Cats are significantly calmer at quiet doctors’ offices than at those with lots of doctor’s office noises: dogs barking, doors clanging shut, people talking. Their heart rates and respiratory rates are higher in noisy veterinary environments than in a quiet setting, and they may also exhibit behavior responses that indicate stress, such as flattened ears, lip licking, and escape attempts.
Researchers at Ontario Veterinary College made the findings when they assessed 32 cats being examined by veterinarians and 30 cats allowed to roam freely in a gated area of a small room. Sound tracks typical of veterinary office noises were either played or not played in the background.
During the veterinary exams, average heart rate soared from about 155 beats per minute when all was quiet to almost 200 beats per minute when the sound track was played. The number of breaths per minute — the respiratory rate — went from about 48 when the setting was quiet to an average of about 61 when the noises were turned on.
Findings were similar for the free-roaming arm of the study, and behaviors that clearly indicated anxiety increased during the noisy phase, as well. There was also more pupil dilation with the noise.
Implications for your cat
When the researchers taped people talking (and laughing) for the noisy portions of the experiments, the decibel level went almost to 80 — as loud as a garbage disposal or a busy downtown street. In a veterinary intensive care unit, the decibel level can reach as high as 90, which is akin to the sound of a leaf blower or a concert. In other words, while sounds in a veterinarian’s office may seem relatively soft to you, there are bursts of loudness that you might not be perceiving because you are busy trying to keep your cat calm and getting ready for the exam.
Noise that periodically gets much louder can be particularly unnerving for a cat. Research has indicated that cats have a pronounced startle reflex when they hear sudden, loud noises. That reflex includes strong muscular contractions and defensive or avoidance behaviors in order to guard against what is perceived as a threat — not a good thing for a successful veterinary exam. Conversely, other research has shown that in an environment with reduced background noise, cats show more friendliness and are less likely to try to hide.
The takeaway: background noise affects your cat more than you might think. For that reason, it is a good idea to keep down the noise level for your pet whenever possible. When a cat is in a stressful situation, like being examined by a veterinarian, it becomes a medical imperative so the visit can result in gathering the most health information possible rather than becoming an exercise in trying to calm the feline.