Miles Bensky, BA, CTC
When I read the September edition of the Animal Behavior Associates newsletter, I found a statistic that was quite alarming. It was estimated that 36% of the 81 million cats in the United States did not see a vet in 2006. Why are so many cats not receiving regular healthcare? Regular checkups are key to preventing future health conditions and potential causes for behavioral problems. It is likely because many people find trips to the vet to be a nightmare. The whole occasion is simply too stressful for their cat and for themselves. Therefore, I thought I would outline some basic tips about making a trip to the vet less traumatic on your feline friend.
For your cat, a trip to the veterinarian involves dealing with one stressful situation after another. They are put in a carrier, loaded into a car, and driven away from their familiar surroundings. They then arrive to an unfamiliar building full of the smells, sounds, and sights of other animals… and all of this just to be handled and examined by strangers. All these unfamiliar factors cause some level of anxiety in your cat, and that anxiety tends to accumulate. They likely only occur in the context of going to the vet, so each event begins to predict that more stressful events are to come. It is then no surprise that after a couple of trips to the vet, you now have an extremely anxious cat as soon as you pull out the carrier. However, there are things that you can do to make this anxiety-ridden trip less stressful for your feline friend. Here are some helpful tips:
Work on getting your cat used to their carrier. Place comfortable bedding inside and leave it out for them to explore. Put favorite toys or special treats inside. As they become used to the carrier, you can also start feeding them inside. DO NOT rush your cat into the carrier, and just close the door. Let your cat dictate the speed of the exercise. Once they are comfortable entering the carrier on their own, start closing the door for progressively longer amounts of time, reinforcing your cat while he is inside.
Get your cat used to riding in the car. Once they are calm going into their carrier, start taking them out for short car rides. Be sure to give them special treats while they are in the car. You do not have to go anywhere in particular, but this will get them used to being driven around, and they will learn that going into the car does not always mean they are going to the vet.
However, do go to the vet occasionally, even if you do not have an appointment. People often recommend that dogs should be taken to the vet just to get weighed and greeted by the staff to make it a positive experience, so why not do this with cats. Take them in; have them sit in the lobby for a bit while you give them treats. Have staff members give them treats, and pet them. Then just go home. We want these casual visits to be very positive for your cat.
Have your cat become more accustomed to be handled by strangers. Recruit neighbors / friends to come over to handle your cat. Similar to the carrier work explained above, do not push your cat. Allow your cat to move at his or her own pace. Steps in handling should be gradual. Reward them for coming to people, and allowing them to pet them. Once they are comfortable around these people, have the person slowly increase the intensity of handling by touching the paws and tail, then holding the paws, and so on. Constantly reward the cat as progress is made. We want body handling to be an extremely positive experience.
Doing these exercises will create positive associations with these different stressful situations. Make sure to use reinforcers that are high value (wet food, tuna fish, anchovy paste, spray cheese) and particularly in the beginning, keep your rate of reinforcement high. Doing the work now will make future routine trips a breeze, and emergency trips less hectic.
Do you have tips for getting your cat to the veterinarian that you’re willing to share? Maybe you have a funny story about taking your cat to the vet. We love to hear from our cat owners, so feel free to share an idea or a story.