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Easing Feline Stress and Anxiety During Vet Visits

reduce feline stress during vet visitsWith cat owners still reluctant to bring unenthusiastic kitties for routine vet visits, two groups have collaborated to develop a set of guidelines to help make trips to the vet less stressful.

The new guidelines created by experts in the field of feline medicine and behavior, have been endorsed by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).

The purpose of the guidelines is three-fold:

  • To alleviate the stress cats feel during vet visits
  • To alleviate the fear cat owners have of bringing their pet for a checkup
  • To make visits safer for veterinary staff

Per dvm360:

"Veterinarians can help create a better environment for cats at their practices by managing odors that could make cats unsettled, using synthetic feline facial pheromone analog diffusers or sprays, minimizing visual and auditory input and limiting access to resident cats at the clinic, if any, when patients exhibiting stress are brought into the hospital."

Another suggestion is to set up different times of day for dog and cat appointments, keeping most kitty visits to a time of day when the clinic is quietest.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

A recent veterinary usage study sponsored by Bayer revealed 58 percent of people owned by cats say their pets hate going to the vet. Of course, this will come as no surprise to those of you who share your life with one or more feline companions.

Many of the kitty parents included in the study admitted they avoid veterinary visits for their cats because every aspect of the ordeal is stress-inducing -- from preparing to leave home, to the ride to the clinic, to the visit itself.

Since kitties are masterful at hiding signs of illness, it's imperative cat owners understand the need for regular professional wellness exams. This is especially true for aging cats and those with chronic illness.

Understanding how to compassionately and respectfully handle a cat on a vet visit can go a long way toward reducing stress and delivering good health care. Unfortunately, feline stress can escalate to fear and/or fear-related aggressive behavior. When this happens, it can alter the results of a physical exam and lab tests and lead to a wrong diagnosis.

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), one of the developers of the new guidelines, "Understanding innate behaviors and adapting environmental and handling recommendations to minimize stress is a major focus of these Guidelines."

Thinking Like Your Kitty

The new suggested procedures, Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines, point out certain innate cat behaviors and how you can work with them to potentially make vet visits less stressful.

For example, hunting is a natural behavior, and it's also a playful activity for kitties. It may be possible to engage and distract a cat during a vet visit with an interactive toy that appeals to her hunting instincts.

As anyone owned by a cat can attest, when Garfield is fearful or stressed, he hides out. Allowing him to feel hidden during vet visits by letting him remain in his carrier if possible, or providing a towel for him to burrow beneath, may help to reduce his stress level.

No matter how well socialized to handling a cat is, she can become fearful or aggressive in an instant if she senses human tension, if she's handled roughly, or if there are sudden movements or loud noises happening around her. In short, your cat lacks the innate ability to tolerate unfamiliar surroundings, animals and humans.

She also very likely prefers to be touched on the head and neck rather than other parts of her body, so if you want to try calming her with petting, gently caress around her neck and head only. Using Ttouch techniques on her ears can be especially beneficial (

Cats generally exhibit early signs of anxiety or fear before they become full blown reactions. It's when these early signs appear that Fluffy needs to be distracted and soothed. These early warning signs can include:

  • Lowered, flattened ears; arched back; paws pulled close to the body; twitching tail
  • Narrowing of the eyes
  • Increased sweating from the paws
  • Distressed meowing, hissing, spitting or growling

Your feline isn't wired to handle this inner turmoil as you might expect. He may try to bolt, he may fight back, or he may freeze. Lack of movement doesn't mean your cat is relaxed. A cat 'frozen' in place is exhibiting signs of anxiety or fear.

Suggestions for Cat Owners

Some of the suggestions Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines offer cat owners include:

  • Perform ‘rehearsal visits’ to the veterinary clinic to help get kitty accustomed to trips in the car and the clinic environment. This includes loading your cat into her carrier and traveling around the block in the car.
  • Do mock vet exams at home to familiarize your cat with human handling. Do things like handle your pet’s paws, inspect her ears, clip her nails, open and inspect the inside of her mouth, move your hands over her legs and body, and comb or brush her coat. If you do these regularly (as part of your regular home examinations) your cat will be less stressed when it’s the real thing at the vet’s office.
  • Get your cat used to his carrier. If the only time your cat sees the carrier is for vet visits you can’t blame him for panicking. Put your cat in his carrier with a few treats for 5 minutes a day for a week prior to the visit. Even consider feeding your cat in the crate, leaving the door open to encourage exploration on his own. Leave the carrier out for a week prior to the vet visit so your cat can inspect it.

    The morning of the appointment find him well in advance of the time of your vet appointment and encourage him to enter the carrier on his own. Put an item with a familiar scent in the carrier, like his bedding or a toy he’s fond of.
  • Consider administering homeopathy and Bach Flower Essences prior to the visit. There are several remedies including Bach Rescue Remedy and homeopathic Aconitum that can reduce anxiety and fear.
  • Stay cool. Keep in mind your kitty can sense your anxiety and stress, so remain calm. Stay positive and proceed at your cat’s pace. Be aware of his response to what’s happening, and use treats and other rewards to encourage desired behavior.
  • Talk with your holistic vet about specific homeopathic, herbal or nutraceutical remedies that might help address your kitty’s stress level. Also consider other blended  flower essences, such as Spirit Essences or OptiBalance Pet remedies.

A Cat-Friendly Clinic Environment

Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines offers some excellent suggestions for how your veterinarian can create a kitty-friendly experience during visits. These include:

  • Managing odors. Cats are macrosmatic, which means their sense of smell (which is highly sensitive) drives them to behave in certain ways. Certain scents, for example, air fresheners, disinfectants, and blood, can cause kitties to feel anxious or fearful.
  • Use of synthetic feline facial pheromone (FFP) analog diffusers and sprays throughout the clinic. Research shows these products have a calming effect on cats under stress, and can help reduce anxiety, fear and aggressive responses during vet visits.
  • Reduce what feline patients see and hear during visits. Keeping other people and pets out of a cat's line of sight can alleviate feline anxiety. If the clinic is able to provide a separate entrance and waiting room for cats, even better.  Noisy environments should be avoided, to include the speaking voices of clinic staff. If needed, tell the staff you will wait in your car until your appointment time to reduce anxiety.

    At my practice our policy is to only have one guest (patient) in the treatment area at one time: this means a feline patient will never see another cat or dog during his visit. If possible, ask your vet to clear out the treatment area prior to beginning procedures, such as blood draws or nail trims.
  • Vets in the practice who treat felines, as well as all clinic staff, should be knowledgeable about how to safely and effectively manage every type of kitty, from the most docile to the most aggressive.

    Very aggressive cats may be best managed by breathing in Sevoflurane gas to reduce anxiety (similar to 'laughing gas' at the dentist for highly stressed people). If you aren't comfortable with how your cat is treated or handled during vet visits, it's up to you to advocate for your kitty with the vet and staff, or find another practice more attuned to the special needs of feline patients.
  • The least stressful way to make sure your cat is healthy without traveling at all is to consider calling a traveling vet with a mobile clinic to visit your home. Not every locale has the luxury of having a mobile veterinary service, but this is my favorite recommendation for highly stressed cats, if it's available.