How to calm a scared cat for a stress-free vet visit

Does the thought of taking your cat to the vet fill you with dread? Follow these practical tips to make it a calmer experience for both you and your pet.

From a cat’s perspective, going to the vet is not much fun. Not only do they associate it with being poked and prodded, having inoculations, or feeling unwell, but cats are naturally independent, sensitive to different smells and need to be in control of their surroundings – all of which can make visits to the clinic a bit tricky.

1. Do a mock-examination at home

In the consulting room, your cat will be examined on a table. At home, cats are often actively discouraged from getting up on tables and so may find the situation at the clinic strange. It’s a good idea to get your cat used to the experience in advance of the appointment. You could use a small folding table specifically for this task. Ensure the table surface is not slippery (which will panic your pet) by covering it with a rubber mat.

Help prepare your cat for being handled by the vet by giving them a quick mock examination – look into their ears and eyes, and gently open their mouth and hold their feet.

Something else that can be useful is pretending to listen to your cat’s chest with a toy stethoscope – this will help them become accustomed to what may happen during the appointment. The more often you repeat the experience in a non-threatening place, the more normal the situation will seem at the vet. Using treats while you do this can also help to reinforce a positive association with being handled.

2. Get your cat used to her carrier

Have you ever geared up for a visit to the vet, only to find the cat flap blowing in the breeze as your pet hightails it out of there? This isn't a new-found feline psychic power.

'It's actually the sight of the cat carrier that rings their alarm bells,' says APBC animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar. 'Your cat has come to associate the carrier with the fearful experience of being bundled into it and then taken on a noisy bus or car journey. As cats rarely venture beyond their own home territory, any trip away from their familiar surroundings can be very stressful for them – meaning it needs to be handled with great care.'

You can greatly reduce the stress factor for you and your cat by keeping their carrier out permanently, or leaving it out for several days before the vet visit. Clicker training can be a great way to ease your cat into her carrier. You could also try putting her usual blanket in it, so she enjoys venturing inside and sleeping on it.

'Scent is very important to cats, and yours will be much happier to go in the carrier and settle down if it can smell its own pheromones on the bedding,' says Inga. 'If that's not possible, use a synthetic pheromone spray instead, and spritz it in the carrier at least half an hour before use.

'It's also crucial to cover the carrier with a blanket or towel at all times. A stressed and frightened cat wants to hide in the dark, not feel exposed to the world.'

3. Limit your time in the waiting room

The smells and sounds of the waiting room experience might make your cat feel scared, which can make you feel stressed, too – something your pet is bound to pick up on, and can, in turn, increase its fear even further.

'Limit the time you spend in the waiting room by keeping your cat outside in the car until you're about to be called into your appointment,' Inga advises. 'If your practice has the time and is happy to help, it can be a good idea to have a quick word with the receptionists and ask them to phone you when it's your pet's turn.

'Some veterinary surgeries have special quiet, cat-friendly waiting areas, so it's worth seeing if there's a practice near you that offers this kind of space. If you do have to be in the main waiting area, steer clear of anyone with a dog and keep your cat's carrier covered and on your lap so that no other animals can come sniffing around and potentially upset it,' says Inga. And don't worry about having to be polite for the sake of it. 'Keep anyone who wants to peep in and say hello to your pet at a distance. The fewer disturbances, the better.'

Some cats will be reassured by their owner's familiar voice and touch, so stroking them and talking to them through the carrier can help. But never be tempted to open the carrier – no matter how pitiful their meows are – as they may well make a dash for freedom.

4. Take a treat with you

Once in the consulting room with the vet, your cat may refuse to come out of the carrier, and could try to bite or scratch at any attempt to entice them out.

'Your vet should be adept at gently handling stressed animals, but make sure to stick with one who you know is strong on these skills, as well as on medical knowledge,' advises Inga. She also recommends investing in a top-opening cat carrier, preferably with optional opening flaps on the side.

'If your cat is lifted out from the top, rather than being dragged reluctantly out of a more traditional tunnel-shaped carrier, it will be calmer and less likely to try to defend itself with its claws or teeth,' says Inga. 'Ideally, lift your pet out from the top yourself, and calmly talk to it and stroke it while doing so.

'If your cat is super-stressed, it may need to be wrapped in a towel by the vet, so it can't scratch and bite while being examined. Once the vet has finished checking it, give it a special treat such as a piece of chicken. This will help it begin to form a positive association with the vet's room. And take it as a good sign if it tucks in, as a very anxious cat won't be tempted by food.

'Then place your cat back in the carrier, cover it once more, and pay your bill as quickly as possible. You could even check with your practice whether it might be possible for you to take your pet home, before nipping back in later to settle up and collect any medications.'

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