Fear and anxiety are common for cats when they have to visit the veterinarian, and for far too long, this has been accepted as “that’s just way cats are” by both cat guardians and veterinarians. Thankfully, this is changing. Two initiatives, The American Association of Feline Practitioners’ Cat Friendly Practice Initiative and Dr. Marty Becker’s Fear-Free™ initiative both take a multi-pronged approach to reducing the stress of veterinary visits for cats.
“Fear is the worst thing a social species can experience,” says Dr. Becker. And sadly, it’s that fear, and the stress that a vet visit creates for not just many cats, but also their guardians, that results in a feline healthcare crisis. The findings of a feline health study conducted by Bayer Health Care found that 52% of America’s 74 million cats are not receiving regular veterinary care. The actual number is probably much higher, since this study only captured data from cat guardians who do seek some veterinary care, not those who never take their cat to the vet.
Since cats are masters at masking signs of illness, regular veterinary care is a crucial component of ensuring that they live long and happy lives. But what’s a cat parent to do when a cat hides, or fights against being put in a carrier tooth and claw?
Veterinary visits start at home
The biggest obstacle to getting cats into the veterinary clinic is the stress associated with even just the idea of a vet visit. From getting the cat into the carrier to the stressful car ride to being in a place that is unfamiliar and scary for the cat, it’s enough to make a cat guardian throw up their hands and say “forget it!” However, none of these challenges are insurmountable. Training cats to accept the carrier and the car ride is crucial. Additionally, cat guardians need to understand that it’s often their stress who makes a vet visit even more challenging than it needs to be. Cats are sensitive creatures and they will pick up on their guardian’s energy.
Spraying the carrier with Comfort Zone Feliway Spray can help keep the 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 (affiliate links*) 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!)
Look for a cat friendly practice
Ideally, look for a feline-only practice, or at the very least, a practice with the AAFP’s “cat friendly” designation.
Ask that your cat be taken into an exam room as soon as she arrives at the clinic, rather than having to spend time in a waiting room where she may see or smell other cats.
Proper handling of cats in the clinic is crucial. Cats should never be dragged or dumped out of carriers. Veterinarians prefer carriers that can be disassembled, or have openings on both the front, side and tops. These types of carriers will often allow the entire exam to be performed while the cat remains in the carrier. Gone are the days of heavy restraint. Less is more when it comes to handling cats. Gentle handling is critical, especially for older cats.
Veterinarians and staff who work with cats need manage their own energy. There should be no raised voices in the clinic, and interactions with cats should be guided by calm demeanor and slow movements. Perception is important for veterinary staff, as well. If staff assumes that cats are going to be hard to handle, they won’t be able to approach them in a relaxed manner. For that reason, Dr. Marcus Brown, the current president of the AAFP and owner of Nova Cat Clinic in Arlington, VA, does not allow the word “fractious” to be used in his practice.
A new tool to help reduce the stress of veterinary visits
For cats who get extremely stressed during a vet visit, or even when a vet comes to the cat’s home to perform the exam, Gabapentin, a drug commonly used to treat chronic pain and epilepsy, can make a significant difference in how a cat experiences a veterinary visit. In a study of 20 healthy cats with a history of signs of stress or fractious behavior during the trip to the vet and during the examination, guardians were instructed to administer a capsule of Gabapentin 90 minutes prior to placing the cat in the carrier. Gabapentin has a mild taste, and many cats will consume it readily in either a small amount of food or a treat. For most of the cats in the study, veterinarians were able to perform exams and blood pressure measurements without any problems.
Gabapentin has few side effects, and any that do occur are transient. Of the five cats who showed mild side effects such as minor muscle tremors, aniscoria (unequal size of pupils), hypersalivation, and vomiting, these adverse reactions resolved within 6 hours of administration.
Andrea Tasi, VMD, a holistic veterinarian and owner of Just Cats Naturally, has used Gabapentin successfully for her clients. “It is remarkable to me that cats who previously hid from me or were otherwise impossible to handle will now come to me and be relaxed enough so I can perform a thorough physical exam,” says Dr. Tasi. Even though Dr. Tasi’s practice focuses on using homeopathic and other holistic remedies, she believes in an integrative approach to medicine: “If I can minimize stress for my patients with a safe medication with few side effects, that’s good for the cat, and the cat’s guardian.”