Owners often dread the day their cat needs to go to the vet – and with good reason, as these visits can often result in a depressed, anxious feline, struggling to recover from the trauma they’ve experienced. Some may avoid the vets altogether, finding it too upsetting for their four-legged friend. Whilst avoiding stress and upset in the moment, this can, in the long run, also mean medical issues go untreated and important check-ups are missed.
Luckily, there are ways in which we can reduce trauma for our cats, and in turn make the experience a little less difficult for all involved. First we have to understand why these visits are so hard for cats, and the signs and symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Why does my cat find the trip to the vet so difficult, and come away seeming traumatized?
The trauma of vet visits often starts with the journey to the vet. How you take your cat to the vet will depend on whether or not you drive or use public transport, but in any case, you will need to get a pet carrier and arm yourself with patience and understanding.
Cats are notoriously independent, territorial and sensitive animals. Anyone who has been lucky enough to share their home with one will most likely agree that cats have a sensitivity and awareness that is often remarkable. They seem to notice the tiniest changes in furniture layout and daily routine and will protect their home space as if their life depends on it. You only have to observe a cat protecting their territory from visiting felines, to see how deeply ingrained this behaviour is. Imagine then, that as a cat, you are packed into a box, put in a moving car and driven to a place full of unfamiliar smells. The reason your cat hates the vet, starts to become apparent.
Vet visits involve scents of new people, new spaces and other animals and cats can find this very overwhelming. Unfortunately, these trips can be even more traumatizing for indoor cats, who never leave the safety of their home, and are unused to the sounds and smells of new people and places.
Why does my cat get angry on the way to the vet?
The journey itself can set your cat up for trauma, particularly if they have no positive associations of being put in a carrier.
To start with, when buying your carrier, there are certain things you can look out for:
- Your pet carrier should be big enough your cat can comfortably turn and lie down, but not so roomy it feels overwhelming. Some light is good, but too much of a view may make your cat even more nervous. You may want to cover your carrier with a light cloth or blanket.
- Secure the carrier when driving to ensure your cat feels as safe as possible, and once you arrive at the vet, keep the carrier near you and away from the floor. This will prevent your cat from seeing the passing movement of dogs, human legs and other potentially scary things!
From the time your cat is a kitten- or in the case of adopted pets- when you first bring them home, spend a little time each week making the carrier a pleasant place to be. Place soft bedding in the carrier and encourage your cat to enter with some tasty treats. Every time they move towards the carrier or get in it, reward this choice with food they love. This will help build positive associations that good things come when your cat is near the carrier. It may help to wipe a soft cloth around your cat’s face, and then place this inside. The smell offers familiarity which can be very reassuring during scary moments.
My cat is very scared and may scratch the vet: What should I do?
Vet visits for cats are difficult, and your trusted veterinarian will be expecting this. They are fully trained and able to handle cats, so don’t cancel your appointment if you feel your cat needs to be seen. In advance of needing to go to the vet, there are steps that can help set your cat up for as stress-free a visit as possible.
Step one: Work to build positive associations with the pet carrier as soon as your cat comes home. When the time comes to make the journey, be sure to cover the carrier to keep your cat feeling safe and secure.
Step two: Work with your cat as much as possible to desensitize them to being handled. Handle them daily, rewarding every time they let you touch their paws, tail, ears and face. Take this slowly, gradually building on previous sessions as you go. High value food rewards or the option of a game are usually popular rewards.
Step three: Once at the vet, speak to your cat in a calm and reassuring tone. Cats are very sensitive to the environment around them, so if you’re feeling stressed, the likelihood is that your cat will be too! Just remember, vets are trained professionally to handle cats and they see many nervous cats throughout their career. It’s your job as a cat parent is to reassure and remain calm, and let your vet handle the rest.
Why is my cat acting weird after the vet?
If your cat seems traumatized by the vet, you may be wondering why they’re acting weird even once they’ve back in the safety of their own home. As territorial animals, many cats struggle to be away from their home space, and they may arrive back home feeling disoriented and confused.
If you have a multi-cat household, you may witness your resident felines fighting as they become reacquainted, which can be both distressing and worrying to watch. This occurs because the returning cat will arrive back with a different scent to the one they left with. It can help to rub a familiar item of clothing gently over your cat, to replace the unfamiliar scents they’ve brought back home with them.
What does cat anxiety look like?
If your cat is traumatized after a vet visit, you may notice signs of anxiety and discomfort. These can range from obvious signs, such as spraying indoors to mark their territory, hiding, excessive scratching or withdrawal from activities and interaction. If your cat seems angry, this is usually a reaction to fear, so bear this in mind if you see signs of aggressive behaviour.
More subtle signs may be harder to see at first. Look out for behaviours like excessive grooming, meowing or shaking. These are all signs you will need to work with your cat to help them overcome the trauma of the vet visit.
Treating a traumatized cat: 4 techniques to calm for cat after a vet visit
It can be hard to know how best to help your cat if they have been traumatized by the vet. They may withdraw into themselves and hide on returning home, or they may become difficult to handle, trying to run away or biting you when you go to pick them up.
The first step in helping them overcome their traumatic experience, is to remember that trauma is not something we can just move past. We must accept the fear and insecurity that comes with trauma, and work on nurturing their recovery.
Remain calm and reassure your cat
During your vet visit and once back home, remain calm and measured in your reactions. This can be hard, as it’s distressing to see our beloved furry friends upset, but your cat is perceptive to emotion and stress and may pick up on what you’re putting out there. Speak in a low, gentle tone, and be sure to avoid fast movements and raised voices.
Create a safe space and let them be
Part of helping your cat through their trauma at the vet, is to help them feel safe and secure at home. They’ve just experienced a dramatic change in environment, scents and met new people, so they will need time to come back to the happy cat you know and love. A dark, cosy space with familiar blankets can be very reassuring to a traumatized cat.
Let your cat lead
Letting your cat lead when it comes to seeking interaction and attention is a key step in helping them through their trauma. Your cat has just been picked up, handled, and in many cases given a medical treatment that might have been painful. They may not be ready for cuddles as soon as you get home, and it’s important not to force this. Refrain from picking your cat up until they show you they’re ready, and if you live with others, make sure everyone is on the same page. Handling your cat before they’re ready could trigger memories and unsettle them further.
Nurture and pay attention
Building a nurturing, positive connection with your cat once home can really help their recovery. Keeping your cat active through play may help, particularly if they have a favourite chase game or a toy they love.
Advice: Supplements such as L-Theanine, a plant based amino acid, has been shown through studies to decrease anxiety in cats, and this can have positive effects on behaviour and mood. Always speak with your veterinarian before feeding your cat a supplement.
Signs of anxiety, such as excessive grooming or hiding, can also indicate your cat is struggling and may need more support. Keep an eye out for any unusual behaviour, offering reassurance and a safe space as needed.
Visiting the vet can be very traumatic for our feline friends. Whilst prevention – through creating positive associations with handling, the pet carrier and the veterinary surgery at a young age– is always better than cure, this isn’t always possible. Luckily, as sensitive as cats are, they are also resilient and respond well to nurturing from their humans.
If your cat has come back from the vet angry or traumatized, don’t punish them for any unwanted behaviour. Instead, remember they need time to re-adjust and recover emotionally from the experience. Show them you’re there when they want affection and will give them space until they’re ready. They’ll be curling up next to you before you know it.