Cats experiencing high levels of stress during veterinary examinations are often difficult to handle, displaying severe aggression or excessive avoidance from the veterinary staff. However, steps can be taken by both the owner and veterinary staff to reduce stress to ensure the examination run smoothly.
Before the consultation
A cat’s experience prior to arriving at the vet clinic can significantly influence their emotional state and behaviour during the consultation. Some or all parts of the process will commonly induce a degree of stress, which is out of the hands of the veterinary staff.
Owners can prepare their cat for the consultation to minimise stress and anxiety by making changes in three key areas before the consultation: the carrier, travelling and preparing for procedures.
Choosing the right carrier and encouraging the cat to spend time in it is the biggest difference an owner can make.
The carrier should be large enough for the cat to turn around inside while still being secluded enough to allow the cat to hide. Plastic carriers with narrow slits along the sides provide seclusion while allowing for ventilation. Some familiar bedding can be placed inside to create a comfortable, safe bed but care should be taken to ensure it does not slip along the base of the carrier. If the top of the carrier can be easily removed, this will allow the examination to be performed inside the carrier.
To help the cat feel comfortable in the carrier, it should be permanently accessible so it becomes part of the cat’s familiar territory
To help the cat feel comfortable in the carrier, it should be permanently accessible so it becomes part of the cat’s familiar territory. Treats and/or toys can be routinely left inside the open carrier to encourage them inside. This can also be done shortly before the appointment to avoid any manhandling into the carrier. Cats voluntarily entering the carrier will generally be less stressed than cats that are chased, caught and forced inside.
Most cats have little experience with travel unless they are seeing a vet or staying at a cattery. As such, even those happy in their carrier can feel anxious after a car ride or a walk down a busy street. Ideally, cats should have a positive experience in the car during their socialisation period (between two and seven weeks of age).
In the car, carriers should be faced away from the windows or covered with a light blanket or towel. The carrier should be positioned securely on the back seat with a seatbelt or in the footwell of the car to keep it from sliding around during the journey. It is not safe to allow cats to be free in the car during any journeys.
Preparing for procedures
As kittens’ socialisation period is so early, the window has passed to get them used to procedures once owners bring their kitten home. However, owners can check with the breeder that the kittens have been handled appropriately during this period and have been prepared for veterinary examinations when they occur. For example, their paws should be gently but frequently handled to allow for nail clipping, their ears and eyes should be touched and their mouth gently opened. Owners can continue to practise these exercises to keep this type of handling familiar.
During the consultation
The waiting area
Historically, waiting areas have typically been noisy places holding a variety of different species. Carriers are often placed on the floor if there are no designated tables (or similar) for cats to be positioned. In this situation, they may potentially encounter a dog (who may even approach the carrier) or the feet of other owners, and other cats may be facing them.
Raised areas should be provided to allow cats to be kept up high and, if possible, there should be separate areas for both cats and dogs
Raised areas should be provided to allow cats to be kept up high and, if possible, there should be separate areas for both cats and dogs. Installing a pheromone diffuser may also help reduce anxiety further.
With the onset of COVID-19, many owners have been waiting for appointments in the car, away from the busy waiting room. This works well for cats as it is generally calm and quiet which helps to keep stress levels down. This could potentially be a permanent arrangement.
The examination/consult room
If possible, keeping separate consulting rooms for cats and dogs will again help reduce stress levels. The smell of another species will be reduced and permanent changes can be made to the room to facilitate the needs of the cat. For example, a pheromone diffuser can be positioned in the room to help reduce anxiety.
There could also be a place to hide on the table such as a cardboard box or similar. This will give the cat a secluded place to retreat to in between procedures or examinations.
Many members of the veterinary profession are skilled at interacting with cats effectively; however, a few small changes can help prevent the cat from feeling too stressed, making the job easier and the cats and their owners happier.
If the cat is reluctant to leave the carrier, the top of the carrier should be removed rather than tipping or pulling the cat out
If the cat is reluctant to leave the carrier, the top of the carrier should be removed rather than tipping or pulling the cat out. This way most examinations can be performed in the carrier.
Avoid making direct eye contact and ensure the examination table is non-slip.
Small, high-value treats can be given to help calm the cat and put it in a positive emotional state. Cats should be given the opportunity to smell the individual’s hand before any handling starts and they should be allowed to retreat into the carrier (with the top back on) as soon as the procedure is complete.