Imagine finding yourself in a strange place where you don’t speak the language, when creatures much bigger and louder than you grab you out of a sound sleep, and force you into a dark box, where you are thrashed and bashed around, your senses overwhelmed by the drone of a large machine. Then, at your destination, your box is turned upside down and you are dumped onto a hard table with bright lights, strange smells, and scary noises, and another large creature starts poking and prodding you. That could be the storyline from a bad science fiction movie, or it could be how your cat sees a visit to the vet. There are currently more pet cats in North America than pet dogs, yet less than 50% of those cats ever see a veterinarian. Can you see why? Cats are generally much less socialized to change and travel than dogs are, so when it comes time to go to the vet, most cats are less than willing to oblige. Does your cat run and hide at the first sight of the carrier? Does she cry in the car on the way to the vets? Does she urinate, deficate, or vomit in the carrier? Does she become aggressive when handled at the vet clinic, or does she freeze and refuse to move? These are all pretty typical experiences, but it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little time and patience, you can help to minimize your kitty’s fear and anxiety.
1. Make the carrier a safe place. By leaving the carrier out in the house between vet visits, the cat will have time to investigate it and learn what it is all about. Begin by taking the top off the carrier if possible. Place comfy blankets or items of your personal clothing (that smell like you) in the carrier. Then start by rewarding your cat for coming near the cage. Special treats or particularly yummy canned food work, but if your cat is not food-motivated, you may find that cat nip, toys, brushing, petting, or even just speaking softly in an affectionate tone can be encouraging. Take your time. It may take several weeks for the cat to become adjusted to the carrier, especially if she has had a bad experience previously.
2. Make car travel less scary. If you have the time and patience, you can gradually desensitize your cat to the car. Once the cat is comfortable being in the carrier, take the carrier outside of the house (porch, hallway, deck, etc). Offer the cat treats, and return it to the house. Do this daily for several days until the cat shows no signs of agitation. Gradually take the carrier farther from the house until it is next to the car, and then finally on the seat of the car. Each time, reward the cat with food and a kind voice. As the cat adjusts to being out of the house and in the car, you can introduce taking the cat into the car with the engine running. Start with a short trip to the end of the street and back, and gradually make the trips longer. This technique takes a huge amount of time and patience, so it’s admittedly not for everyone. If this isn’t an option, read on…
3. Make car travel less scary, part II. Once the cat is comfortable being in the carrier, this will go a long way to making the cat more comfortable in the car. For the trip to the vet, experiment a bit. Some cats prefer to see where they are going, so putting the carrier high up on a box might help. Other cats prefer to hide, so covering the carrier with a heavy blanket (making sure there is ventilation but keeping out the light and noise) may help. Some cats get motion sickness. Witholding food for 4 hours before car travel can help with that, as can some medications that your veterinarian can prescribe. Antianxiety medications are not always helpful, but in extreme circumstances, your vet may be able to prescribe something safe and hopefully effective.
4. Make the vet less scary. Of course, in most cases, a cats-only vet clinic is usually the best choice. Because there are no dogs, there are fewer smells, sights and sounds that can be terrifying to cat patients. However, there are some cat/dog practices that have facilities that are designed to separate their canine and feline patients as much as possible. Talk to the clinic staff and ask if there is a quieter time of day when there would be fewer people and pets around. You can also ask to be taken directly into the examination room if there are other noisy patients in the waiting area. If your cat is simply unmanageable in the vet clinic, your vet may suggest medication to help relieve the anxiety or sedate the patient so that an examination may be done with the least amount of stress and danger to both you, your cat, and the veterinary team.
5. Home again. Once you arrive home again, leave the cat in the carrier for a few minutes. Other pets in the house can become hostile to the returning cat, and vice versa, so giving them some time to sniff and investigate can make the reintroduction easier.
6. Feliway® Cat Pheromone. A pheromone is a natural chemical that causes a physical effect by simply smelling it. Cats use the pheromones from the scent glands in their cheeks to mark territory. This is their way of saying, “This is mine, it’s safe, and it’s friendly.” Feliway® mimics the cheek pheromone of cats, making them feel less threatened, less territorial, and less frightened. In our office, we use Feliway® spray in our cat kennels, on the exam tables, on blankets and towels, and even on our hands and clothes. There are even Feliway® diffusers in the exam rooms. For travel anxiety, spray Feliway® in the cat carrier, in the car, or on a blanket or towel that will accompany the cat on its trip. I recommend leaving about 10 mintues or so for the spray to settle and dry before exposing the cat, as the product works better when dry, but also because some cats (and people) may experience a cough if the aerosolized spray is inhaled. Feliway® is safe and effective, and is recommended by cat specialists and cat behaviouralists.
7. If all else fails, try a mobile vet. Many major centres have veterinarians who do house calls, either solely or as part of their stationary practices. To find a list of mobile veterinarians in your area, check with your provincial or state veterinary regulatory body. In Ontario, that is the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, at www.cvo.org.
Dr. Meow (^^)~
“Babies have big heads and big eyes, and tiny little bodies with tiny little arms and legs. So did the aliens at Roswell! I rest my case.” ~ William Shatner