
  9. Danielle
    July 7, 2015 at 9:12 am (2 years ago)

    I have a foster kitty who is not comfortable with being picked up and pulled around. Her reaction is pretty feral. She is an anxious cat, but also a lap cat who likes a little fuss, but only on her terms. We dont know enough about her history to know why.

    I took her for her first vet visit (when with me) last week – i managed to get her into the carrier calmly using a treat – the box had been out in the lounge all week and i had been putting treats in it. She couldnt have any breakfast in case she had to be sedated (i warned them about her nature) so she went right in for the treat and that was that. i am not comfortable with grumpy angry cat so i was happy this worked, as picking her up? ive never done it. shes very food orientated, so im glad it worked.

    She’s a good traveller (and has been on many journeys in her time with the rescue thanks to failed home trials etc) so shes good in that way, no panic vomiting, peeing or pooing. But the issue is actually *at* the vets – her behaviour is pretty feral – its big gloves and multiple hands. Its not ‘warning’ bites or scratches, she really means it! They were able to get the blood etc for their tests – but for anything else, she had got far too stressed so i expect she would have needed some kind of sedation.

    She is constantly on zyklene and the carrier was covered in feliway – but i feel so bad for the vets and nurses, and her potential new owner – she is a lovely sweet cat, but needs a special owner.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 7, 2015 at 3:23 pm (2 years ago)

      For those of you whose cats require a “gloves approach” in the veterinary clinic, you may want to discuss sedation with your veterinarian. Giving a small dose of a sedative orally at home before you even put the cat in the carrier can make the difference between a traumatic experience for the cat (and the guardian) and a relatively smooth vet visit.

      Reply
    • Janet Visokay
      July 7, 2015 at 5:29 pm (2 years ago)

      Danielle see my reply, somehow it posted under Orla’s comment. Scroll down 🙂

      Reply
  10. Orla
    July 7, 2015 at 8:48 am (2 years ago)

    I have two cats, and I leave the carriers out where they can use them, one is in the kitchen and the other under a chair in the hallway, both have snug beds in them. Getting the cats into them to go to the vet is never a problem, and the containers can also be opened in such a way that the top half lifts off, so the cat never has to leave the familiar-smelling bed. The vets love it when our cats visit!

    Reply
    • Janet Visokay
      July 7, 2015 at 2:48 pm (2 years ago)

      I have the same situation with my feral cat. Never had this problem with any of the cats that have OWNED me. He loves to sit in my lap and climb up and hug me at my neck. He has come a long way, but vet visits are stress big gloves for all concerned. Plain fright. One tip on picking him up. Approach from the back not head long and lift with hands under front legs It worked like a charm and picking him up now is no problem.

      Reply
  11. Tracy Williams
    June 20, 2015 at 6:39 am (2 years ago)

    I really appreciate this because my cat get scared whenever I took it for veterinary. I think this blog will definitely help me.

    Reply
  12. Fur Everywhere
    June 17, 2015 at 9:52 am (2 years ago)

    Thank you for all of this information. I’m going to suggest that we start to implement some of these suggestions when I take my kitties to the vet. I think it would be beneficial for them.

    Reply
  13. monica ackerman
    June 17, 2015 at 1:26 am (2 years ago)

    Calming music helped our first kitty who came from a tribe of ferals when we discovered by chance he loved classical music. Especially Mozart, any Mozart but the one called Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was his symphony of choice. The vet was very patient with him but had to sedate him just to examine him or give him any kind of treatment. When I tried to apologize he explained that when kittens are waned too soon or abandoned by their mother they do not have the opportunity to have mom teach them some social skills and knock them around when they misbehave. Made total sense to me.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 17, 2015 at 6:20 am (2 years ago)

      I’ve heard that explanation about orphaned kittens before, Monica, and it does make sense.

      Reply
  14. The Swiss Cats
    June 16, 2015 at 2:05 pm (2 years ago)

    Mum takes us at the same moment for our checkups, we’re less stressed being together. Our PTU are always available at home, and we like to sleep in it from time to time. Our vet is always on time, we never have to wait. He’s the first in the exam room, it’s quiet, and he always has nice words to us, spoken with a soft voice. We’re glad to read such an article ! Purrs

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 16, 2015 at 4:15 pm (2 years ago)

      Sounds like you have vet visits down to a science, and a very supportive vet!

      Reply
  15. Debi
    June 15, 2015 at 9:49 pm (2 years ago)

    I cut Zoe’s claws myself so that’s one less thing she has to go through at the vet. I won’t even comb her on the same day to avoid more stress. She forgets how much she likes being combed…lol!
    My vet’s office is just the opposite of this ideal situation. There’s a sign on the wall that says “If you’re in a hurry, you’re in the wrong place”. We usually have to wait much too long. Also, the dog owners do not respect the kitty area until I ask them to move. The examining table is stainless steel, cold and hard. I do like the vet and may send this info to him.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 16, 2015 at 6:14 am (2 years ago)

      I LOVE that sign on your vet’s wall, Debi! And the cold exam table is an easy fix. The practice I used to work at many years ago kept small bath mats in each exam room for that purpose.

      Reply
  16. Pam
    June 15, 2015 at 9:35 pm (2 years ago)

    I’m going to try plant hydrosols for our next vet visit (NOT essential oils … do not use essential oils with cats!). I have begun using them around my home, and they are seeming to be working for my cat. A vet visit will be a larger test of the hydrosols.

    To learn more about plant hydrosols and their use with cats, there are two great books: Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals, by Kristin Leigh Bell; and Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, by Suzanne Catty.

    Reply
  17. Lauren
    June 15, 2015 at 10:21 am (2 years ago)

    Hey Ingrid! I’m so glad I read this! Rajah has a vet app at the end of the month. The last time I took him, he was fine until we got there. The second we walked in the waiting room, he became what I call cougar kitty. The noises he was making were ones I had never heard before! I wasn’t afraid, I knew he was just scared and expressing it vocally. I tried to calm him, but it only worked a little. When we got back to the exam room was when he really started yelling or protesting. If he was able to talk like Salem, Sabrina’s cat, he probably would have been yelling something like, “Get me out of here!” Smile. I’m not making fun of him, I promise. I understand fear of doctors all too well. The wrost thing this vet did was clip his nails. People could hear him out in the hallway. Someone even asked me what he had been through. He’s used to the carrier and loves travelling. He’s also pretty good for the groomer as well. I play calming music for him before we go. Believe it or not, he honestly has a possitive response to Ariel, the little mermaid. Her voice is very soothing and the background music she usually sings to is soft. Let’s just say Ariel calmed me many a time when I was a kid and going through surgeries due to being born early. Anyway, Rajah usually calms down again after we get back in the car to go home. I would like to make his next vet visit less stressful. The vet herself is pretty nice. She talks to me and treats both of us kindly for the most part. Although she had to scruff Rajah twice because he tried to run back to me once she started to examine him. What can I do to help him? The only part of the visit that stresses me out is waiting. The reason is, I’ma fraid of dogs because I can’t see. I know most dogs won’t hurt me, but I’m still uncomfortable around strange ones. Thanks for your help.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 15, 2015 at 1:48 pm (2 years ago)

      There shouldn’t be any reason for you to have to wait around dogs, Lauren. Simply call when you arrive at the vet’s, and ask them to come and get you when an exam room is available so you won’t have to wait around dogs. It also sounds like your vet and staff may need to take a little more time with Rajah.

      Reply
  18. Debbie
    June 15, 2015 at 8:13 am (2 years ago)

    I love this article! We have a cat who is SO afraid of vet visits. It’s not the vet, she’s a good friend and comes for dinner/house calls. He’s fine with that until she starts to do “vet things”, then he decides she is the enemy and it becomes a war zone. Stressful for us all…I have PTSD from when he attacked me (displaced aggression), and when I hear him making the same noises he did that day it’s more than I can take. I’m sure my vibes add to his stress. Love my babies and want them to be healthy, and receive the care they need!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 15, 2015 at 1:50 pm (2 years ago)

      I’m sorry you had that experience of being attacked, Debbie. I completely understand about PTSD, it’s very traumatic when that happens.

      Reply
  19. Janine
    June 15, 2015 at 8:02 am (2 years ago)

    Since I won the Sleepypod from you, my vet visits with Pono have gotten a lot easier. I unzip the top off and leave the bed part on the vet table and he stays inside of it. even the vet and his techs find Pono to be a lot more relaxed when he is in it. Normally he would be hissy and growly and trying to get away. There will still be a few hisses (especially at temperature time). But no where near as bad as he used to be.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 15, 2015 at 1:51 pm (2 years ago)

      I’m so glad the Sleepypod carrier has made Pono’s vet visits easier. I think that design is the ultimate “vet-friendly” cat carrier. As for his displeasure with having his temperature taken, ask your vet to use an ear thermometer, and/or move this part of the exam to the very end.

      Reply
  20. Summer
    June 15, 2015 at 4:22 am (2 years ago)

    My human is so happy that people are really getting to work on making cats more comfortable during their vet visits. I’m fine at the vet, but I can tell that Binga and Boodie aren’t (I go with them as a companion). It’s a crucial step towards having healthier cats overall.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 15, 2015 at 1:52 pm (2 years ago)

      Aren’t you sweet to accompany Binga and Boodie to the vet’s, Summer. I’m sure your calm energy helps them.

      Reply
  21. Lilo Huhle-Poelzl
    June 15, 2015 at 2:19 am (2 years ago)

    We have presently 27 cats, most of them aging. This involves many trips to the vet. My way to decrease fear:

    I have a special (silly) song (including the cats’ names) to a popular tune. (I can’t remember the original of the tune.) This song works like a tranquilizer on all of our cats. I sing it to them on the way to the vet and sometimes also in the examination room. It works wonders. (I also sing this song to dying cats.)

    Unfortunately, I cannot sing this tune in this comment, but you can try different tunes until you find one that works. (Make sure to include the name of the individual cat into the wording.)

    For cats that have extreme problems with fear, we invest in a “farm call”; that is, we have the vet come to our house. (This works only, of course, when no special examination [like x-ray] or treatment [like surgery] is needed.)

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 15, 2015 at 6:05 am (2 years ago)

      A tranquilizer song – I love it, Lilo! I also agree that house call vets are a great option.

      Reply
      • Lilo HuhlePoelzl
        June 17, 2015 at 3:18 am (2 years ago)

        I just wish I’d recall the original song. (Have been trying for years but can’t identify it.) It works a miracle.

        About 10 years ago, we adopted 8 cats from a household where the husband had brain damage and the wife was mentally retarded. (The dog catcher, who regularly had to come and get part of their stray cat collection, had asked us to help. We took 8 cats, and our pet-sitter took 6. Two were very sick and had to be euthanized. The couple was allowed to keep 4 plus hid and kept another 4.)

        The brain-damaged owner was so upset when I came to collect those cats that had not yet been taken to the shelter (I picked those up later) that, even though he loved his cats, he lost control over his emotions and physically abused 2 of the cats, who they did not sit still to be grabbed and shoved into the pet carrier, in all the conundrum. (He chased them, screamed at them, and hit them.)

        The 2 abused cats (one of them injured) cried bitterly in my car. It was heart-breaking. So I sang this song to them while I drove them to the vet to get examined and receive the necessary shots. By the time I arrived at the vet (10 min later), all the cats in my car were calm and no longer upset or frightened. (We still have the most abused cat plus another. The others, already quite old at the time, have died since.)

        If I should ever remember the original song, I’ll let you know. This song is really a “miracle drug”.

        Reply

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