It’s no wonder your cat is scared of the vet!
The truth is, cats are fearful of new people and new environments. This is built into their survival instincts.
A visit to the veterinarian can bring terror to the independent cat who doesn’t venture out of their secure home very often.
To get the most out of a cat’s visit to the vet, we have to try to lessen their fear or, at best, not make their instinctual fear of strange places and strange hands worse.
Vets and their staff should be working constantly to better serve fearful cats and turn the vet’s office into a more cat-friendly practice.
Before we even worry about how the vet part of the adventure will go, let’s work on getting your cat to the vet with as little anxiety as possible.
What NOT to Do When Your Cat Is Scared of the Vet
All too often, Mr. Peabody’s annual exam begins something like this:
Mr. P was spending his midday napping on his favorite window ledge when he was rudely scooped up and stuffed into a smelly cat box dug out of the garage, complete with a few spiders and mice turds. (Actually, Mr. P might think mice turds are OK.)
Then Mr P. gets swung like a sack in this cold black box, out of his safe house, into a noisy contraption that makes bad sounds, has equally bad music playing, and moves fast over bumps and makes him sick to his stomach.
This big motion sickness monster then comes to a stop.
Mr. P is swung back and forth again in his black hole of a box and enters a foreign country.
In the foreign land, he encounters unknown smells, strange terrain and sees large creatures that speak Woof from the planet Caninaria.
Mr. P is utterly unnerved.
Inside the black hole, the cat is then thrown onto a cold table, and the black hole door is opened. This must be the interrogation room.
Mr. P is now supposed to come out of the hole in his box. Mr. P is now thinking you all must be on kitty crack.
In the interrogation room, he sees Mom, who is a bit frazzled. His familiar kids are hanging from the vet’s mini blinds or playing “puncture my brother’s ear drum” with the otoscope. Mom’s cellphone begins to ring, and the kids direct their attention to Mr. P as they try to drag him out of his box by some newly enhanced interrogation technique.
This scenario is not making Peabody optimally relaxed for his upcoming physical.
A “cat-friendly” trip to the vet should start a bit differently.
Chasing a cat around the house and grabbing them from under the bed, getting scratched and stuffing them into a frightening carrier? You’ve already lost the battle, my friend — because it shouldn’t be a battle.
How to Help a Cat Who’s Scared of the Vet
1. First, 1–2 weeks before the vet visit, acclimate your cat to the carrier at home.
Most cats love to crawl in bags, under beds and in boxes.
You’d think they would love a cat carrier, but not if you try to stuff them into an unfamiliar plastic container 2 seconds before leaving the house.
2. Leave the carrier open at home in a desirable place until your cat enters it readily.
Add catnip, some cat treats or whatever it takes to entice them to enter the carrier and hang out in it — that’s your goal.
3. Once your cat is happy going in and out of the carrier, begin to condition them to your car, too.
Place a blanket around the carrier and carefully put the carrier in the back seat of the car. Shut the car door. Don’t go anywhere.
Wait 2 minutes. Open the car door, and bring the cat back inside.
Do this several days in a row and work up to driving your cat down the driveway and around the block.
- Cats like perches. The floor may not be the best place to leave the carrier. Does your cat often nap in a quiet area away from family antics? Try leaving the carrier in a safe place.
- Line the carrier with a favorite snuggle blanket or that laundry your cat curled up on last week. Cats like warm, soft places.
- Give treats as immediate rewards once they enter the carrier. If your cat loves fishing line toys, this is a good exercise to play in and around the carrier openings.
- Fearful cats may benefit from Feliway Behavior Modifier Spray used about 30 minutes before you put the carrier down in the desired place.
- Acclimating a cat to a carrier can take several weeks for some cats. Be patient.
- If your cat is still terrified of the carrier after many attempts, try a completely different carrier.
In the video below, cat expert Jackson Galaxy demonstrates how to acclimate a cat to a carrier in advance of a vet visit:
What Kind of Carrier Is Best for a Cat Who’s Scared of the Vet?
There are cat carriers, and then there are black holes. Many people own the black hole cat carrier.
Hard boxes with thousands of fasteners and a front port of entry are not cat-friendly. It figures this is the typical carrier sold at most discount and big box stores or the kind you can borrow from your neighbor.
Carriers made of soft material with zippers rather than a million screws and clunky, loud hardware and with multiple places for entry and exit are more desirable for cats, in my mind.
The Soft-Sided Pet Carrier looks great, for example. It has everything you need for quick, routine visits to the vet, but it also conforms to the under-seat dimensions of most airlines in case longer travel is needed.
No matter which carrier you choose, there should be easy access from the top.
Once at the vet, as you easily remove or open the top of the carrier, your fearful cat deserves the right to stay in the bottom portion of the carrier if necessary.
Put your cat’s favorite treats and toys in the carrier at home well before you visit the vet. A vet who is sensitive to cat behavior will also have treats of different types in the exam room. This is one time when we can spoil your kitty with feline junk food.
Or Is a Cat Stroller Right for You?
We love the great tip we got from a reader recently. She suggests a cat stroller, rather than a regular old carrier — especially for those of you who walk to the vet instead of taking car rides to the vet.
“My cat loves it,” she says of the stroller. “She can sit up. She can decide whether she wants more privacy, in the back covered area, or wants a really good view of the world, in the front. I put a comfy pillow and towels in it. It has a rudimentary shock absorber system, so she enjoys a much smoother ride.”
She adds: “When we arrive to the clinic, we are both less stressed out, and that makes for a better visit. My vet and her staff appreciate the fact that it’s easy to open from the top and it rolls — making it easy to transport her comfortably from the exam room, to the procedure area and to X-ray.”
Cat Carrier vs. Exam Table
Getting your cat into a box when the cat is not on board with the plan is no small task.
The absurd conundrum of the cat box is hilarious in and of itself:
- At home, you can’t get the cat into the box. You become distressed. You are out of breath. You may look like the victim of a home invasion when all is said and done.
- Then, when you finally arrive at the vet, your cat won’t come out of the box.
At least this time, you sigh, the vet staff can deal with extracting the cat from the box.
Once the exam is over, you sit back and think, “Ah ha! Now let’s watch the professionals wrangle my kitty back into the box.”
But no. Kitty walks right in. No blood, sweat or tears. Kitty looks snug as a bug in a box. Clearly, kitty prefers the box to the exam table. You can go home now.
Traveling by Car With Your Fearful Cat
How many of you take your cat for joy rides? The answer is not too many.
- Dogs with ears flapping in the breeze are a common sight.
- Cats peering out of car windows? Not so much.
Your cat deserves to be acclimated to the car gradually.
On your appointment day, it would be great if there were no extraneous stops for coffee, picking up kids from school or carpooling. Your pet deserves a designated driver and an upgrade to first class.
Quick tips for a less fearful car ride when your cat is scared of the vet:
- Once it’s go time, a quiet drive directly to the vet without stops is ideal.
- Soothing music or quiet words of reassurance may help during the drive.
- Strap the carrier in a seat belt or have someone hold the carrier so it’s stable.
- Medications from your vet for car sickness or anxiety are helpful for cats who need them.
- Over-the-counter supplements, such as Zylkene, Solliquin and Bach Rescue Remedy, may help the anxious cat.
Pick a Cat-Friendly Vet
Feline-only vet clinics and hospitals are great — their comfortable and quiet waiting rooms are pretty helpful.
If your vet hospital is small and doesn’t have a separate cat waiting area, ask to be put into an exam room or a quiet space as soon as you come in.
- If you must wait for your appointment, your cat may be happier with you in the car. Ask the staff to fetch you when they are ready for your visit.
- A cat-sensitive vet will not place your cat on a scary steel surface. If the vet isn’t so understanding, ask for a soft blanket or towel.
- Another tactic is to leave a cat who’s scared of the vet in the carrier. I have done entire exams with the cat remaining in the carrier as long as it has a top opening.
Is a Multiple-Cat Visit to the Vet a Good Idea?
Many people have more than one cat, and a multiple-cat visit may be easier on the person bringing the cats in. Often, this is great for easygoing cats as well.
But for the cat who is scared of the vet or doesn’t get along with their cat-buddy, even at home, the multiple-cat visit can be stressful. They may hear their housemate screaming in the other carrier, adding to the stress.
A multiple-cat visit also takes longer. In some cases, it’s better to do separate visits.
Speak Up If You’re Unhappy
There are all kinds of vets, vet techs and cats.
If you don’t like how your cat is being handled or your cat is more upset than normal, speak up — a good practice will be sensitive to your needs.
- What if your cat is normally fine at the vet, but a dog was howling in the back?
- Or it was thundering during the ride over?
- Or a new smell set your cat off?
- Or your cat just didn’t like the technician or the vet?
You have the right to say your cat is acting stranger than usual. Again, good vets will listen.
In any of the situations I mentioned above, try to work with your cat at home before any vet visit. It can help a lot.
Final Thoughts on a Cat Who’s Scared of the Vet
Even cats who seem more carefree and easy-going sense stress and fear more than we realize.
All cats deserve some special attention when they are being asked to do something unfamiliar.
Cats rule. We are simply their humble servants.
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- “Getting Your Cat to the Veterinarian.” American Association of Feline Practitioners and International Society of Feline Medicine. https://catvets.com/public/PDFs/ClientBrochures/Cat-to-VetHandout.pdf.
- Khuly, Patty. “Cat Freak Out at Specter of Vet Visit? Here’s What to Try.” Miami Herald. Aug. 3, 2017. https://www.miamiherald.com/living/pets/article165229957.html.
- Hunter, Tammy, DVM, and Cheryl Yuill, DVM. “Reducing the Stress of Veterinary Visits for Cats.” VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/reducing-the-stress-of-veterinary-visits-for-cats.
- “Scaredy Cat, No More! Getting Your Cat to the Vet.” Pleasant Paws Veterinary Care. Feb. 26, 2015. http://www.pleasantpawsvetcare.com/blog/2015/2/26/scaredy-cat-no-more-getting-your-cat-to-the-vet.
- “How to Help Your Cat’s Fear of Vets.” Happy Cats Haven. https://happycatshaven.org/knowledgebase/how-to-help-your-cats-fear-of-vets/.