Fear-Free Vet Visits – How Wonderful!
If you’re a cat lover, you should also love the new shift within the veterinary profession. It’s called the Fear Free movement - and it’s a movement that’s super important… and long overdue.
The Fear Free movement is a recognition (finally) that one of the greatest barriers that keeps cats from getting the veterinary evaluations and care they need isn’t the cost of veterinary care, nor the busy lives that pet owners lead (although both of these reasons certainly are contributing causes). Rather it’s the stress and anxiety that cats show, and the anxiety that their people anticipate and perceive when undertaking a trip to the veterinarian’s office.
*Of course, another significant barrier to cats getting the care they need is a general misconception that cats are the “low maintenance” pets and they don’t actually need routine check-ups and care, which is untrue. But that’s a topic for another blog post… which just so happens to be here. But I digress.
The Fear Free principles are, in large part, based on the wonderful work of the late, great Dr. Sophia Yin, as well as Dr. Karen Overall, and a lot of other wonderful animal behaviorists, trainers, and veterinarians. Dr. Marty Becker has, along with others, taken up the mantle to educate about, promote, and further the principles of the Fear Free movement. And, as you would expect, he’s proving to be a great spokesperson and champion for the cause.
Now, while there are many things that we within the profession can be doing (and, in an increasing number of cases, are doing), there are also some simple things that you can be doing with your pets at home, both on a regular basis and in advance of a veterinary visit, to help ensure as peaceful an experience as possible… for everyone involved.
What to Do to Minimize Your Cat’s Stress When Going to the Vet
- Every now and again, take your cat for a quick social visit to your vet’s office. No needles, no weight checks, and NO temperature taking… just some petting, socializing, and treating. Doing so can greatly help to prevent or break the association of the vet’s office with stress — especially if you start doing this when your cat is just a kitten.
- Take out and get your cat’s carrier into their environment a few days prior to the trip to the vet. If practical and if it fits in with your home decor, consider leaving your cat’s carrier out in their environment on a daily basis, allowing them to explore, sleep, play, and maybe even eat in it. This way they won’t associate the carrier just with the trips to the vet. Check out these additional tips for making your cat carrier a cat-friendly place.
- Spray Feliway, a calming pheromone for cats, into your cat’s carrier and on the seat in your car.
- Use catnip or catnip oil (diluted) in your cat’s carrier. (Just be careful, as some cats can get extremely hyper on it!)
- Leave yourself plenty of time to get to the vet’s. Aim to leave the house 10 minutes earlier than you think you’d need to get there, and prepare everything for your trip several hours in advance (the night before is great, if possible and practical). Not only will this help you minimize your own stress, but it’ll also help you drive safely and with minimal erratic stops and starts, which could otherwise contribute to your cat’s anxiety and car sickness.
- Safely restrain your cat within the car for the trip to (and from) the vet’s office. This isn’t only a safety issue (for everybody), but it can also help your cat feel more secure and decrease the anxiety they may feel during car travel. Read other tips for decreasing travel anxiety (and car sickness) in pets here.
- Book one of the earlier morning appointment slots with your vet, this way they’re less likely to be running behind and your wait will likely be minimized. (If your wait is to be delayed, and as long as it isn’t too hot or cold outside, consider waiting in the car with your cat until your vet’s team can put you directly into an exam room.)
- Play calming music in the car on the way to the vet’s office. Either a Classical music station or CD, or a pet-specific calming CD, such as those in the Through A Cat’s Ear series.
- For cats that get particularly stressed during trips to the vet, continue doing the above but also talk to your veterinarian about possible pre-visit medication options you can administer at home and also check to see if your vet does housecalls. Either or both of those may help diffuse the situation enough to allow even the most stressed kitty get the care they need and deserve.
- If you have a dog, check out these dog-specific tips.
One last note and suggestion. This one is based not just on my experiences and observations within the clinic, but also on some early childhood experiences with my own routine medical care. When I was younger and my Mom would take me to the doctor for shots, blood draws, or anything else involving needles, I would have this automatic, almost instinctual fear of the trip and the procedures. The root cause of this struck me at some point as my Mom was literally squeezing the blood and feeling out of my hand during a shot.
You see, my Mom would always hold my hand whenever such procedures were being done to me, saying “just squeeze my hand if you get nervous or if it’s hurting.” One day I realized that it was her, not me initiating the hand squeezing (and BOY could she squeeze!). I, of course, read that cue as “my Mom is nervous about what’s happening, so it’s got to be bad and I too should be nervous.” Fortunately, I’ve since reset and overcome that connection — of course, my Mother no longer holds my hand at the doctor either… which would just be weird if she did (I’m 41 years old, after all). The point though is this… in the process of trying to calm and reassure me, my Mother inadvertently heightened my anxiety and made matters worse.
I’ve seen similar situations time and time again in the veterinary hospitals in which I’ve worked. Well-intentioned and concerned pet owners triggering and reinforcing their cat’s anxiety with the procedures taking place. Oftentimes — in fact, in the vast majority of the times — the pet’s anxiety and struggle disappears when the owner leaves the room or the pet is “taken to the back.” So that brings up one other thing you can consider doing to help minimize your pet’s distress at the vet… work to keep your own fears and anxieties down, and if that’s not possible, consider leaving the room or asking the veterinary team to bring your cat to the back for their procedures and treatments. Trust me… both the veterinary team AND your pet will understand, and they’ll likely both thank you for it, too.
Does your vet do anything specifically to help reduce your pet’s fear and anxiety during visits or hospital stays? Do you do any of the things above, or anything else, yourself to help reduce your pet’s vet visit fear and anxiety? We’d love to hear your thoughts and what’s working and not working for you and your pets. Please share in the comments section below. And, of course, please share these suggestions with any friends or family members who themselves, or their pets, dread going to the vet.