Howard County pets: How to quell cat anxiety

August 31, 2011|By David Tayman, D.V.M

Q: Taking my indoor cat to her annual vet checkups causes her great anxiety. She howls in her carrier, trembles the entire time and ends up having an accident. How can we make these necessary trips less traumatic?     

A: It’s hard to know for sure whether stress causes carsickness, or if anticipation of carsickness triggers stress. Dogs often go for car trips to more enjoyable destinations, giving owners a chance to do positive-reinforcement behavior modification and lessen the stressful anticipation that car trips = vet visits. But for indoor cats, all car rides may indeed lead to the vet — so a vet-phobic cat will probably generalize and become anxious as soon as that carrier appears.      

There are several strategies worth trying. Ask your vet for a light sedative to give to your cat before going to the office. Some cat owners swear by botanical calming aids like Rescue Remedy (though, with botanicals, you can’t be sure of contents or strength since these products are unregulated). You can also try not feeding your cat for 12-24 hours before your appointment (since a pet with an empty stomach is less likely to have an accident or vomit), then feed a small meal after returning home and gradually work back up to your normal feeding schedule.                     

You can also try desensitizing your cat to the carrier and to car trips by associating both with food (by regularly feeding your kitty her meals in her carrier) and favorite treats like catnip, by sitting briefly in the car with the cat in the carrier and rewarding even moments of calm behavior with high-value treats. Gradually increase the length of the in-carrier car sessions, slowly progressing to short drives and eventually to actual trips to the vet.        

You might even try clicker training your cat. Most cat owners don’t train their pets the way dog owners typically do, but cats can be trained. Clicker training is a fun way to introduce animals to training games, the result of which can be a whole new set of behaviors even cats may be willing to do when they know there’s a tasty reward waiting for them. Once clicker training is understood to be a fun activity, you can potentially apply the technique to teach an animal to respond in new ways to old situations, including those that trigger fear and anxiety. (Zookeepers now do this all the time with captive wild animals.) You can learn more by going to and selecting the Cat Training section.                                     

In our experience, 99 percent of cat visits to our office are a positive experience for the feline member of the family, the owner and our staff. The 1 percent problem situation can be dealt with in a safe and caring manner. If possible, leave very anxious or aggressive cats in the carrier during the exam and treatment. Carriers become the cat’s friend during this time of perceived adversity. The carrier becomes the safe haven, for cats are very smart and make such associations readily. If more treatment is needed than can be handled in the carrier, we then have the option to use sedation. Also, there are traveling vets who make house calls for routine needs such as vaccines — a good option for very anxious cats.   

Several years ago, I treated a cat that really didn’t like me. Coincidentally, I’d done some TV work at the time, which led to the following incident. One day the owner was channel-surfing, heard my voice on TV, and stopped to see what I was discussing. His cat happened to be sitting on his lap. According to the owner, the cat also recognized my voice and his ears went back, he made a loud hissing sound — and actually attacked the TV! I told you cats are smart little critters, and this certainly proved my point. After that, this cat was referred to a traveling veterinarian.

David Tayman, D.V.M., has practiced veterinary medicine in Howard County since 1974. E-mail questions to Dr. Tayman at

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