I've put it off for months, but the dreaded day is here. An hour before the appointment time, I grab the cat carrier from the garage and, faking a nonchalance I’m far from feeling, enter the living room.
Nellie isn’t fooled. Even though she’s my “easy” cat, the only one I can pick up, the one who lies on my lap for hours every evening, I can see it in her eyes: With the carrier in hand, I’m no longer her trusted caregiver but a predator. And so the chase begins.
By the time we arrive at the veterinary clinic, my heart is racing and my head is throbbing in time with the yowls from the backseat. I’m also late. I grab the carrier and racewalk to the clinic entrance, mentally rehearsing excuses for why my pet is nearly a year overdue for her “annual” exam.
When I say that few things in life cause me more anxiety than taking my cats to the vet, I’m not exaggerating … and I’m far from alone.
According to surveys by the American Pet Products Association, less than half of pet owners take their cat to a veterinarian for a routine physical.
It’s not for lack of caring, says Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, a veterinary behaviorist with Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon. Stress—for both owner and pet—is a prime obstacle to people taking their cats to the vet for preventive care.
Over 50% of pet cats in the U.S. don’t receive regular vet exams.
“They’ll hold off until the pet is really sick,” Parthasarathy says. As a result, “care is delayed, and early monitoring and diagnosis go by the wayside.”
Stress also affects the quality of care a pet receives when they eventually get to the vet, says Danielle Bays, senior analyst for cat protection and policy at the Humane Society of the United States. “One of the reasons you want to have regular visits with a vet, you want your vet to know your cat when they’re healthy, not just sick. You also want them to know what your cat is like in a normal state, not when they’re super stressed.”
Parthasarathy agrees, noting that stressed cats often act aggressively, which can prevent the vet from performing a thorough exam or diagnostic tests.
The consequences can be serious. Small problems become big problems, and because cats are masters at hiding illness and pain, by the time their owner notices something is amiss, an animal may have been suffering in silence for weeks or longer.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Parthasarathy tells her clients. “The key to a successful vet visit starts at home.”
If you, like me, have assumed that your cat hating vet visits is simply an immutable fact of life, here are some steps toward a new reality.
Calm approach. Think about your own stress triggers leading up to a vet visit and how you can eliminate or minimize their impact. Avoid scheduling appointments on hectic days, leave yourself plenty of time to prepare and don’t wait until the last minute to get your cat into the carrier. “Cats can be very sensitive and aware of your emotions,” Bays says, “and owner stress adds to cat stress.”
Transport tips. Cats feel more comfortable when surrounded by familiar smells, so avoid the temptation to replace the bedding inside the carrier with something freshly laundered, Bays says. (The vet staff won’t think you’re a slob because the bedding is covered in cat hair, she adds.) Once your cat is secured inside, cover the carrier with a blanket or towel, preferably one with your scent or treated with a feline pheromone spray. The combination of the pheromones and the dark can comfort them, Parthasarathy says, and covering the carrier can help prevent travel sickness.
If you’re driving to the clinic, place the carrier securely in your car, using straps if needed to ensure it won’t slide, bounce or tip over. Avoid making sudden stops and hard turns, and skip the rock music or talk radio in favor of music meant for calming cats.
At the clinic. When you check in, ask the staff if you and your pet can wait in the car until the vet is ready to see you. If you must hang out in the waiting room, keep the carrier covered and, since your cat will feel more secure at an elevated vantage point, place it on a chair or counter rather than the floor. Offer enticing treats through the bars of the carrier and discourage “sniff visits” from curious dogs or other animals. “Vet time doesn’t have to be social time,” Parthasarathy says.
Drug assistance. Talk with your vet about anti-anxiety medications you can give your cat before the vet visit. If your pet gets car sick, consider an anti-emetic drug too. Keep in mind that if your cat isn’t feeling well, they’ll have a lower stress threshold and they may be more sensitive to being touched.
Throughout the process, look at the vet visit from your cat’s perspective, Parthasarathy says, and remember that “they’re not being stubborn, they’re not being brats, they’re scared—that’s the key to all this.”