How Many Cats Are Stressed at the Vet?

New research shows just how stressed cats are at the vet, but there’s a lot we can do to help.

Study shows how stressed cats are at the vet, and the things we can do to help. Photo shows a ginger moggie at the veterinarian

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A recent study found 30% of dogs are very stressed in the waiting room at the vet, and it turns out things are even worse for cats.

It comes as no surprise to learn many cats are stressed by visits to the veterinarian. A new study by Chiara Mariti (University of Pisa) et al explores the scale of the problem, and has important suggestions for both cat guardians and vets on how to make things better.

The survey found some cats are so stressed the vet is not able to examine them properly. 789 of the 1,111 cats in the study were reported to have been aggressive to a vet at some point. 24% had bitten or scratched their guardian at the vet.

Many cats had areas that were off-limits for being touched by the vet, including the tummy, tail and genital area. Only 32% of the cats let the vet touch them anywhere.

When it came to vet procedures, cats were none too happy about these either. 34% would not tolerate injections, 32% objected to temperature taking, and 23% would not allow the taking of a blood sample.

Some cats were reported as being afraid of everyone in the waiting room (33%), whereas for 26% it was the dogs they were especially afraid of.

In fact, most owners reported cats were stressed at every stage: when entering the vet, while waiting, when moving to the consultation room, during the examination – and sometimes for some time after returning home. 78% of people thought their cat knew where they were going before they got there, and only 27% of the cats were said to be calm in the waiting room.

Most cats are stressed at the vet, but there are things we can do to help, according to research. A cat being examined at the vet
Photo: bmf-photo-de; top, Magdalena Lieske. Both Shutterstock.

Food can help animals to have a more positive experience at the vet. 869 of the cats in this study were offered food by the vet, but only 23% of them ate it. 47% of cats refused the food and 29% were reported to be suspicious of it.

The cats who were calm in the waiting room were significantly more likely to take the food, and cats who ate the food were more likely to be calm on the exam table as well as back at home.

This shows that food is an important part of the solution, but it’s essential to help cats feel relaxed enough to be able to eat it.

10% of the vets jumped straight into the examination without even stroking or talking to the cat first. A number of people had changed vet because they were unhappy about the abilities of the vet (28%) or the way the vet behaved with the cat (14%).

So what can be done to help cats at the vet? Dr. Mariti told me in an email, “My first advice would be for the vets: make sure you are protecting your patients' welfare. This is a duty of vets and it avoids the risk of losing clients (as mentioned in the paper).

“In addition, vets are those who prepare the clinic and can make it as much cat-friendly as possible, and those who advise cat/kitten owners. Vets behaviour is also relevant, the adoption of a "less is more" approach would be beneficial in most cases. So their role is crucial in the protection of cat welfare.

“To the owners, I would suggest to familiarize kittens with manipulations, in a gentle, gradual and progressive way, associating any handling with positive emotions and stimuli. Also positive associations with anything related with the travel, especially the carrier, can help; the appropriate use of pheromones may be beneficial, but I would stress the importance of avoiding the association of the carrier with the visit to a vet clinic. Some vets suggest the use of towels to gently "wrap" the cat in, it seems to calm the cat during the visit and to reduce the need of physical restraint.

“Owners should try going to the clinic with an appointment, in order to avoid long staying in the waiting room (usually the car is better). When getting to the clinic, they should avoid contact with other animals and, if unavoidable, they should put the carrier as high as possible (shelves, chairs), in order to give the cat the opportunity to feel a bit safer.

“Visits to the clinic as a kitten without any interventions, just to familiarize with the place and the vet, should be encouraged.”

Cat guardians completed the survey whilst in the waiting room of one of 20 veterinarians in Tuscany, Italy. The answers were about vet visits in general, rather than that specific visit. The cats were mostly moggies (75%), with equal numbers of males and females, and typically went to the vet once or twice a year.

For those who have trouble with vet visits, see eight ways to help your cat go to the vet. If you need more, there are some additional resources on taking dogs and cats to the vet.

You might also like my book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, which has a plan to train your cat to like their cat carrier in the appendix. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Mariti, C., Bowen, J., Campa, S., Grebe, G., Sighieri, C., & Gazzano, A. (2016). Guardians' Perceptions of Cats' Welfare and Behavior Regarding Visiting Veterinary Clinics Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2016.1173548

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