Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 28, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Written 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/
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/
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 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.
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.