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How to Reduce Your Cat's Fear at the Vet

Discover our 6 easy, practical tips for how you can help your cat feel calmer at the vet!

Is your cat afraid of the veterinary hospital? For those of you nodding yes, you are not alone.

While fear of the vet is common amongst all pets, the veterinary experience is especially overwhelming for our feline friends - a species who is particularly sensitive to change and unfamiliarity. Most of our cat companions live their lives indoors within one consistent environment, which results in limited exposure to novel experiences - something a trip to the vet is filled with from start to finish. Traveling by car to a new place filled with new people and animals, strange smells and scary sounds is an intense experience for a cat who is accustomed to spending their days at home.

For many cats, the stress associated with vet visits is so severe that it can actually become a barrier to care - pet parents preferring to try at-home remedies rather than going through the stress of a trip to the vet office.

We want to remove this barrier to veterinary care by giving you the tools you need to help your cat feel more comfortable going to the vet.

With a little preparation and a few minor adjustments to your veterinary routine, you can greatly reduce your cat's anxiety at the vet, making for a more positive experience for all!

In this article you will:

  • Learn how to read your cat's body language

  • Learn what a pet's fear threshold is and why it matters for veterinary visits

  • Discover our TOP 6 TIPS for how you can reduce your cat's stress during veterinary visits

How to Read Your Cat's Body Language

Recognizing Signs of Fear, Anxiety and Stress in Your Cat

Before we're able to help our feline friends feel more safe and secure, we first need to be able to recognize when they're feeling uncomfortable. Our cats use their bodies to tell us exactly how they're feeling, but the signals of fear, anxiety and stress can be subtle so it's important to know what you're looking for.

Feline Body Language Indicating Fear, Anxiety and Stress:

  • Dilated (large, round) pupils

  • Tight body posture, legs tucked under body

  • Tight body posture, tail held tight against body

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Tail down, held in an upside L shape

  • Swishing, flicking tail

  • Excessive meowing

  • Yowling or crying

  • Trying to hide or burrow face

  • Furrowed brow

  • Whiskers pinned back

  • Ears out to the sides, pinned flat against head

  • Frozen in place, not moving at all

  • Engaging in flight-seeking behavior

  • Increased respiratory rate

  • Panting / open-mouth breathing

  • Feigning sleep

  • Hissing

  • Growling

  • Striking

Understanding how to read your cat's tail, ears, eyes, body posture and vocalizations is a key foundational step in preparing for a stress free vet visit. The more skilled you are at reading your cat's body language, the easier it will be for you to identify fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) in its early stages, enabling you to intervene with stress-reducing tools before your cat escalates up the fear ladder to the more severe, overt fear behaviors such as hissing or striking. This is crucial, because once your cat has reached the top of his fear ladder, he's considered 'over threshold' and has entered into what's referred to as the 'fight, flight, freeze' state - this is survival mode. Each time your cat is pushed into this survival mode, his fear is reinforced and made more intense, making future veterinary visits harder and harder.

By implementing stress-reducing tactics before, during and after veterinary visits, you will help your cat stay below his fear threshold, promoting a calmer and (maybe even a positive!) veterinary experience!

Six Easy Ways To Prepare Your Cat for a Stress Free Vet Visit

Reduce your cat's stress at the vet by following these six steps!

TIP 1: Expose Your Cat to Their Carrier At Least One Week Before Visit

Many of us make the mistake of never exposing our cats to their carriers until it's five minutes before we need to leave for the vet. We take out their carrier, they run for the hills. Only encountering their carrier when it's time for a veterinary visit promotes a stressful association with the carrier, resulting in avoidance, fear and refusal to climb in.

Alternatively, if your cat's carrier is a pleasant part of their every day environment, they will feel much more amenable to climbing on in when you need them to.

Where do you keep your cat's carrier?

If it's tucked away in the back of a closet somewhere, it's time to BRING IT OUT!

When To Bring Out The Carrier

Ideally your cat's carrier will be left out and available to your cat all of the time, however if your home space does not allow for this, we recommend taking the carrier out at least one week prior to a veterinary visit.

Where to Place The Carrier

Place the carrier in a quiet part of your home that your cat likes to spend time in. Avoid placing the carrier in high traffic areas that may feel threatening to your cat, like by a door or near your dog's dish area.

Carrier Set Up

The goal is to make the carrier a cozy safe space for your cat, that they can enter and leave as they please. We recommend propping open the doors or removing them all together - carrier doors come on and off easily. Put a soft blanket or towel in the carrier with a couple of your cat's favorite toys. Some cats enjoy having the carrier partially covered with a blanket or towel. It's very important to never force your cat into the carrier throughout this process - allow them to explore the carrier at their own pace.

Positive Association Building

We recommend occasionally tossing treats or dry food kibbles into the carrier for your cat to find throughout the day - this helps your cat form a positive association with the carrier. If your cat seems fairly comfortable in the carrier and is spending a good amount of time in there, you can even offer one of their meals in or near the carrier.

Getting Into the Carrier Day of Visits

When it comes time to actually leave for the vet, it's ideal for your cat to enter the carrier on their own. We recommend using food to motivate your cat into the carrier - using a 'high value' treat (something extra special) typically works best. If your cat is not motivated by food, using play to entice your cat into the carrier can be a great alternative - wand toy play often works well for this. If your cat refuses to get into the carrier independently, we recommend calmly picking them up and placing them in through the top of a two-door, top loading carrier - this is the least stressful loading approach.

TIP 2: Ensure Your Cat's Physical, Mental and Emotional Needs Are All Met Prior to Visit

Meeting the mental, physical and emotional needs of our pets reduces their stress levels in a global sense, promoting overall calm behavior; a fulfilled pet is a happy pet! Tuning in a little extra to the needs of your cat during the week leading up to a veterinary visit will increase the likelihood that your cat has the calmest foundation possible the day of their visit, which contributes greatly to a stress-free veterinary experience.

Meeting Physical/Behavioral Needs

Ensure your cat has plenty of outlets for their most favorite natural behaviors such as scratching, climbing and hunting. The more opportunities your cat has to engage in these behaviors, the happier and calmer they'll be. Maybe consider offering a new scratching post, climbing tree or food-based hunting toy.

Meeting Mental Needs

Provide your cat with mental enrichment opportunities that challenge his brain and engage his problem solving skills. This kind of mental exercise helps lower anxiety levels and promotes calm behavior. A great way to provide your cat with mental enrichment is food-based toys and puzzles. These require your cat to problem solve in order to retrieve the food, engaging his brain in a rewarding way!

Meeting Emotional Needs

Whenever possible, it's ideal to avoid subjecting your cat to stressful events in the week leading up to a veterinary visit. For example, if your cat is fearful of new people, avoid throwing a dinner party a night or two before a scheduled veterinary visit. Stress from these trigger events doesn't dissipate immediately - it lingers and can easily compound, predisposing your cat to becoming more stressed more quickly the day of their veterinary visit. If an unplanned or unexpected stressful event occurs just before a scheduled veterinary visit, it's reasonable to consider rescheduling the appointment (this applies only to appointments for routine, non-urgent needs).

TIP 3: Use Cat Calming Pheromones Before and During The Visit

Calming pheromones are a wonderful integrative tool we can offer our cats to assist in lowering their stress levels. So how do calming pheromones work for cats?

Pheromones are natural scent-like messages cats use to communicate with one another. Cats who feel happy and safe will rub their face against things like furniture, people or other objects, releasing 'happy messages' into the environment for other cats to enjoy. Commercial calming pheromone products mimic these happy messages and have a naturally calming effect for the cats who come into contact with them.

Which Calming Pheromone Do You Recommend For Cats

Here at Epping Road Vet we love the feline calming pheromone product called Feliway. We sell Feliway products in-store at our hospital, as well as online through our online pharmacy which you can access here.

How to Use Calming Pheromones to Prepare for a Vet Visit

Cat calming pheromones come in either a spray form or as a room diffuser. We recommend using both forms when preparing your cat for a vet visit. Here's how:

Diffuser: If you have a nervous or fearful cat at home, we recommend having Feliway diffusing in your home at all times. However if you prefer not to have Feliway diffusing in your home consistently, we suggest plugging in a diffuser about a week before your scheduled vet visit. Be sure to place the diffuser in a room or area your cat loves and naturally chooses to spend a lot of time.

Spray: We recommend spraying your cat's carrier and carrier cover, as well as your car, with Feliway the day of your visit. This allows your cat to be comforted by Feliway during transport to and from the visit. The spray needs about 10-15 minutes to set before your cat should come into close contact with it.

TIP 4: Be Mindful During Transport to the Vet Office

The car ride to the vet hospital is one of the most stressful parts of a veterinary visit for most cats. To minimize the impact of travel, we recommend that you cover your cat's carrier with a light towel or blanket (sprayed with Feliway) for transit. It's ideal to cover the carrier prior to even leaving the house to walk to the car. Many cats become overwhelmed by visual input, so reducing their visual stimuli helps keep their stress levels down. We also recommend securing the carrier in the car so that it's not bouncing, shaking or jostling. Preventing the carrier from moving around in the car makes for a calmer ride.

TIP 5: When You Arrive to the Vet Office, Skip the Lobby

Skipping the lobby is a great way to help your cat feel more comfortable at the vet. The lobby of a veterinary hospital is often a busy place, full of smells, animals and people that are all unfamiliar to your cat. This hustle and bustle of unfamiliarity can cause a high level of stress for your cat before they've even entered the exam room. If your cat exhibits indicators of stress when waiting in a veterinary lobby, skip it! Instead, wait in your car and call the front desk to alert the team you've arrived. Once ready, the team will escort you directly into your exam room where your cat can safely explore their surroundings in a quiet environment. By avoiding the lobby all together, you're able to keep your cat below their fear threshold in the moments leading up to their appointment, contributing to a more successful exam.

TIP 6: Consider Offering Your Cat Pre-Visit Anxiety Medication

For some cats, their fear, anxiety and stress levels at the vet are so high that despite our best efforts, they still enter into that 'fight, flight or freeze' survival mode we learned about earlier in this blog post. When a pet is in survival mode - a status we also refer to as 'over threshold' - the stress hormones in their body are so elevated, it's nearly impossible for them to have a veterinary experience free from fear, no matter what stress-reducing tactics we implement.

For these patients, we recommend exploring pre-visit anti-anxiety medications, that are often referred to as pre-visit pharmaceuticals or PVPs. These are oral medications that you will give to your cat at home, before each veterinary visit. These medications control and lower the stress levels in your cat's body, helping to keep them below their fear threshold and out of that 'fight, flight, freeze' survival state.

If you think your cat may benefit from pre-visit medications, call our office. We are happy to answer any and all questions you may have about pre-visit medications!


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