Mention “vet visit” to many cat owners, and they have visions of a day long struggle with a cat who is either hiding in a yet-to-be-discovered location or who is putting up no-holds-barred resistance, flailing claws included. Cats stressed with the carrier and car ride often yowl in protest during the entire trip and can even soil themselves from fear. This leads some people to forgo regular health visits for their cats. These vet-shy kitties are at risk, as they may not receive needed preventative care and vaccines or have problems identified early, when they can be more easily managed. The recommended solution is called FACT: Free Access Crate Training. This just means training your cat to like, instead of fear, the carrier.
The first step is, of course, getting the right carrier. While some people elect to skip this step and transport kitty on their lap, this is a dangerous gamble. A nervous cat can become wedged under a seat and refuse to come out. An even bigger problem can arise in the event of an accident. Similar to a child without a car seat, a cat without a secured carrier can become a projectile and can be tossed around the vehicle, sustaining serious injury or death. (Not exactly the purpose of taking him to the vet in the first place.) There are many styles of carriers available online and in pet stores. Those with an opening on top are usually a little easier to put your cat into, and if the top comes off, the doctor can examine a really nervous cat in the carrier.
Once you have the carrier home, it’s time to begin the process of helping your cat associate it with positive, instead of negative, experiences. This can take at least several weeks and should begin as soon as you bring your cat home. As most cat owners know, it takes a while for cats to become acclimated to new things, whether they are people, experiences or household items. A cat’s happiness and sense of well-being largely derive from having a secure, stable territory. The main goal of FACT is to make the carrier a familiar part of your cat’s territory, otherwise known as your house. Pick a spot in your home that your cat has quiet access to and leave the carrier out all the time. This way your cat will not bolt when the cat carrier makes an appearance; in time it will be just like any other object in your home.
The next step is to help your cat equate the carrier with positive events. Make it comfortable with blankets and perhaps a favorite toy. Feliway is a pheromone product that can be sprayed on the blanket or the carrier to help your cat relax. Food and treats can be gradually moved closer, until eventually kitty is willing to eat inside. Some cats prefer to see out while others feel safer when the carrier is covered. When the carrier is a fun, safe place to be, you can progress to desensitizing your cat to car rides.
Unless you live around the corner from Oak Tree Veterinary Hospital, gradually taking your cat on short car rides can help reduce her anxiety about travel. At first, just place the carrier in the car. Make sure that it is either secure on the floor in front of the seat or on the seat with the seat belt through the handle. A short trip around the block might follow. Gradually increase the distance of each trip and stop before your cat becomes upset. If she tends to get carsick, try these rides on an empty stomach. (This also helps her take treats when it’s time for an exam.) Reward her with her favorite toy or a petting session after returning home so that a car ride, like the carrier, is associated with good things. When the carrier and car ride are well tolerated, stop in between 12 and 2 for a “happy visit.” Your cat can receive treats and petting at our cat-friendly practice and (we hope) not be quite so nervous when it’s time for an actual appointment. This entire process may take weeks or even months but it’s an investment of time that will be well worth it every time you need to bring your cat to the vet.
Another issue some cat owners face is the stressful homecoming in multi-cat households. The cat at home will sometimes perceive the returning cat as a stranger since he will smell different after seeing the vet. Aggressive behavior can result, causing more stress for everyone. Keeping the cats in separate rooms for 24 hours and using a product like Feliway can help. It’s available in our clinic and our online store. This link will enable you to order and have it shipped right to your home.
Another option is to use a towel or blanket to transfer scents. Before leaving the house, rub the towel on all of the cats in your family. Bring it with you in a sealed bag and rub it on the kitty patient before returning home. This will cover the “vet smell” with the “our cat family” smell and ideally prevent any squabbles. Some people with two cats find that it’s actually easiest to bring both of them to vet visits so that neither one smells “funny.”
Following these steps can greatly reduce the anxiety associated with bringing your cat to the vet for care he needs. For more information, check out these Vet Street articles on our Facebook page. We hope to see you and your (stress free) cat soon!
- Vet Street: “Tips to Ease a Cat’s Anxiety at the Vet Clinic”
- Vet Street: “7 Tips to Make Vet Visits Less Stressful for Cats”
- Feliway information