Making Vet Visits Less Stressful

Tips for getting your cat - and you - to stay calm at the doctor's office.

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© Mikhail Azarov | Bigstock

It’s a perfect storm. Cats hide their illnesses very well; it’s often not clear that they’re sick until they’re at death’s door, which is why annual wellness exams are so critical. Through blood tests and other diagnostic workups, a veterinarian can detect problems even a very tuned-in owner might miss. Yet most cats do not like leaving the familiar environment of their home to be handled by a stranger, surrounded by cats and people they’ve never met and will probably never see again. They become so stressed that their owners become overwhelmed with anxiety themselves. So owners skip the veterinary exams. “My cat seems fine. Why put her through it?” And that, of course, ratchets up the risk that a health issue won’t be detected until it’s too late for effective treatment.

That’s one reason Americans spend about twice as much money on veterinary visits for their canine companions as for their feline friends, even though there are more pet cats than pet dogs in the United States. Furthermore, among cat owners, about 44 percent do not take their cat to a veterinarian for a yearly exam, according to a survey published by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Among dog owners, the same survey says, only 19 percent do not take their dog to a veterinarian.

It’s easy to understand why the owner of a cat who hides under the bed at the sight of the carrier, then hisses and scratches while being stuffed into it, would forego regular wellness exams. Here are some tips for making it easier. They were developed by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine and endorsed by the American Animal Hospital Association. They should make veterinary visits much more tolerable.

1|Choose a sturdy, hard-sided carrier that can be opened from both the front and the top, with the top half entirely removable from the bottom. That will avoid having to shove the cat in. A particularly scared cat can remain in a top-off carrier during an exam. The veterinarian can just reach in and do what she has to do.

2|Turn the carrier into a kitty den. Many cat owners use the carrier for vet visits only, so the cat associates it with something traumatic. Instead, turn it into a cozy hangout that your cat can access at any time. Outfit it with a soft blanket or pillow, a favorite toy, and a treat or two. It may take weeks, but your cat will finally explore his or her man cave or she shed.

3| Once your cat has become used to the carrier, gently carry her out to the car in it, secure it with a seatbelt so she doesn’t get jostled, and take a short trip around the block as a way of breaking the connection between the carrier and vet visits.

4| Stay calm. If you show stress, your cat will most certainly pick up on that and feel all the more stressed herself. Do some deep breathing if you have to.

5| Have your cat check out the vet’s office in advance of an exam. The staff can coo over her and adjust her to them. Then, a second visit, with all the poking and prodding, won’t be as alarming.

6| At the time of the appointment, if necessary, stay in the car with your cat (still in her carrier) and ask someone to come out and get you when it’s time for her exam. That way, she won’t have to endure all the strange animals and people in the waiting room.

7| Go with a vet who “gets” your cat. If your pet is feeling stressed and the doctor is not willing to stop the exam to give the cat a treat or pull out a toy for her, it’s probably not the right doctor. Some cats may even need mild sedation, and the doctor should not be unwilling to administer it.

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