Every day at my practice, I see the result of what happens when people do not bring their cat to the veterinarian’s office on a regular basis. When caregivers finally bring their cats into our practice, they are suffering from dental pain, obesity, kidney disease, and more—all of which are treatable and often preventable. However, when left undiagnosed, these diseases are silent killers.
Here are the statistics:
- 28.5 to 67 percent of cats will get one or more painful tooth resorptive lesions, usually starting between 5 and 7 years
- 59 percent of all cats are obese
- 90 percent of cats will develop osteoarthritis by 10 years of age
A yearly physical examination at a veterinary clinic (or a house call) is the key to early detection and treatment.
The challenge is that 58 percent of cat caregivers report that their cats hate going to the veterinarian. Many owners choose to avoid the hassle of getting their cat into a suitable carrier and transporting them. Houston, we have a major problem here.
As both a veterinarian and a cat caregiver (four, at last count), I watch my cats play, hunt, and be master of their surroundings. From listening to many experts in feline behavior, I have surmised that cats have just two “behavior gears”: predator (the hunter) and prey (the hunted). So, we need to avoid putting cats into situations they can't control, where they feel they are being hunted. A trip to the veterinarian can trigger that prey or fear mode, if we are not careful.
Making Vet Visits Easier for Your Cat
The Cat Friendly Practice Program by the American Association of Feline Practitioners was developed specifically to increase awareness among veterinarians on how to make the visit easier and friendlier for both the cat and caregiver. The backbone of this program is making the veterinary visit cat-friendly from start (at home) to finish (the reintroduction to home), and with everything done in between to reduce anxiety by respecting a cat's basic nature. It also includes hospital standards that relate to both cat behavior and quality of care provided.
I personally know what it is like to have an unhappy cat in a carrier from early experiences. It is painful to say the least. The mournful meows, the painful body language—it is not something any cat loving person wants to put their cat through. So, what do I do differently for my cats now and recommend to my clients? Kitten and cat socialization. In a nutshell, take your cat places—anywhere away from home.
After all, if the only time you ever left your house and got in a car was when you traveled to visit your doctor, who almost always drew blood and gave vaccinations, would you ever want to get in a car again? So, as you begin taking your cat out of the house, remember to start early and slowly:
- Leave the carrier out in your house so it is familiar.
- While at home, feed your cat in the carrier to get them comfortable with being in it.
- Once your cat is comfortable with the carrier, carry them around in it.
- Put the carrier in your car while it is parked and let your cat explore the inside of the car so it is familiar to them.
These steps are all worthwhile for trips to the veterinarian, vacation, wherever.
Socializing Your Cat
Cats can learn to travel well. My adventure cat, Bug, has traveled to Spain, Portugal, Canada, and Mexico. On those travels, she has taught me a lot. I am asked all the time how she came to be such a good traveler. What did I do?
- I started when I first got her (12 weeks old).
- She had been well socialized before I adopted her.
- She is naturally curious and fearless, and I nurtured these natural instincts in her.
- I constantly exposed Bug to new and different things while always preventing her from going into prey mode. She was recently featured on AdventureCats.org, where you can find some great leash training and other great tips that are applicable to any cat when outside the home.
Our clinic, West Towne Veterinary Center in Madison, Wisconsin, holds monthly “Cats Night Out” where cats can get together in Bug’s Gym (the upstairs of our vet clinic). This has changed my perception of cat social interactions. During our Cat Nights, we ensure that all cats have places to hide and we introduce them slowly. We have noticed that at least 80 percent of visiting cats are willing to come out and explore, socialize a bit, and then return home from a vet clinic untraumatized. We give all the cats treats and let them have fun. A few cats don't leave their carriers, but they learned that a car trip to a veterinary clinic doesn't mean a painful experience. Just a car trip to the gas station would accomplish most of the same thing.
This summer, we held our first kitty kindergarten classes and fostered 10 kittens. We learned that when kittens are exposed to noise, confusion, other cats, and people of all ages and genders between 7 and 13 weeks of age, they become much more social.
Cats are great teachers, if we pay attention. If we continue to observe and respect cats’ natural behaviors and train them to be transported, ensure they receive regular preventive care, and share our experiences, we can all enjoy more of that magic that cats possess and help them to live longer, healthier lives.
Dr. Ken Lambrecht is medical director of West Towne Veterinary Center, an AAHA-accredited, gold-level designated Cat Friendly Practice in Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Ken currently serves on the Cat Friendly Practice Committee. He is pet parent to four cats, including Bug, his world traveling adventure cat.