Eight Ways to Help Your Cat Go to the Vet (Guide)

If you struggle to take your cat to the vet, here are eight things you can do to help make it less stressful for your cat, including the right way to put them in a carrier.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Everyone knows that cats can find vet visits stressful. In one study, most owners said their cat was stressed at the vet and sometimes for some time after getting home (Mariti et al 2016).

After last week’s post about dogs at the vet, several people asked for tips on taking their cat to the vet.

Here are eight things you can do to help your cat with vet visits.

1. Pick the right kind of cat carrier

Picking the right cat carrier is important to ensure you have one that your cat can feel safe inside. One that is too open will mean the cat feels exposed, and one without many entry points can cause struggles when it’s time for your cat to go in.

Choose a cat carrier that:
  • Is made of sturdy plastic that is washable and easy to clean
  • Has a lockable door (to keep the cat secure) with holes in (to allow you to put treats through)
  • Has holes in the side to allow for circulation of air and for you to put treats through, but is not too see-through so your cat can still feel secure
  • Has a detachable lid that means the vet can remove the top and examine the cat in the base of the carrier
  • Has secure openings that won’t come undone if you pick the carrier up
  • Consider getting a carrier that also has a top-entry, which can be a useful extra access point 

2. Train your cat to use their carrier

It’s a great idea to train your cat to go in their carrier. If you don’t have time for this before your next vet visit, don’t panic. There are some tips for getting your cat in the carrier later in the post.

A recent study looked at the effects of training cats to use their cat carrier when they go to the vet (Pratsch et al 2018). One group of cats was trained to use a cat carrier while another was not, then they were all taken for a mock visit to a veterinary clinic. The results showed that cat carrier training reduces stress during the car ride and the veterinary exam, and the vet exam could be completed in a shorter time.

Obviously, it’s easier to start carrier training when you have a kitten (make a note for next time you get a kitten!). If you have an adult cat who is terrified of the cat carrier, this process is going to take longer, and you will have to work at the cat’s pace. That’s why I included this as a bonus item in my list of five things to do for your cat today.

It’s best to begin when you have plenty of time, but even working just a few steps in a carrier training plan will help.

First off, imagine the end point: A situation in which your cat enjoys lounging in their carrier in your home. Believe it or not, this is entirely possible.

You need to break the association between the carrier and a scary visit to the vet, and make new, positive associations with it as a place to relax and eat treats in. Find a place in your house where the cat carrier can live all the time and be a place that your cat might enjoy.

Before you get started, put a nice towel or fleecy blanket in the base of the carrier so that it will be comfortable.

As well, identify something your cat loves that you can use such as pieces of tuna, cat treats, or a short brushing session (only if your cat loves to be brushed).

It’s important to break the training down into very small steps. Proceed at the cat’s pace and don’t move on to another step until you are sure your cat is happy with the current step. If you have multiple cats, they may need to work at a different pace (as well as each needing their own carrier, of course).

Some of the training steps might be:
  • Go into the same room as the carrier
  • Approach the carrier with the top off
  • Go onto the base of the carrier (still with the top off)
  • Go into the carrier with the top on
  • Go into the carrier and stay there while the door is closed and then re-opened
  • Go into the carrier and stay there while the door is closed for a little longer
  • Go into the carrier, have the door closed, and the carrier picked up then put down
  • Go into the carrier which is put into the car and then come back in to the house
  • Go into the carrier for a very short car ride which ends back at home.
At each of these steps, reward your cat liberally with something they really love. If you are feeding treats, feed extra treats while the cat is in the carrier. For the car rides, you will need a helper to feed treats into the carrier during the ride (or to be your driver while you feed the treats).

It may seem like a lot of steps, but following a plan means you don’t go too fast and is more efficient in the long run. You may find that your cat breezes through each step, or that you advance a step and then have to drop back, but this is perfectly normal. Just like for us, learning takes practice!

Once the cat is happy to approach the carrier, you can add a bonus by leaving cat treats (or another nice food reward, or a toy) in the carrier for your cat to find. You will see them going to check out the carrier to look for a treat. (Make sure you keep replenishing as you don’t want them to be disappointed!).

You will find a plan to train your cat to like their carrier in my book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy

If your cat is overweight, include any treats as part of their daily calorie count.

Eight ways to help your cat go to the vet. Photo shows the kind of cat carrier you should use - one where the top is detachable from the base
The top of this cat carrier is detachable, and it has top and front openings.
Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

3. Put your cat’s bedding in the carrier

Smell is very important to cats. Scent marking is one of the ways cats communicate. When your cat rubs her head on something, she is depositing pheromones from scent glands in her face. Pheromones are chemical signals, and although we are still learning about them, when cats facial rub on each other, it is believed they are creating a group scent.

So we can use scent to help by making sure to take something that smells of the cat to the vet with them.

If your cat already uses their carrier as a place to lounge, then it will already have bedding in that smells of them.

However, if this is not the case, instead of picking a fresh clean towel or blanket to go in their carrier, which will smell strange to them, use some of their existing bedding. They will feel more comfortable having something that smells like them, and like home, on the trip to the vet.

You can also take a towel to cover the carrier while you are waiting at the vet, so that if you have to wait in the waiting room, other animals won’t be visible and your cat will feel hidden.

Eight ways to help your cat go to the vet without stress. Take your cat's bedding with you. Photo shows cat relaxing in a cat bed
Put some of your cat's bedding in the carrier. Photo: ajlatan/Shutterstock

4. Pick the right vet – Cat Friendly and Fear Free

Although it is inevitable that some vet visits will be stressful for cats, there is a lot that veterinarians can do to make things easier. As pet owners, we can choose a vet whose clinic is set up for cats and who will use handling techniques that will keep stress low.

If you already have a vet you love, stick with them, because a good relationship with your vet is really important. But if you have recently moved or are looking for a new vet, there are some certifications to look out for.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine has an international program called Cat Friendly Practice (internationally, Cat Friendly Clinics) You can search their database to find a Cat Friendly Practice near you.

According to their website, a Cat Friendly Clinic will “understand the needs of cats and have made visits to the vet clinic more cat friendly.” If you love your existing vet and want them to become more cat friendly, they even have a form where you can leave their details and they will contact them with info.

Another certification to look for is Fear Free which “aims to take the ‘pet’ out of petrified” and “put the treat into treatment”. Fear Free veterinary professionals are trained to recognize signs of fear, anxiety and stress in your cat, and use techniques to make the veterinary experience as stress-free as possible.

You can use their directory to find a Fear Free veterinarian near you , and there are now some Fear Free certified practices too.

When you go to a vet, some of the things that will help cats are:
  • A separate waiting area for cats, or the cat is taken straight into the exam room, so they don’t have to spend time near other animals
  • A raised surface to put the carrier on in the waiting room e.g. a nice side table or shelf. Cats prefer to be high up, so try not to put the carrier on the floor; if you have to put it on a chair, ensure it is safe or keep hold of it as some chairs are not large enough and if the cat wriggles, the carrier might move or fall.
  • The vet takes their time over the examination and does not seem to be rushing your cat
  • The vet examines the cat in a place they are comfortable, which could be on a mat on the exam table, the base of the carrier (that's why the top should be detachable), or sitting on the vet’s lap

Whenever possible, see the same vet each time, as it means your cat is not meeting a new person every time they go. As well, it helps the vet get to know your cat.

Seeing the same vet each time is suggested in a study by Niblett et al (2015), who say,
“there is a marked benefit in building a veterinarian–patient relationship in addition to the traditionally discussed veterinarian–client relationship, provided low stress handling techniques are employed. This relationship is anticipated to translate into increased visits and increased thoroughness and accuracy of examination findings, leading to improved medical outcomes for the cat.”
Eight ways to  help your cat go to the vet without stress. Try to see the same vet each time. Photo shows cat being examined at vet.
Try to see the same vet each time. Photo: bmf-photo-de/Shutterstock

5. Train your cat to be handled

Did you know that it helps to train cats to be handled?

When I wrote about Dr. Chiara Mariti’s study on owners' perceptions of cats being stressed at the vet, I asked her what owners can do to help. One thing she said was, “familiarize kittens with manipulations, in a gentle, gradual and progressive way, associating any handling with positive emotions and stimuli.”

When you get a kitten, you should make sure they get used to being handled. You could gently look in the ears, lift the tail up, and get them used to being groomed or even to have their teeth brushed.

Remember to make sure it is a positive experience. Pick a time when the kitten is receptive to being handled, be very gentle with them, and include some petting in the areas where cats like to be stroked (around the head and face).

Keep each session very brief so the kitten does not get fed up.

Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read
Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy

Even though the kitten’s sensitive period for socialization has ended before they come to live with you, these early experiences can help your cat get used to being handled.

You can also train adult cats to be handled or to be groomed, but it may take (very) much longer, depending on the cat. Remember to go at the cat’s pace, ensure it is pleasant for the cat at all times, and be very generous in using treats and petting to keep the cat happy. For example, you can even train your cat to use an asthma inhaler. Ask your vet or cat behaviourist for advice if needed. 

If you want to teach your cat to have their teeth brushed, I recommend the online course Healthy Smiles: At Home Dental Care for Dogs and Cats. (This is not an affiliate link). 

Eight ways to help your cat to go to the vet. Kittenhood is the best time to train cats to be handled. Photo shows tortoiseshell kitten in a red gingham throw
Kittenhood is the best time to train cats to be handled. Photo: photos2013/Shutterstock

6. Use treats, petting and/or toys if your vet agrees

As well as taking your cat’s bedding to the vet, you can also take her favourite treats (unless the vet has asked you not to feed the cat). Remember to check with the veterinarian before offering treats to ensure that it is suitable.

You can also pet the cat during the consultation, so long as it does not interfere with what the vet is doing.

Some vets will give you a little time in the exam room in which your cat can wander around and settle in before the consultation itself begins, instead of asking you to wait in the waiting room.

7. Be kind and don’t scruff your cat

Sometimes you will need to restrain your cat, or maybe the vet will ask you to hold the cat while they do something.

In the past, you have probably seen people scruff cats, or maybe have even done so yourself. (I have to put my hand up here unfortunately). Scruffing kittens immobilizes them and it used to be thought it had this effect on adult cats too and that they didn’t mind.

Now we know that it is best to use the least stressful methods possible.

As International Cat Care explain,
“The act of scruffing entirely removes the option of retreat and sense of control for a cat. Therefore, it serves to escalate their feeling of stress, leading to distress, anxiety and fear. When a cat is experiencing anxiety or fear and is not able to avoid or retreat from the situation, they will commonly exhibit aggressive behaviour as a last resort. Thus, the act of scruffing can actually serve to provoke or escalate defensive aggression, therefore failing to protect those handling a cat, as well as being harmful to the cat’s welfare.”

They even have a scruff-free pledge. So don’t scruff your cat.

In a consultation, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. If your vet asks you to hold the cat (e.g. while they take the temperature) but you’re not sure what they expect you to do, ask them.

Compared to high restraint, when lower levels of restraint are used, cats show fewer signs of stress, and are less likely to try to leave the exam table when released (Moody et al, 2018). There may be times when the vet has to scruff your cat, but you should not do it.

As well, be aware that in some cases the veterinarian will suggest sedating your cat to make examination less stressful. Don’t be embarrassed if your cat is not cooperative in the exam, or if sedation is suggested. Listen to your vet, and make the decision that seems best.

8. Know how to get your cat in their carrier

So what’s the best way to get your cat in a carrier?

First, stay calm, because you’ve probably noticed that cats are good at spotting something is up and will run to hide.

Hopefully, your cat carrier is already out in its usual place, so it is not a tip-off that you are going to the vet.

Dr. Marty Becker explains the best way to pick up a cat:
“The best way to pick up your cat under normal circumstances is to spread your hand under his chest, and as you lift, slide your other hand and forearm under his hind end to support his weight. Then pull him against your chest for more support. Holding your cat this way makes him feel less vulnerable. Your grip should be loose, but with enough contact to feel any tension.”
If your carrier has a top entry, put the cat in that way. Open the top first, then pick up the cat up, holding both sets of paws together, and put them in.

If the carrier is front entry, you may find it easier to put the cat in backwards.

This iCatCare video demonstrates with different cats and carriers, starting by showing how cats resist. When Dr. Sarah Ellis picks up the cat to pop in the carrier, notice how she is gently holding the legs together. She also demonstrates putting the cat in a top-entry carrier with the head slightly lower than the body, and backwards into a front-entry carrier. (Incidentally, you can read an interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis about training cats here).

The video also shows how to wrap your cat in a towel to put them in the carrier. Cat Friendly Homes suggest you wrap them in a towel “like a burrito – being careful not to pull the blanket too tight – and slide her into the carrier”.

Once you’ve trained your cat to use their carrier, remember to keep it as a cosy resting place with positive associations for your cat. Keep practicing the cat carrier training regularly so that your cat doesn’t forget.

Remember, if you need advice on your cat, ask your veterinarian. These tips will hopefully make it easier for you to get your cat there!

How does your cat find vet visits, and what do you do to help?

P.S. If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. It includes a plan to teach your cat to go in their carrier. Modern Cat magazine says, “Zazie Todd has created 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, 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. E., 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, 19(4), 375-384. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2016.1173548
Moody, C. M., Picketts, V. A., Mason, G. J., Dewey, C. E., & Niel, L. (2018). Can you handle it? Validating negative responses to restraint in cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 204, 94-100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.04.012
Nibblett, B. M., Ketzis, J. K., & Grigg, E. K. (2015). Comparison of stress exhibited by cats examined in a clinic versus a home setting. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 173, 68-75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.10.005
Pratsch, L., Mohr, N., Palme, R., Rost, J., Troxler, J., & Arhant, C. (2018). Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 206, 64-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.05.025

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