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Cat’s Night Out and Other Ideas to Reduce Stress for Your Cat

July 22, 2013

There is a saying in veterinary medicine: Cats are not small dogs. We use it mostly as a reminder about how unique cats are and how that affects everything from their nutritional needs to what drugs they can take safely to what their common medical problems are, but it also applies to their behavior. Although every individual is different, in general cats do not always embrace change gracefully or enjoy having new experiences or meeting strangers. Depending on an individual cat’s personality, this can make everything about even a routine visit to the veterinarian’s office stressful for your cat and, by extension, for you.

One of the ways we are trying to minimize your cat’s stress at the clinic is by instituting a special monthly cats-only evening of appointments called Cat’s Night Out. Held on the first Tuesday of each month from 5-8 pm, this is a time where we set aside all routine scheduled appointments for cats only* to keep the clinic quieter. To calm cats and reduce stress, we also have Feliway (calming pheromone) diffusers running in our exam rooms, warmed towels for the exam tables, aromatherapy, subdued lighting, and calming music playing. If your cat has an upcoming appointment due and you are interested in Cat’s Night Out, simply request it when you call to schedule.

(*Note that on Cat’s Night Out we do not schedule any routine appointments for dogs, but if an emergency arises for one of our dog patients that cannot wait until the following day, we will accommodate them. We do this in the least disruptive manner possible, having them arrive through the back door of the clinic to avoid travel through the waiting area and using only the exam room closest to the back door/farthest down the hall.)

Regardless of when your appointment is scheduled, there are also some things you can do at home before and after your visit to ease stress for your cat.

First, the carrier. Because often the only time cats see their carrier is when they are being taken to the veterinarian, just the sight of it can trigger some anxiety. To help counteract this, periodically take your carrier out of storage and leave it somewhere around the house for a week or two with the door open or unzipped. This is a good idea not only during the time period leading up to an appointment; if you can, try to remember to do it about once a month throughout the year. Don’t force your cat to interact with it, as it is important for cats to be able to explore things at their own pace, but put some tasty treats inside from time to time to encourage investigation. Over time, the appearance of the carrier will become a familiar sight that is not always associated with a vet visit. Also, you can use a product called Feliway sprayed lightly inside the carrier can help make cats perceive it as a safe place. (Feliway is a synthetic version of the facial pheromone cats leave behind when they rub their faces on things to mark them. It therefore marks things as “safe” possessions or territory and has a natural calming effect on cats. It is available as a spray or diffuser.)

Cats are very alert to changes in routine that may tip them off about your intentions, such as coming home from work in the middle of the day. So on your appointment day, if your routine will be different, consider confining your cat in a comfortable space such as the bedroom with resources (food, water, litter) so you do not have to go through a stressful search, chase, or trying to extract your cat from a hiding place when you get home and may be pressed for time. A Feliway diffuser in the room or lightly spraying the room with Feliway can also help calm your cat.

Once your cat is more familiar with the carrier, getting him or her into the carrier should be easier. But it can still be difficult to make cats do things they do not want to do. In a separate blog post, I will post a video with commentary that demonstrates my preferred method for putting a cat in a carrier, but no technique works for every cat. Please call the clinic if you are having difficulties and need ideas or help.

Car trips can be tricker. When you are starting with a new kitten, taking them for frequent “rides to nowhere” (just short trips without any real destination) and continuing this throughout their life can set car rides up as a familiar, non-threatening experience. It is possible to acclimate adult cats to car rides, but it takes some work and can be time-consuming and tricky. Please call to speak to one of the doctors if you would like to try this, but if your car ride to our office is short, it may be best to simply work on other parts of decreasing the stress of a visit.

Occasionally, some cats become so stressed by a visit to the clinic that they are virtually impossible to handle. Please understand that these cats are not being “bad” or difficult on purpose, they are simply very, very afraid and stressed and having an extreme version of a “fight or flight” response; since they cannot get away, the only option they see is to fight. For these cats, sedatives prior to a visit may be helpful. If you feel that this describes your cat, please call the clinic to discuss this as an option.

After your appointment, when you get home open the door to the carrier and let your cat come out in his or her own time. The carrier may feel like a safe haven for awhile and cats may choose to stay inside of it for some period of time, even if they did not seem to like being in it before you got home. If you have multiple cats, it is a good idea keep the cat who was at the clinic separated from the cat(s) who stayed home for a few hours if possible. It is not unusual for the cat(s) who stayed home to appear not to recognize the cat who went to the clinic; stress may alter their pheromones and behavior, and they may have picked up some unfamiliar smells at the clinic. This period of separation allows everyone time to “cool off” and be in a calmer state of mind before seeing one another again.

We hope these tips help make you and your cat’s next visit to our clinic less stressful. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call the clinic to speak to a doctor.

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