Feline Friday: Why Cats Hate Vets & What To Do

This whole week has been National Take Your Cat to the Vet Week, and today even the savvy dog folks like Magical Dawg and Fidose of Reality are promoting the idea. Dogs care about their cat buddies, too (even if they won’t always admit it!).

Cats get the short end of the health care stick. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats visit the vet much less frequently than dogs. It’s not that felines are healthier, although cats do hide illness better.

Cats also are insured less frequently, which is why Pets Best Insurance has launched a low cost feline-only illness cat insurance plan to help cat owners provide the best veterinary care to their pets. You can get a free quote here.

I also got an email on behalf of Healthy Paws Pet Insurance & Foundation noting that summertime claims often increase due to pets spending more time outside. Even healthy cats that are kept safe indoors need “well-cat” exams once or twice a year. But many cats hate the vet so much they morph into “Demon-Kitty.”

Cats protect themselves from stranger danger. What’s familiar is safe, while anything new or different raises kitty suspicions. A vet visit delivers a triple-whammy by changing the cat’s routine, environment, and exposure to strangers.


Crate Expectations. Cats learn very quickly to recognize cause-and-effect. The appearance of the cat carrier prompts kitty disappearing acts if used only for vet visits. Make the carrier part of the furniture. Add a fuzzy bed or catnip toys inside, to create a pleasant association. Check out this award-winning video on cat crate training tips from Catalyst Council.

Car Rides. While humans see out windows and know what’s happening, the cats-eye-view from the carrier offers movement without warning. Odd sounds and being in a strange environment raises cat blood pressure and might even prompt motion sickness. Covering the view with a towel over the carrier’s door helps some cats. But simply taking Kitty for many short rides around the driveway (and never going to the vet!) followed by treats or games can diminish the nerves. Check out these 8 tips for car travel with cats.

Scary Smells. Cats experience life through their nose. The unfamiliar scent of the hospital—antiseptic, strangers, other animal’s fear—can ramp up kitty fright factor. A pheromone product like Comfort Zone with Feliway that the kitty sniffs can help sooth environmental stress. Feliway comes as a spray that can be spritzed on a towel inside the carrier.

Strange Pets. Nothing turns cats into hiss-terical claw-monsters like barking dogs or meowing cats. When confined inside the carrier, your frightened cat can’t flee, so the fight-or-flight instinct leaves few options. She may redirect her fear aggression on the nearest target—you, or the vet staff. Ask to schedule your cat’s exam early in the morning or at slow times to avoid a busy waiting room. Some vet practices have separate waiting rooms and entrances for cats and dogs so your pet never has to see or hear a strange critter. For my Seren-Kitty, the feline Thundershirt helped enormously to reduce kitty stress. I’ve even got a video of Seren wearing the thundershirt here.

Cold Table. While cats may hate getting into the carrier, being dumped on a cold metal table elevates the “strangeness” of the experience. After all, Kitty-Boy’s preferred lounging spots are the windowsill with a view, the soft top of the sofa, or a table underneath a warm lamp. Take along a towel or even the cat’s bed that smells like your cat to make the exam table more feline friendly. Some cat specialty practices have exam room windows with bird feeders outside, or water fountains and fish tanks for kitty viewing distraction.

Weird People. The vet and clinic staff love animals, but to your cat, they’re from Mars. Maybe they wear uniforms and smell like dogs (spit!), and don’t ask permission to pet. The cat might be handled by several different people—the vet tech for temperature or stool sample, for example, and later the veterinarian. Reducing the numbers of individual handlers may help. Scheduling enough time so the cat doesn’t feel rushed also can ease the tension.

Rude Handling. Having a cold thermometer inserted into kitty nether regions is no way to make friends. Needle sticks for vaccinations aren’t much fun, either, but are necessary. The veterinarian and staff often need to hurry the exam along. It’s up to owners to offer treats or toys during and immediately after any upsetting procedure to help change how your cat feels about the vet visit. It can be helpful to find a cat friendly practice–here’s a list to start you off.

Cats remember discomfort, fear, and bad experiences and expect them in the future. But they also remember GOOD experiences and anticipate accordingly.

Ask about bringing your kitten for “fun visits” to meet and get used to the vet and staff so they can simply play and be pet rather than examined and treated. Repeated happy visits take the scary out of the equation. Make vet visits more pleasant, and your cat will be happier—and healthier.

Do YOUR cats turn into “demon kitties” at the vet? How do you manage the angst? What about pet insurance, are your cats covered?

I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, listen to the weekly radio show, check out weekly FREE PUPPY CARE newsletter, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter. Stay tuned for more news about my forthcoming THRILLER, LOST & FOUND!


Feline Friday: Why Cats Hate Vets & What To Do — 21 Comments

  1. Gosh, does THIS speak to me! It’s absolute HELL to get the cats to the vet. Stressful for us all. I have to start 20 minutes just to do a sneak attack to get each in their crate otherwise the war is on. Then 10 minutes of howling all the way there. Awful! Thank goodness they are healthy kitties! Any other advice on how to get them in the crate first? I may try the freindly crate scene and leave it out with their toys in it (ahem…my sons stuffed animals!)

    • I keep my carriers out at all times so the cats are used to them but even more importantly I feed some of my cats in the carriers. That way the ones that eat in them know them mostly as the dining room. The others think of it as a place they are not allowed in sometimes and, well, you know cats just have to get into those places they are not allowed in!

  2. So timely! I posted a humorous spin on taking your cat to the vet week on Cat Chat today http://opcatchat.blogspot.com/2012/08/take-your-cat-to-vet-week.html

    I am blessed that my first cat and my current cat never had significant problems at the vet.
    One way I conquered the horrible “crate fear” is to leave the crate out ALL YEAR…I leave the door open on it as well. When it makes an appearance just on vet days then the cat associates it with the vet.

    I keep myself CALM ….(even on non-routine visits) Cats are uber-sensitive and if WE get all worked up we transfer those feelings on to them.

    If I am driving I put the crate next to me in the front seat, facing me. At red lights I pet his nose…I always sing or talk silly to him and I play nice, soothing or cheerful music in the car ride.

    With some cats there isn’t much you can do, depends on the personality of the cat, but with many…if we keep ourselves COOL, the cat often will be too!

  3. Anubis’ most recent visit was not too long ago. Not only did we forget the Feliway (horriblr crime), but it turned out the place was already busy on a Friday morning, and they took him into a different exam room than normal with a metal table instead of the laminated countertop. The vet finally got to really see the possible-bobcat side, and why his daddy has to do all the handling. Thankfully he didn’t start bucking and flailing during the shots, but he had to be held down pretty hard when she first laid hands on him to check his heartbeat – he’s already been to this vet a couple times before, but this time he decided he was going to hiss and bare fangs. He got into that defensive crouch and we had to keep him from whipping around and making an attack. Of course, poor guy has it worse off because his first experience with a vet was HORRIBLE – when James got him, he was just a baby and COVERED in fleas. First trip involved getting him a flea bath, and as they dipped him tons of fleas just came crawling up out of his fur, onto his face, in his eyes, anything to get away from the medicated water. I’d say that’s enough to scar a kitty for life! Thanks to that we also have to deal with a tasmanian devil every time we put flea meds on him too.

    Simba… well… so far she just thinks she goes to the vet to get petted a lot. I figure she’ll change her mind once I figure out what regular shots she still needs… last time she was stuck with needles, she was still a barn kitty. But I want to start getting her vaccinated for the easily-transmittable stuff again before I start doing more heavy shelter volunteering and such again (also want to get myself a rabies shot before I do that – not looking forward to it, I hear even the pre-exposure shot can make you pretty sick).

    Thankfully Anubis is getting SLIGHTLY less averse to the crate now that we’ve been packing him up during storms too. Last few times before the vet visit, we just hauled him down the road during tornado warnings since we don’t have a basement but my folks do. Of course, I’m told last time, it was SIMBA who had to be hunted down and shoved in (I was still at work). Figures. She always knows to wait nearby if I’m home.

      • Amy, my cats in general have always disliked vets–the car ride, the crate, the unfamiliar feel of being outside, the smell of the clinic. Just bringing out the crate scattered them to the four winds, and once we found them, getting them into the crate was a battle.

        Two weeks ago, though, our oldest cat, Casey, lost the use of his right side, and a stroke was the vet’s best guess. He was alert and manage pretty well for two weeks, adjusting to the weakness of one side. Sunday we could tell it was wearing on him, though. Monday we took him back to the vet and he let me hold him all the way, no crate, no nothing. Just me holding him. He barely fought the vet but settled down almost at once. The whole time he was administering the medicine, the vet kept telling us, “I am so sorry. Just so sorry.” He was very gentle, and in the end, I think Casey appreciated it.

        As with all my cats, I wrote an obituary which, if anyone is interested, can be found at http://www.caroljohnson.net/blog. He was a special cat, and your blog has helped me more than once through his life.

        • Oh Carol, I am so very sorry for your loss. And I agree, Casey is likely discussing the merits of various kinds of ice cream . . . I’m glad that my blog has helped in a small way. Thanks for sharing Casey’s last vet visit with us.

    • Karyl,
      I’ve had the pre-exposure vaccinations and didn’t have much of a reaction at all, just a little achiness like a tetanus shot. Some people can react to them though. You just don’t know but that is true of all vaccinations. Only 6% of vaccinated people have a “serious” reaction.

      Believe me, these new vaccines are so much better than the old duck embryo vaccines! I had to go through a series of those back in the ’70s when I was exposed to rabies and they DID make me sick. I’m glad we have this new human cell line-derived vaccine available to us now.

  4. Our cat, Mischief, was run over when she was about 8 weeks old, and had to have her crushed rear femur heads replaced (because she was so little, they had to make her back end about an inch higher than her front–but even until she “grew into her back height” she was climbing trees again and driving us crazy within a week of the operation). Consequently, she’s always since been terrified of cars, so taking her for any extra trips were just not an option. And though our vet is one of the few people my cat “doesn’t hate” (that’s as close to “like” as she gets for everyone except me–but then, I belong to her), she has no difficulty letting people know she doesn’t want to be at the vet’s office while she’s waiting for Doc to come check her out. She’s always been a very vocal cat, and early in her life (she’s almost 17 now), she would warble out a succession of “NO” the whole way there and back. When she was two, on our way in, she started the “NO chorus” and I kept repeating, “We’ll go home soon, Missy. We’ll go home soon, kitty, don’t worry.” She freaked the vet tech out that day when we were in the observation room, when Missy started warbling what sounded exactly like “Gooooo Hommmmme”. The tech was one I’d known for years, and she came in wearing a shocked face saying, “Is she talking? Is she saying she wants to go home?” I explained the ride over, and she left shaking her head. Yes, my cat has warbled “Gooooooo Hooommmme” and “Noooooo” many times since then–always in the vet’s office after the car ride.


  5. Our cat totally turns into demon kitty when it’s time for the vet ~ and flea medication, now that I think about it. I’ll have to try some of your tips to get her more vet friendly. Once we’re there, she’s pretty good, but I know she’s terrified and that just breaks my heart.

    • Tameri, it seems that often the cats act totally the opposite of normal. The shy cats get confident and aggressive, and the confident vocal kitties shut down and shut up. They do exactly the opposite of what we expect!

  6. This article could not have come at a better time as I am going to adopt a gray tabby that I think is about 4 months old. I actually added her to my pet insurance Friday where I have my other 2 yellow tabbies covered. I have been feeding her outside and she’s so beautiful and won me over. She will be effective on insurance on Sept. 7th and will be going to the vet for an exam, shots, bath and get fixed. I have to make sure she is perfectly healthy before I bring her in with my other 2 because she will be an indoor cat from then on. I would appreciate any guidance you can give me on how to introduce all 3 together and will it take awhile for them all to get along together? My female indoors is kinda sassy. Will my 2 indoors be mad at me for bringing in a stray? I was not going to bring anymore indoors but I fell hook, line and sinker for her but afraid how the other 2 are going to react. Thanks for any tips.

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