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cat behaviour >>PREPARING FOR THE VETERINARY EXAM

If your pet is extremely frightened and/or aggressive, please seek professional advice as a more specific program or even anti-anxiety medications may be required. The information below will be useful for mild-moderately fearful pets.

Many pets are fearful at the veterinary clinic. The key to improving the situation is to teach the pet to accept handling and teaching them that the veterinary clinic is fun. This process is only for the committed owner as it may take weeks to months. It is well worth the time spent though if your pet is more relaxed and enjoys going to the veterinary clinic. It may even help your pet be healthier and recover quicker from illness as stress is known to affect healing. It can also help your pet get to know the clinic staff and then it will be less stressful if your pet has to stay at the clinic. I highly recommend this for all kittens before they visit for their spay/neuter surgery.

The first thing you have to think about is when is the fear starting. If it is starting at home just getting the pet out of the house and to the clinic, then that is where you have to start. If you are kenneling your pet and that is causing anxiety then you need to kennel train first.

So you must know the signs of anxiety and/or aggression first:

  • Dilated pupils (eyes look big); cowering, ears back and or flat out to the side, hackles up, freezing, yowling, panting (a very severe sign), purring (doesn’t always mean the cat is happy).
  • Extremely fearful cats may experience loss of bowel and bladder control. These pets will need professional help.

Relaxed pets will sniff around, be curious, head bump to get pets. Consider how your cat behaves at home. This is our goal!

So, when is the anxiety starting for your pet? I’ll assume it is starting at home with kenneling. For this pet, start with the article “Kenneling Your Pet” and come back here once that is good.

For the pet that has anxiety about car rides, start with “Travel and Your Pet”.

Some areas will have a kitty kindergarten class that may be helpful. I always suggest arranging to watch a class first to ensure that they are using kind and gentle methods with food and praise rewards and no punishment.

In any case, a desensitization program can be followed but with your cat in a carrier or on a harness. You would have to desensitize the cat to the harness and leash too! First, find a tasty treat that your cat likes and cut them into tiny pieces and experiment with them at home. Consider cooked chicken, cheese, chicken wieners, small pieces of beef or any other meat product that your veterinarian approves of. Fast your cat for 5-6 before training periods (twice/day 5 minutes at the most) and see if he/she will accept the treats. If the cat accepts these treats go to the next step. If the cat doesn’t, keep experimenting to find something the cat likes.

Next, take your cat to the clinic and see if your cat will accept treats through the kennel openings or while on harness. If he/she won’t, go back a step and try another day to see if the cat will accept treats in the car and stay with that for a few weeks before trying again. You may need to progress quite slowly by trying in the parking lot, near the door, just inside the door etc. If you are patient it will likely work. If your cat is stressed when removed from the carrier then don’t take him/her out until they are much calmer. See if you can arrange to use an exam room and leave the kennel door open and let the cat come out on its own and explore a bit while being fed treats. This could take some time. If your cat doesn’t offer to come out, take the top off the kennel and just have your cat stay there and see if he/she will take treats. If the pet will take a few treats then pack up and go and continue the process with a longer visit next time. As above watch for signs of fear and stay at the previous step a little longer if necessary. You can also bring a favoured toy and try playing a game!

The next thing your pet will need to do is accept the physical exam. Using treats, get your pet used to eye contact. First hold the treat close enough that the cat can smell it, then bring the treat toward your eyes to encourage the cat to make eye contact. As soon as you and the cat make eye contact feed the cat. Note: If your pet is aggressive, seek professional help with this. Repeat rapidly for 5 – 10 repetitions a few times per day. Eye contact, treat, eye contact treat etc. Treats initially needs to be delivered within a second of eye contact! Later, once they understand, you can make them wait longer. Repeat this process for holding the ear flap (feed treat while holding the ear flap), running your hands over the pet, lifting their tail, examining their paws, and feeling their belly. Consider buying a children’s play stethoscope and wearing a white coat as well. Then listen to the heart behind the elbow on both sides while feeding treats.

The last step is looking at their teeth but only do this if your pet is not aggressive. At first, just handle the muzzle and give a treat if you can do so safely. Progress to just lifting the lips a little and then giving a treat. Continue until you can lift the lips and look at the teeth and gums on both sides. Once this is good at home, then ask your veterinary clinic whether you could come do these things in an exam or waiting room at a quiet time. Once the pet is comfortable with this then ask if a technician could do it. Watch for stress and progress slowly.

Other things to consider:

  • Ask the vet clinic whether you could buy a small bottle of their normal cleaning solution. Then spray this solution on the floor near their food bowl to create a positive association. Of course spray the floor first and let it dry then put the bowl down later!!
  • Consider purchasing a calming spray such as Feliway for cats and spray this in kennels, carriers, the vehicle, the exam room etc. Your vet clinic will be able to sell or order this for you.
  • Consider using an old bath mat and teaching the pet that this is a nice place to be. Have it near their food, spray it with the calming spray, feed treats when pet is on or near it, place it in an area they like to sleep in, etc. You can then take this mat to the clinic with you and put the pet on it. Non-slip bath mats are ideal to put on stainless steel exam tables as some pets are scared on slippery surfaces. They are also great on the bottom of carriers and can easily be washed!

Unless there is an emergency, avoid routine veterinary visits until the program is done as any fearful situation will set the pet back. Consider up dating your vaccines before starting unless your cat is so fearful that your veterinarian doesn’t recommend it.

When you do come for a real visit remind your veterinarian that you are doing this program and ask him/her to go slowly and calmly and avoid nail trims or anything that might frighten the pet for now. If at any point the anxiety returns, you may need to start over. Don’t get discouraged as this program can really improve the quality of life of your pet.

Good luck and may this make your next veterinary visit much more relaxing.

Thank you for caring enough about your pet to read this. Your pet and your vet thanks you for your efforts

Dr. Liana Mawer