Cats are brought to the veterinary practice significantly less often than dogs. Stress for both the owner and the cat is commonly cited as a reason for attending a veterinary practice. Early socialisation is key for ensuring cats are accepting and non-fearful. However, if you have a mature cat, there are several methods you can use to ameliorate the stress of veterinary visits.
Cat carriers are often a major stressor for cats before they have even arrived in the practice. In order to reverse this fear, ask the owner to teach their cat that the carrier is a great place by having their carrier out with the door open at all times. Ask them to feed them in the carrier, put treats and toys in the carrier, and put a comfortable bed in there. We don’t want to force the cat inside, let the cat make the choice to go inside.
When the cat is comfortable and willingly entering the carrier, the door can be closed for short periods of time, increasing in duration.
Both owners and veterinary staff should carry the carrier like a box, supporting the bottom, and not by the handle. Swinging from side to side will cause the cat to feel unstable and will likely cause stress and further arousal.
When in the consult room, if the cat does not want to exit their carrier when the door is opened, do not force them out. This will only enhance their fear and make them more difficult to examine. If possible, take the top part off their carrier and place a towel over them to facilitate a hiding place. If the cat is comfortable enough to take treats, have the owner feed treats, tuna etc whilst you examine the cat (you may need to gently hold the head if the cat trying to move).
Veterinary staff should be aware of how their body language and interactions may affect patients. Over-restraining or scuffing a cat is frightening and potentially painful. Keep a pile of towels pre-sprayed with Feliway to wrap cats instead of using force.
If the cat comfortably exits their carrier, give them a choice of where they want to be examined – on a table, on the scales, in a partially covered box, on the owner’s lap - and keep them distracted with food. This will help the cat feel in control and less stressed. If the cat is extremely distressed and the exam is not medically urgent, it will be better to delay the appointment and discuss anti-anxiety medication and behaviour modification.
The environment for hospitalised cats can make a huge impact on their emotional state. Ensure cats have a place to hide such as a cardboard box and partially cover their kennel with a towel or blanket. Ideally, have food and water kept separate; preference tests have reported that cats prefer their water to be in a separate clean location, away from food.
It may seem obvious, however, try to keep noise to a minimum. Try and switch off all equipment and machinery where possible. They may produce sounds that cats can hear which we can’t, and may be novel and scary to feline inpatients. Many cleaning products may also smell nice to us but can be offensive to cats. Unscented cleaning products should be used in practice where possible.
These simple changes can easily be implemented in practice to enhance the welfare of feline patients and encourage owners to keep coming back.