Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 1, 2023 by Crystal Uys


“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 are 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

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