The World of Feline Resistance

August 26, 2014

Recent statistics show that even though there are 25 per cent more cats owned compared with dogs, at the veterinary clinic less than 40 per cent of the appointments are for cats. One third of cats had not been seen by a veterinarian within the previous year. This finding is concerning because though cats need the same level of preventive healthcare and medical attention as dogs, that statistic tells us cats receive less attention in veterinary practices than dogs. To understand this disparity we need to look a little deeper into the world of cats.

Over half of the owners polled in a recent survey reported that they are reluctant to go to the clinic because their cat hates going to the veterinarian. It is not because they do not value veterinary services or their cat’s health and welfare. Instead, it is reported to be associated with “Feline Resistance”, a term coined first in the Bayer® Veterinary Care Usage Study, and reported further at veterinary conferences. The resistance that cats express is not just about the things that happen inside the hospital. It also has to do with owners efforts to catch the cat, get it into a carrier and transport it to and from the clinic.  

Veterinary care remains an essential service for cats, with much longer life spans now enjoyed even compared to a quarter century ago. Recent guidelines from the Cat Healthy Canada initiative, spearheaded by feline specialist Dr. Liz O'Brien of Hamilton, Ontario, help us learn what can be done to make a feline’s visit more enjoyable. As well, both the International and American feline practitioner’s organizations have published cat handling and management protocols for educational purposes.

What can be done to help reduce the stress and anxiety for client and cat?

According to Dr. O'Brien, “improving the experience of veterinary visits will encourage increased cat visits.” The onus is on both veterinary healthcare team members, as well as cat owners to make this improvement a reality.

Getting there

Training your cat to enjoy, or at least tolerate, the carrier is something that can be done at home well ahead of a veterinary appointment so that your cat sees the carrier as a friendly place. Leaving the carrier out in a favourite snoozing spot, with periodic treats and praise given for going in can help confirm for the cat that the carrier is a safe haven, rather than a worrisome place to be. Line it with soft blankets and provide an “open door” policy initially. Do not try to push your cat in because if there are a few treats, he will check it out on his own schedule, and frankly cats cannot be pushed around! The best carriers for training are those with top and side loading capability. Allow lots of time for this process!

Taking your cat on short rides in the car, not just when going to the veterinarian, will allow the cat to learn that car rides are just a part of their everyday experience, not a once or twice a year event linked to a veterinary clinic visit.

Pheromones are miniscule molecules from special scent glands that are released when the cat is socially communicating. Felines have a vomeronasal organ in the roof of the mouth which can draw these molecules up into the sensitive pheromone sensing areas. These pheromones appear to have more than a smell function and instead cue behavior changes. For example, the mother cat releases this compound to help bond and soothe her kittens. This pheromone has been purified and synthesized and is marketed as Feliway® in North America. Spraying this in the kennel or on bedding 30 minutes ahead of transport has been shown to help many cats relax.

Cat owners can gently stimulate acupuncture pressure points at the spot on the forehead between the eyes for a quick massage to help relax the cat. If your cat is nervous, it's best to pet only the top and front of the head, and perhaps the chin, rather than the body. Handling feet and mouth at home, with training for nail trimming and dental care early in life, will help your cat adapt to the physical exam with minimal stress.

Cats can keenly sense their caregiver’s own stress so the less worried the caregiver is, the less worried the cat will usually be. Bring along some treats to the appointment and use a quiet soothing intonation to help keep the cat less stressed.

For those stressed cats that do not respond well to behavioural training, an anti-anxiety medicine administered at home one hour ahead can be used. There is an anti-nausea medicine available for those who vomit due to car sickness. Some cats do better when able to see out of the window, while other cats find the flashing lights and other visual stimulation too much. For the latter cats, a towel over most of the carrier might be of great assistance (taking care to leave adequate ventilation).

Being there

Cat-friendly veterinary hospitals will often have separate dog and cat waiting rooms. They will whisk your cat into the exam room to reduce exposure to the stimulus of other animal noises and sights, and they will often adjust the examination itself to accommodate individual cat preferences. Treats, towels for hiding, table padding, gentle handling, quiet voices and commercial pheromones can be used to reduce cat resistance levels once at the clinic.

Coming home

Giving the cat time to settle back into the home is important. A cat will usually need to have a good nap in their favourite spot!

If a cat returns back from a veterinarian visit and there are other household cats, they may take a while to welcome this new smelling “stranger” back into the fold. Bringing both cats in a household to a veterinary visit will ease reintegration of the appointment cat since both will pick up the scent of the clinic.

Time for the caregiver to relax too and enjoy the benefits of their efforts to make the experience more enjoyable for all.


Cat Healthy

Bayer® Veterinary Care Usage Study / Brakke Consulting / National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI) 2011. An American study.

2011 AAFP/ISFM Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines