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How to make vet visits less scary for cats

Taking your cat to the vet can be a difficult task; however, there are ways of making the whole experience smoother and calmer for everyone. We asked Dr. Tammy Hunter, DVM, and Dr. Cheryl Yuill, DVM, to determine the best ways to take a cat to the vet with minimal disturbance and upset.

Why does my cat get stressed when we go to the vet?

Dr. Hunter: Cats are very territorial and attached to their home environments. Most pet cats live a sheltered life with a predictable routine that does not involve travelling away from home; this can mean that any trip away from home, not just to the vet, can be an overwhelming experience. The cat is leaving its safe, well-known home environment, being contained in a carrier, driven in a noisy car to a vet's clinic, where there will be many intense smells and unusual sounds from many other pets and people. While at the vets, they see more unfamiliar spaces and people who administer various treatments. These things can be stressful individually, and when combined, it's no wonder cats become frightened or stressed.

Should I use a cat carrier to take my cat to the vet?

Dr. Hunter: We recommend using carriers for travel because they're the safest and most secure way to transport animals. Once you arrive at the vet's office, your cat will be safe from being bothered by other curious pets and will feel less vulnerable. A cat carried in your arms may try to escape if it feels threatened, potentially injuring you and putting them at risk of injury or getting lost.

What should I look for in a safe cat carrier?

Dr. Hunter: Individual cats may have specific preferences for a carrier, but some options are better than others. Although cardboard cat carriers (available online and in most petcare retailers) are inexpensive and disposable, they should only be used as a temporary form of transport because a determined cat can break out of them fairly quickly. Durable options for transporting your cat range from soft-sided carriers to wire crates to hard plastic carriers with wire doors. 

Most importantly, a carrier should be easy to clean, and you should be able to get your cat in and out of it without a struggle. Buy a carrier that fits your cat's size and if you have several cats, they should each have their own carrier. 

The ideal carrier is strong, lightweight, and waterproof, with a large opening to allow easy access to the cat, and an easy to remove top with 'quick release' fasteners. If you have a carrier with a removable top, your cat may be able to remain nestled in the bottom of the carrier while your vet performs some parts of the routine physical exam. And if your cat needs to stay in the hospital for any reason, the bottom part of the carrier can be put into the hospital cage to provide a familiar and comforting bed.

If you opt for a carrier without built-in bedding, you should put a towel or blanket in the bottom to provide a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and soak up any fluids in the case of an accident. It’s always worth taking a spare blanket and a plastic bag for any soiled bedding too.

How do I get my cat into its carrier without a struggle?

Dr. Yuill: Unlike dogs, who often associate car trips with fun destinations such as the park, few cats go in the car for a pleasant adventure. For most cats, the only time they ever see their carrier is when it is brought out immediately before going to the vet, causing that carrier to be associated with the car ride and the unfamiliar sounds and smells of the vet's clinic. These stress-inducing associations cause cats to resist getting into the carrier.

You can help your cat get over the fear of a carrier by developing positive associations with the carrier. Avoid storing the carrier somewhere the cat never goes, and only bringing it out for a trip to the vet. Instead, open the door or remove the top and keep the carrier out in an area where your cat likes to sleep or play. Set it up as your cat's own private sleeping area or dining room by placing their bed, food, and water dishes in the carrier. Or use the carrier as the spot where they get treats; this way, the cat will associate it with its home's familiar sights and scents.

Another way to prepare for your visit to the vet is to spay the carrier with three to four squirts of Feliway®, a synthetic copy of the cat's facial pheromone, which may help create a sense of familiarity or security in the cat's environment. If you do not have time to develop these positive associations before your next scheduled vet visit, make the carrier smell familiar to assure your cat that it is a safe haven by placing a blanket, towel, or even an old item of your clothing into the carrier. If your cat has negative associations with the carrier you intend to use, consider purchasing a new carrier that does not resemble the old one.

How do I make my cat more comfortable with car rides to the vet?

Dr. Yuill: The most important consideration when transporting your cat is ensuring you have a secure carrier that will prevent any possibility of escape. Secure the crate somewhere in the car where it won't move if you have to brake suddenly. Never drive with your cat loose in the car.

To reduce the stress of the car ride, you can bring a blanket or large towel with you, and once your cat is secured in the carrier in the car, cover the carrier with the towel to reduce visual stimulation. Play soothing music and make sure fans don't blow directly into the carrier.

You can also teach your cat to relax in the car by taking short trips that have a positive outcome. For example, put your cat in the carrier, give them one of their favourite treats or toys, and take a short drive that ends up at home. During the entire process, speak to them in a calm and reassuring voice.

Can I give my cat a sedative or anti-anxiety medication?

Dr. Yuill: If your cat's stress or fear is persistent and they have no health concerns, your vet may recommend giving some prescription medication before the visit. However, most sedatives have side effects, and using them may not be in your cat's best interest. While some natural products are considered benign, this is not always the case, particularly when treating cats, who have different metabolic processes than we do. Always talk to your vet about specific medications for your cat.

What should I do when I arrive at the vet?

Dr. Hunter: Ideally, schedule your appointment for a quieter time of the day. If your cat is suffering from high anxiety, you may want to check in with the staff on your arrival to see if you can bring the cat directly into an examination room rather than waiting in the reception area. Once you are in the examination room, ask your vet if you can put the cat's blanket on the examination table for familiarity. You can also suggest taking the lid off the carrier so that your cat can stay in it during part of the examination, as mentioned earlier.

Are there any other tips for lowering my cat's stress levels during a vet visit?

Dr. Yuill: Unless otherwise directed by your vet, do not feed your cat for several hours before their appointment to reduce the chance of vomiting or having an accident during the trip. , Overall, one of the most effective ways to decrease your cat's anxiety level is to remain calm and relaxed during the visit. Speak to your cat in a soothing voice and reassure them by petting them in their favourite spot.

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Written by:
Avery Felman
In partnership with:

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