Cat Friendly Handling: Your Cat Deserves a Positive Experience at the Veterinary Clinic

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Guest post by Ellen Carozza, LVT

Thanks to the internet, cats are the most popular pet, yet they receive less medical care than their canine counterparts. Join me and the Conscious Cat in this two part series on what actually happens when your cat is handled in the veterinary clinic, and how you and your cat can have that positive experience you’ve always wanted.

But first I need to take a step back and explain a few things…

Handling practices for cats

One of the top comments I see in many of my pet related posts on THE CAT LVT is how so many people don’t like how their cat is handled at the veterinary clinic.

In my 20+ years of being in veterinary medicine, I’ve seen quite the evolution of animal restraint in practice. So why are our handling practices for cats still so primitive? Is it because we don’t care to gain further knowledge and move forward in our standards of care? Is it fear of the animal itself? Or is it because “we’ve always done it this way?”

As pet guardians want to be more involved in their pets’ care, and as we treat the newer generation of pets, our industry needs to make much needed changes both in terms of treating patients and to keep a practice thriving. While these changes are happening, it feels like they are happening at a snail’s pace.

As veterinary professionals, we are dedicated to providing excellent care: care and compassion that is paid for by you, the client.

Veterinary medicine is categorized as a “for profit” industry, as pets by law are considered personal property for which you elect us to provide medical care. Yet I see on many Facebook forums for veterinary professionals how anti-cat they can be. How is this possible? We all work in this field for various reasons. To see the negative comments about our feline patients can be disheartening and downright embarrassing at times.

How can we as caregivers boast of our love for animals and then speak of them in a negative manner? I see cats labeled as “demons”, “aggressive”, “awful”, and many four-letter words that don’t need to be repeated. This is not only unprofessional and abhorrent behavior on the professionals’ part, it also means that they either do not understand the language of the cat, or they really don’t want to learn and work with them.

I’m not a fan of working with dogs. I never have been and I’m not afraid of admitting it. I don’t understand their language, and their presence can be too much for me to handle physically. I grew up with dogs. My family still has them as pets. I just prefer not to work with them. So what did I do? I found a practice that was exclusive to the species I wanted to work with: cats. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t prefer to work with a particular species, but if you have made the choice to work at a mixed practice, you are expected to be kind, compassionate, and understanding regardless of what species your patient is.

Understanding cats sets up a more successful vet visit

Learning how a patient acts and reacts in a clinical setting can help set up a more successful visit. We as professionals need to make sure we are prepared in advance to make sure that happens. You as a client need to be honest about how your cat has behaved at previous veterinary visits so we can anticipate your and your cat’s needs accordingly.

The feline patient has a unique body language and can arrive at the clinic already stressed out. Those of us working the veterinary field need to learn how to understand the clear signals cats give us, and adjust our behavior accordingly to be able to work with them safely. In reality, these cats are scared, and are acting out in a manner completely appropriate to a situation they did not willingly put themselves in. Once that is understood, speaking their language gets easier, and they are quite rewarding to work with.

However, we do need your help. We need to know if your cat prefers certain staff members. We need to know if your cat needs or has been given an anxiolytic (medication to ease anxiety before the visit) in the past or might benefit from such medication, or if your cat needs to be sedated to handle.

Outdated restraint and anesthesia techniques

Unfortunately, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) still requires the veterinary professional to learn outdated restraint/anesthesia techniques for companion animals. Restraint methods such as scruffing, and even worse “tanking” or “boxing”, (putting the cat into an oxygen tank and running anesthetic gas into the tank to sedate them) are not only unsafe, but are considered outdated, cruel and unnecessary handling methods. They are also unsafe for the staff performing the task.

Not only does scruffing put dangerous stress on the cervical vertebrae, it can be painful for cats with arthritis and skin ailments. It also heightens the stress response.

Tanking and boxing is one of the worst anesthetic practices, as the patient cannot be accurately monitored. It causes severe cardiac depression. The cat’s fur becomes supersaturated with an anesthetic gas that the staff handling the cats are then going to inhale. A scavenging system is not designed to protect staff from gas inhalation when used with a tank, and is actually a violation of OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) standards. If a hospital does not care to update their anesthetic protocol to safer methods for pets and staff, it speaks volumes about the medical care provided and how staff are treated.

The AVMA needs to evolve in supporting safer, better methods of restraint and anesthesia techniques for cats, and removing the unsafe and outdated techniques taught in veterinary programs, so that our next generation of veterinary professionals are prepared to provide a more positive experience at the vet office!

There are better, safer methods of restraint for the feline patient.

The International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) currently has a “scruff free” campaign which advocates for respectful feline handling in a veterinary clinic. Check out their pledge and set of links here: https://icatcare.org/scruffing for further information. The AAFP also has a set of practice guidelines for handling the feline patient and can be found here: https://catvets.com/guidelines/practice-guidelines/handling-guidelines, and as a bonus they have a search engine to help you find the purrfect feline vet in your area: https://catfriendly.com/find-a-veterinarian/

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Our goal in a Cat Friendly Practice®

Our goal in the cat friendly practice is to make sure your cat gets the medical care he or she needs and deserves, and that you understand what we are doing every step of the way. There is no need to be embarrassed at how your cat reacts at the vet office! It’s normal, expected behavior – we understand they are stressed out. We want to make sure that stress level is kept to a minimum for you and your cat(s) by being prepared in advance.

I wrote an article for Today’s Veterinary Nurse on understanding feline behavior in the clinical setting. It can provide detailed insight on how we categorize and work with, not against our feline patients. This can help you understand how we train to be better prepared for working with a variety of feline patients. You can find it here: https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/articles/behavior-understanding-the-cat/

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It is encouraging that many clinics are becoming Cat Friendly or Fear Free. The staff at these clinics is specifically trained to have protocols in place to ease the stress of the animals that are presented for care. Look for the Cat Friendly Practice® logo by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) on a clinic’s website or front door, or look for the Fear Free Certified® logo, as many mixed practices are training in that method because they treat more than just cats.

You want the people who you bring your pet in for medical attention excited about caring for them! If you don’t see that, it is your right as a client to seek care at a clinic where these methods are practiced. It is OK to get a second opinion.

Currently, there are over 26,000 animal hospitals in the United States. If you don’t like the practice you are with, find a practice that fits you and your cat’s needs.

When looking for a feline centric clinic, at a minimum check for the following:

● Cat Friendly Practice© or Fear Free Certified® logo
● Staff bios on a website that state they LOVE working with cats
● Does the practice have a quiet atmosphere, or separate canine and feline lobby areas and separate exam/hospital ward that cater to your cat’s emotional needs?
● Is the clinic willing to get your cat in for an appointment regardless of his or her stress level and previous negative experiences?
● A place that will honestly tell you who is working with your pet, what anesthetics are used, how, and who they are administered by
● Do they practice updated feline medicine and work with you and your cat’s lifestyle by using practice guidelines created by the AAFP?
● Do they perform all necessary tasks such as lab work in front of you or remove the cat from the room?
● Are they using cat friendly methods of handling and restraint?
● Are there credentialed veterinary technicians on staff?

Once you have your questions answered to your satisfaction, make an appointment.

A note from Ingrid: I think it’s a good idea to make an appointment without your cat when you are evaluating a veterinary clinic.  By going to see potential vets without your cat, you will be more relaxed.  Ask for a tour of the hospital.  If you want to speak with a veterinarian, offer to pay for an office visit.  Most vets won’t charge you for this introductory visit, but offering to pay for their time sets the right tone for a future relationship of mutual respect.  Come prepared with a list of questions. For more details on how to choose a cat friendly vet, watch this video.

Stay tuned for Part Two:
How you can make your cat’s visit to the vet less stressful
for your cat and what to expect during your visit.

ellen-carozza-lvt

Ellen Carozza, LVT is a technician at Nova Cat Clinic in Arlington, VA. You can learn more about Ellen on the NOVA Cat Clinic website, and you can find her on Instagram and Facebook.

12 Comments on Cat Friendly Handling: Your Cat Deserves a Positive Experience at the Veterinary Clinic

  1. Nathalie Lenoble
    April 22, 2019 at 1:23 pm (3 months ago)

    This is all very interesting and very helpful. My comment might be a bit unrelated, however I would like to know techniques on how to handle a freaked out cat when it comes to give him/her medication and/or trim his/her nails. I tried the “cat burrito” with a towel and it simply does not work when you have only two arms (need a third one that I don’t have), and you have no one to help you restrain the cat. If someone knows techniques that I don’t, I’ll be grateful if they could share. I watched videos in the internet and I basically tried it all. Most of my cats are relatively easy, but I had one who, unfortunately, passed away because it was impossible to give her her medication for her heart disease and I currently have two lovely kitties who give me hell when I need to trim their nails. I currently take them monthly to my vet ($20 a piece to trim nails!) to get that job done. Thank you for any advice.

    Reply
    • Marge
      April 24, 2019 at 12:18 pm (3 months ago)

      Nathalie – I can relate! Many times I have said to the vet and staff until I can grow two more arms like Vishnu, attempting things like brushing their teeth is NOT going to happen. Like you, I do not have anyone here to assist. Much as I would like to brush their teeth (certainly less expensive than dental cleanings!), even my “easiest” cats are not receptive.

      Although I would prefer not to use “scruffing” (and no, the competent vet office should not have to do this!), it sometimes must be done – as long as one can avoid lifting the cat by the scruff, just gently “grasping/pinching” the scruff area is often a way to “restrain” several of my cats when I need to do something they are not going to comply with. This does use up one arm, but getting creative with fingers/elbow/arm of the “scruffing” arm can help, depending on what needs to be done. I have one long hair who periodically needs her fluffy butt cleaned/trimmed and even just taking hold of one belly “clump” she will spring up about a foot and skedaddle as fast as the road runner! Usually just grasping the scruff area while she’s on the bed and laying her on her side is sufficient. The last time, just recently, I had to put her into a grooming bag, so that I could wash and clip all the nasty areas (neglected to tackle this a few days earlier – my bad!)

      One technique a previous vet taught me was to kneel, straddle the cat with your feet crossed under you and his/her butt end towards your feet. Don’t sit on the cat or squeeze any more than necessary to restrain them. They often try to scoot backwards, and this will keep them from doing that. This frees up your arms – although I also do not care for pill “shooters”, this can help ensure the pill goes far enough back to get it down. Alternative is to have the medication compounded so that liquid is used, so no “shooter” needed. This method also might work for clipping the front nails. They don’t charge for it during a regular visit, so my cats usually only get once/year trim. For the back nails, the grooming bag is useful. Just be sure the neck closure is tight enough they cannot get out (they ARE wily!) but not so tight that they cannot breathe. The one I have is perplexing, as there is no way to access the front paws without releasing the back area too!

      Another problem treatment is ear meds. I have two cat “playpens”, like a crate, but larger with shelf levels. I just finished treatment (14 days) on one who would NEVER let me do this if she were loose. I use these playpens for those times when medication must be given but the cats in question will typically run away and hide (several even know what time it is!!) This has been used for post dental extractions, pancreatitis, ear meds, etc. Although you can end up playing cat and mouse because of the levels, blocking their path with a box or something can restrict them to one level (there are doors on upper and lower levels, allowing them to rest on one of two levels and room for a litter box too!

      Reply
  2. Nathalie Lenoble
    April 22, 2019 at 1:13 pm (3 months ago)

    This is all very interesting and very helpful, however I would like to know techniques on how to handle a freaked out cat when it comes to give him/her medication and/or trim his/her nails. I tried the “cat burrito” with a towel and it simply does not work when you have only two arms (need a third one that I don’t have). If someone knows techniques that I don’t, I’ll be grateful if they could share. I watched videos in the internet and I basically tried it all. Most of my cats are relatively easy, but I had one who, unfortunately, passed away because it was impossible to give her her medication for her heart disease and I currently have two lovely kitties who give me hell when I need to trim their nails.

    Reply
  3. Angela Gosselin
    April 22, 2019 at 12:47 pm (3 months ago)

    There is a Vet a town over from me that has a special kitty entrance and quiet area away from loud barking. Unfortunately if you use the ‘cat section’ it seems to be more expensive and the office hours are very limited. I have also found they have seperate buildings in the business complex for different treatments. Nothing wrong with that except they transport cats from building to building using pet carriers. When I read the patient /customer comments there are a couple people in the last year who’s kitty escaped the carrier while be transported from buildings. Sick kitties who have sadly never been found. I realize it’s a bit off subject but what do you think of the transporting to other buildings. When Phoebe had her dental work done the staff was very nice and I was very satisfied with how she was treated and the level of care but when they told me to pick her up at surgery center which was a different building than I dropped her off(same complex) I waited at the surgery center where I paid the bill, received meds and after care instructions. They brought her in her carrier across a large parking lot from the main building. Fortunately Pheebs was still in lala land mentally because of the anistetics. I had no idea or was I informed she would leave the building. Everything went fine and no issues. I just can’t get out of my head those people and poor kitties that escaped. When I saw a gal in scrubs with Phoebe’s carrier I realized that is likely when the other kitties escaped. What do you think about this? This is a very popular vet hospital in the city that also boards too

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 23, 2019 at 8:22 am (3 months ago)

      I really don’t like the idea of cats being transported between buildings. I think it’s unacceptable that cats escaped the carriers during transport. There really is no excuse for that. The staff should have made sure the carriers were secure before transporting the cats, or created some sort of double-fail-safe system for transport. It also adds a layer of stress to already stressed cats. Definitely not an optimal set up for this practice.

      Reply
  4. Bernadette DeLamar
    April 22, 2019 at 10:37 am (3 months ago)

    Thank you for this. To the point, my sweet Balinese turned into a monster at a regular vet clinic. They handled him with leather gloves and often “bagged” him. I switched to a cats only clinic and forewarned them before our first visit. The vet came in, cradled him in her arms, took his temp, drew blood and murmured in his ear the whole time, and he “smiled,” relaxed and was pleased to be with friends. I was astonished. It made such a huge difference. Definitely— look for “cat friendly” if you can’t find a cat exclusive vet.

    Reply
  5. LP
    April 22, 2019 at 10:16 am (3 months ago)

    I love the fact that my cats go to a Fear Free vet. They’ve treated my boys very well. Most work is done in front of me and I help to hold the cats. Just be open to the fact that some things like xrays and certain lab work they may have to take kitty in back as that may be the only location of specialized equipment. It is also important to have a vet who will take the time to explain use of medications, testing, info about disease, etc.

    Reply
  6. Lois J Corrigan
    April 22, 2019 at 10:11 am (3 months ago)

    Great information!! Unfortunately in southern, CA I’ve never seen a cat only practice, Our biggest problem is VCA taking over small vet offices and turning them into HMO style offices. The vets and office staff are forced to upsell expensive packages to pet guardians.
    Our daughter left the pet care field due to low pay and how lifting animals was damaging to her back.

    Reply
  7. Random Felines
    April 22, 2019 at 10:05 am (3 months ago)

    I love our current vet and their techs. They know my preferences and are great with the cats – even the weird ones. 🙂 More importantly, everything happens in the room in my sight and I have requested more than once that I help restrain one of my cats since I know them better and they respect that.

    Reply
  8. Janine
    April 22, 2019 at 7:14 am (3 months ago)

    One of the things I like about my vet and clinic is they have always been very good with my cats. I have been to a couple others that I wasn’t impressed with prior to finding this one. One place I took Pele to when she was a kitten for shots and they had a shot clinic (we were short on money at the time) and they just set her on the table and flipped her around using her back. That turned me off, but I just assumed it was the guy doing the shots and rushing to get to the next in line. And when it came time for spaying, they returned her to me at the end of the day and she was upside down growling like a demon. The guy said they couldn’t put the collar on her because she wouldn’t let them touch her. I never went back to that place. Another place that I went to described Pono as having a mashed in face and that’s probably why he has sinus problems and watery eye. They actually called him fat, not overweight, but the “F” word. I just felt that vet was heartless. He could have said he had a short nose or some other wording and said he was overweight and we needed to work on it. The vet and techs I use now talk to my kids and give them loving before they do anything to them. Plus you know they are cat lovers when there is a cat wondering around the clinic.

    Reply
  9. Carmen Anderson
    April 22, 2019 at 5:30 am (3 months ago)

    Great article and links.
    I forwarded to friends who have cats.
    I personally don’t like it when they want to take my cat ‘out back’ to be weighed.
    Last time I said I know his weight and they didn’t remove him from me.
    I’m certainly also going to ask what type of anesthesia they use. This practice sounds horrid, in some cases.

    Reply

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