“Look at Me” can often be done with a chin rub and slow eye blinks.

When behavior problems arise, your vet may recommend drug therapy and environmental changes for your cat. These interventions work best when coordinated with a behavior modification plan.

What is behavior modification? What does behavior modification for cats involve?

Behavior modification for cats – more than just training and medication


Behavior modification is a type of behavior therapy. It has its roots in the work of B. F. Skinner in the 1930’s. Skinner was psychologist who believed behavior is a response to an organism’s environment and is not a consequence of mental states (beliefs, memories, desires, plans) (Reference 1).

Skinner came up with the theory of operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, reinforcement and punishment are used to encourage or discourage behaviors (Reference 2).

Reinforce the Behavior – Make It Happen Again!

Add Something “Good” Take Away Something “Bad”
If you reward your cat for sitting with his favorite treat, he is more likely to sit the next time you ask. If you stop trimming your cat’s nails every time she growls or hisses, you are reinforcing her behavior of hissing and growling at nail trims by “removing” the unpleasant nail trim.

Punish the Behavior – Make It Stop Happening

Add Something “Unpleasant” Take Away Something “Good”
If you spray your cat with water when she jumps on the counter, she may be less likely to jump up on the counter. Your cat claws at your hand for a treat. If you put the treat behind your back, the cat learns that the treat goes away when she swats at your hand.

Operant conditioning forms the basis of many training methods.  It appears to be pretty straight-forward: can we just reward the cat for using the litter box and spray her with water if she doesn’t? 

Problem behaviors involve more than just a stimulus and a conditioned response.  Operant conditioning  does not take into account the emotional state of an animal. It may be difficult to positively reinforce or punish an animal that is fearful.

To modify or change problem behaviors, the animal’s emotional state must be addressed. Teaching a cat or dog a substitute behavior for the undesired behavior or medicating him does not teach him how to respond to other stressful situations in his life.

Christine Calder, a member the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, describes a five step process in working with problem behaviors in dogs (Reference 3).

  1.  Avoid all the things that cause the behavior.
  2. Open the lines of the communication – learn body language; stop punishment.
  3. Build a toolbox of known behaviors such as voluntary eye contact, touch, or a chin rest.
  4. Teach the animal to relax.
  5. Systematic desensitization and Counter Conditioning (to what triggers the behavior).

 Behavior modification for cats can follow this five-step plan.

You may have gotten a new dog or your young nephew comes to stay with you.  Your cat finds these new additions terrifying so she hides under the bed to be safe.  She does not use her litter box because she is afraid the dog or the child will be there. You try to adapt the environment to accommodate your cat and the newcomers but your cat remains fearful. 

Behavior Modification for Cats- More Than Just Training and Medication


  1. Avoid Triggers: We offer the kitty the sanctuary of a room or place in the house off-limits to the dog or child. This area has all the cat’s resources: litter box, cat tree, food and water.
  2. Establishing communication: Spend time with your cat, coaxing her to come to you; brush or pet her if she likes it. Learn her body language so that you know when she is done interacting (see “How to interact with your cat” ). Have your nephew also learn cat body language. Stop punishment: no spraying with water bottles; speak to your cat quietly with a pleasant tone.
  3. Toolbox of known behaviors: For a cat, these may be targeting on your finger or a stick, and learning to pay attention to you through eye contact.
  4. Teach the cat to relax: A cat who is relaxed is calm. She is able to devote more of her energy to learn how to cope with new situations. When the cat can relax on cue, she is able to choose a calm state. We can work up to asking for calm behavior when the dog or child is nearby.
  5. Desensitization: In this case, we introduce the cat to the dog or child in a safe situation. The dog or child is separated from the cat (use a barricade as needed) and the cat can come or go as she pleases. Gradually the distance between the cat and the dog or child is decreased.
  6. Counter-Conditioning: Previously, the cat associated the dog or child with being anxious or fearful. If she can be calm when dog  is on the other side of the barricade, we can start to form some new associations using high-value treats or other things the cat likes, such as being brushed.  With supervision, your nephew may be able offer your cat treats or brush her.

Behavior modification for cats is more than just substituting a desirable behavior in place of a problem behavior.  For the intervention to work, the emotional state of the cat has to be considered.  We need to give the cat a break from the stressful situation, then establish communication with cat.  We need the cat to trust us and look to us for guidance. Teaching the cat to relax and getting accustomed to what triggered the behavior are the final steps of the behavior modification plan.  The services of a cat behavior professional can be helpful in these situations.

references

  1. B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) Advocacy of Behaviorism and its Application to Psychology and Life
    Operant Conditioning and the Law of Effect.  https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/b-f-skinner Viewed 5/2024.
  2. Cherry, Kendra. What is Operant Conditioning? February 24, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/operant-conditioning-a2-2794863  Viewed 5/2024.
  3. Calder, Christine D. Behavior Modification for Dogs. Behavior Bytes. December 28, 2022. https://cattledogpublishing.com/blog/behavior-modification-for-dogs/ Viewed 5/2024.

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Eating is a positive experience for healthy animals. Two neurotransmitters released while eating are dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is associated with feelings of reward and motivation; serotonin with feelings of happiness and calmness.  Thus, food is one of the ways we can induce a positive emotional state in a healthy cat.

Food and your cat’s mental health


Recent research points to two dopamine events when eating: the first when you actually eat the food and the second, when the food reaches your stomach. (Reference 1). On the other hand, rising serotonin levels act as an appetite suppressant, giving a feeling of satiety. (Reference 2)

The connection between food and your cat’s mental health provides us an opportunity to take advantage of the emotions triggered by dopamine and serotonin when eating.

Foods that calm


There are foods  that incorporate tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. Royal Canin’s Calm diet  and Hill’s c/d Multicare Stress for cats  contain hydrolyzed milk protein and L-tryptophan to reduce your cat’s fearful behaviors in stressful situations or environments.  The caveat with these foods is that the cat must eat enough of the food to get the appropriate dose of tryptophan.

Cat using food puzzlefood and environmental enrichment


Engaging in foraging behavior can benefit cats with generalized or separation anxiety. (Reference 3)

  • Foraging can provide a cat that is vigilant, tense and easily aroused with an alternative outlet for her energy
  • Cats with separation anxiety will find foraging a rewarding activity that is not related to interacting with the owner.
  • Serotonin release during the foraging cycle promotes calm behavior.

Foraging Method 1 – Multiple Separate Feeding Stations

  • Divide your cat’s daily food ration into portions.
  • Place these in different places around the house.
  • Put some dishes up high or in boxes and closets for variety

Foraging Method 2 – Use of Food Puzzles

  • Cats have to use their paws to get the food
  • Vary in complexity and style

cats with carrier and treatsFood and your cat’s mental health: behavior modification


We can use the positive emotions triggered by eating to guide our cats’ behaviors.  The use of a stream of small food rewards will trigger dopamine release, which in turn gives the cat feelings of reward and motivation.  Food can be a powerful adjunct to some of the interventions used in veterinary behavioral care: (Reference 3)

  • counter conditioning
  • operant conditioning
  • differential reinforcement of alternate behaviors

These methods work best with foods that the individual cat finds particularly palatable and desirable.

counter conditioning and food


Counter conditioning refers to training a different response to a situation.  Consider the cat carrier that takes your cat to the vet.  Many cats have a fearful association with the carrier and the process of going into it.  The goal of counter conditioning here is to teach the cat that good things happen when he’s near the carrier.

We start with getting the cat accustomed to the carrier by just leaving it out in the room.  Once he is comfortable with the carrier left out, we can offer some treats close by the carrier and gradually work up to treats in the carrier.  Over time, the cat will associate good things with the carrier – we have used food (treats) to change the cat’s emotional state when near the carrier.

operant conditioning and food


With operant conditioning, an animal repeats behaviors that have good consequences and avoids ones that are not rewarding.  Say you ask your cat to “sit”. When he sits, you reward him with a treat (food) he likes. He will be more likely to sit next time in anticipation of getting his reward.

differential reinforcement of alternate behaviorS


Here you will be replacing an undesired behavior with one that is more appropriate to the situation.  Say your new kitten attacks and hangs on to your legs as you as come in the door or you have a “door-dashing” cat.  You could train (operant conditioning) your kitten/cat to jump up on a nearby shelf or table on cue for a  food reward when the door is opened.  (The cue can be spoken or you could jingle your keys.) The goal is to replace the attacking/door dashing behavior with sitting on the nearby piece of furniture.

Food makes our cats feel good. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin promote positive emotions when eating.  This connection between food and your cat’s mental health provides you with opportunities to influence your cat’s behavior through diet, environment and training.

references

1. Cell Press. “Your brain rewards you twice per meal: When you eat and when food reaches your stomach.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 December 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181227111420.htm>.

2. Voigt JP, Fink H. Serotonin controlling feeding and satiety. Behav Brain Res. 2015 Jan 15;277:14-31. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2014.08.065. Epub 2014 Sep 16. PMID: 25217810.

3. Delgado M, Dantas LMS. Feeding Cats for Optimal Mental and Behavioral Well-Being. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2020 Sep;50(5):939-953. doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2020.05.003. Epub 2020 Jul 8. PMID: 32653265; PMCID: PMC7415653.

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A safe place for a cat when visitors come. This cat can CHOOSE to go higher or to another room if he wants to avoid strangers.

The doorbell rings and your cat runs and hides under the bed. You answer the door and your friend comes in. After some small talk, she says “By the way, how is Fluffy?” You explain that Fluffy is fine and is hiding – she just isn’t a very friendly cat.

The cat afraid of strangers may freeze or feel she has to protect herself with her claws and teeth during her veterinary exam.  Medication and training help but these will work better if your cat has some ongoing positive or at least neutral experiences with strangers.

Socialization for the cat afraid of strangers


Kittens handled gently and appropriately by a variety of humans when they are 2-7 weeks old (the sensitive period) quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them.

That is fine and good you say, but my cat is older now and I don’t have a time machine. It is true that we can’t have the same impact on an older cat as a kitten.  However,  we can still provide the older cat positive, predictable experiences with humans in and outside the cat’s household.

Ways to Socialize the cat afraid of strangers


Safe Places
Consider having some high perches or maybe a cat tree in your living room. Cats are curious folk and want to satisfy their curiosity if they can do it safely. A high perch or cat tree allows a cat to CHOOSE to interact or not.

CAT guidelines – Rules for Humans!
If a cat anticipates that a human will treat her in a positive and predictable way, she will be more likely to interact with that person. The CAT human-cat interaction guidelines  developed at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, aim to make cats more comfortable when interacting with us and are easy follow.

Point out these guidelines to guests and ask that they follow them. The video version may be more appealing to children. After a few experiences of visitors seemingly ignoring your cat, she may start to show up when strangers come over.

Desensitizing Your Cat to the Sound of the Doorbell
Doorbells can be noisy and startling.  After all, doorbells are designed to alert us to deliveries or the arrival of visitors.

  • Record the doorbell sound on your phone.
  • Lure your cat to her high perch or cat tree in the livingroom.
  • Play the doorbell sound at a very low volume and offer her a high value treat.
  • Lure her down with target stick or treat. Repeat.

Gradually increase the volume of the doorbell sound over time. The doorbell will still be an unexpected noise but now has a positive association with it. You can also use the doorbell sound to cue your cat to go to her safe place (very useful if you have a door-dashing cat).

The Calm Before The Storm

For big holiday gatherings, you may also want to consider giving the cat afraid of strangers a supplement such as Zylkene or Anxitane a few days before the big event. These non-prescription supplements can make your kitty feel calmer when lots of unfamiliar humans are around.

Regular veterinary care is an essential part of a long and pain-free life for your cat. Regular visits can head off problems and spread veterinary costs out over time. Desensitizing your cat to strangers can help reduce his fear and anxiety at the vet clinic, making it easier to take him to the vet.

If you have concerns about how your cat is handled at the veterinary practice, consider taking your cat to a Cat Friendly practice, where staff is trained in feline handling techniques.

This is the final post in the “Better Vet Visits for Your Cat” series. I hope you try some of the techniques suggested in these posts. Remember to break things up in simple steps that your cat can understand and master. And, always try to see things from the “feline purrspective”.

 

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Pilling a Cat with Pet Piller
This cat knows how to take medication from a pet piller.

Many cats are terrified coming to the veterinary clinic. Some freeze in fear while others fight for their lives.  Calming medications given before the vet visit can reduce your cat’s anxiety!

Your vet has prescribed calming medication for your cat. So, what’s next?

How to Give Your Cat a Bitter Pill


Calming medications such as gabapentin and trazadone are bitter.  How do you give your cat a bitter pill?

Giving Medication in Food
Pros: convenient for the caregiver
Cons: If you give your cat a bitter pill in her food, she may refuse to eat that food in the future. Use something other than your cat’s regular diet, say, tuna fish.
Cons: Your cat needs to eat all the food to get her full dose of medication. Use as small an amount as possible of strongly flavored food to deliver the medication.

Tip: “Hunger is the best sauce” according to Sancho Panza’s wife, Teresa, in the novel Don Quixote. If your kitty is hungry, she will be more likely to eat the food containing the medication. Fast your cat overnight or pick up her food 2-3 hours before offering the medication in food.

Pilling by hand
If your cat accepts being “pilled”, coat the capsule or tablet in some butter or a pill treat, and slip it down kitty’s throat. Video Link.

Pros: You will know that your cat has gotten the medication
Cons: No one likes having something shoved down his throat. Your cat may gag and spit out the tablet.
Cons: It may be hard to repeat the dose if your cat decides to hide.

Tip: Reward your cat with some tuna juice or a tuna paste treat after she swallows the pill.  This will also help the tablet or capsule go down.

Other Ways to Give Your Cat a Bitter Pill


Make your cat a partner in his health care. Let’s reward him with something of value for taking the medication. Take a few minutes and think about what your cat really likes.  Is there a particular treat he likes – liverwurst, cheese, tuna or chicken paste? Catnip? Grooming session?

Do some “pill training” with the following methods before you try giving the medication. You can use hard treats or kibble as “fake pills”.  Start 3-4 days before you have to give the medication. This way you can practice your technique without wasting the prescription medication or running the risk of your cat biting into the bitter pill.

Introducing a pill into a stream of treats

This technique works best if the tablets are small and the cat is hungry. With larger tablets, you run the risk that the cat will bite into the bitter pill.

  • Offer your cat several treats.
  • Then offer a “fake” pill (a treat in a “pill treat”, cheese, liverwurst – something you can mold around the pill).
  • Immediately present more treats as your cat finishes eating the “fake” pill.
  • Video Link

Using a Pet Piller

Contercondition Pet Piller
Niki enjoys some chicken baby food on a pet piller.

You can use a “pet piller” to give the capsule or tablet. A pet piller is a tube with a plunger and a soft tip. The pill fits into the tip.

To use a “piller”, it is best to practice first with treats. If your cat likes tuna or chicken paste, start by offering your cat the paste on the piller and letting him lick it off. This way he associates swallowing with piller.

Work up to offering a “fake” pill in the piller after your cat has licked off the paste. You want to ease the “fake pill” into the side of mouth onto the “wave” (back) of the tongue. Avoid cramming the piller down the cat’s throat and making him gag. Follow with more paste on the piller to help your cat swallow the pill.

It may take a few trials for your cat to learn to use this gadget. Once he does, he will voluntarily swallow the pill in anticipation of getting more treats. This method works well for a variety of sizes of tablets and capsules. Video Link.

Using a Squeeze-Up Treat

If your cat likes the tubes of paste (Churu, Delectable) that you can squeeze up into her mouth, you can try to give small capsules or tablets using squeeze-up treats. You will want to cut the tube so that the opening is wide enough to accommodate the tablet or capsule that you are giving.

  • Give your cat some of the paste
  • Slip the capsule/tablet into the tube
  • Squeeze the paste with the medication up into your cat’s mouth.
  • Squeeze fast enough so that the tablet or capsule slips up into your cat’s mouth while she is licking and swallowing. On the other hand, don’t squeeze too fast or your cat will gag and refuse the treat.

Zelda, a Maine Coon cat, needs several gabapentin tablets to be calm for a lion cut. The other day, she bit into the first tablet in a pill pocket and then, understandably, refused the next treat-wrapped tablet. Fortunately, Zelda is trained to accept medication via a pet piller. She readily took the next tablet with the piller and was rewarded with a Churu treat.

Calming medications help reduce your cat’s anxiety and fear, resulting in a more productive veterinary visit. But it is challenging to give your cat a bitter pill. Training your cat to take medication not only ensures that your cat gets the medication he needs but also strengthens your relationship with him.

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Going to the vet can be an otherworldly experience for a cat!

Going to the vet can be like a scene from a science fiction movie for your cat. He becomes anxious the moment the “spaceship” (carrier) comes out. He boards his spaceship and then launches into the unknown. When his craft lands on the alien surface ( the vet clinic), he is met by aliens who make strange noises and poke and prod him with exotic instruments.

You have been working to make this experience not so frightening – you have carrier trained your cat, introduced him to the car, and practiced cat friendly handling with him. While training sets the stage for a good vet visit, sometimes a little medication can help a cat relax at the vet, reducing his anxiety just enough to make the visit a good one.

My youngest cat, Gus, was trapped on the streets of Old Colorado City and came to live at CatTails Feline Health Center for about 6 months before I took him home.  You would think that returning to a place he is familiar with would not be traumatic. However, when we returned for an exam, his heart rate was a whopping 230 bpm in spite of his training and my being with him. Gus now receives a dose of gabapentin before vet visits to reduce his anxiety and his heart rates are lower, 190-200 bpm.

Pre-Appointment medication can help a cat relax at the vet


Two of the more common drugs used to reduce cats’ anxiety at the veterinary clinic are gabapentin and trazadone.

gabapentin


  • developed as an anti-convulsant
  • has anti-anxiety properties – reduces the release of excitatory neurotransmitters
  • is a pain reliever

The typical dose is 100 mg given 1.5 – 2 hours prior to your cat’s vet visit. Frequently, a dose is given the night before. Doses can vary for individual cats – some cats may do well with a 50 mg dose while others may need 150 mg

Gabapentin is available in capsules; it can also be compounded in small tablets or made into a liquid.

  • capsules: The capsule is opened and the powder is mixed in a small amount of tuna fish or canned cat food. Gabapentin is bitter and some cats may not eat it in food. In these cases, it may be better to give the capsule directly to the cat.
  • liquid: The liquid may result in foaming at the mouth.
  • tablets: Gabapentin can also be compounded into flavored small tablets.

Your cat may be a little sleepy or wobbly after taking gabapentin. You may want to watch kitty near the stairs or jumping up on things!

Trazodone


Another drug used with cats is Trazodone. Trazodone is an antidepressant that is commonly prescribed for insomnia and depression in humans. Like gabapentin, one of its side effects is drowsiness and possibly anxiety reduction.
Trazodone can be combined with gabapentin if your vet feels that gabapentin does not provide enough sedation.

Typical dose is 50 mg given by mouth 90 minutes before the stressful event. Trazodone does lower blood pressure in cats (see reference below) and may have a higher risk of serotonin syndrome if used with other anti-depressant medication such as fluoxetine (Reconcile). Trazodone is available as a tablet or can be compounded into a liquid or capsule form.

Supplements


If you feel your cat is fairly calm and you are not ready to go the drug route, a calming supplement in place of medication can help a cat relax at the vet.  Supplements can help reduce a cat’s anxiety but will not induce the sedation afforded by gabapentin and trazodone.

Zylkene contains a protein derived from milk (alpha casozepine) that has been shown to induce calm behavior in cats (see reference below) It is recommended to start the supplement about 2 days prior to the vet visit. Most cats like Zylkene and will readily eat it sprinkled on their food. 

L-theanine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in green tea leaves. It has been shown to keep cats and dogs relaxed (see reference below) and comes in a tasty chew tablet. Solliquin (Nutramaxx) and Anxitane (Virbac) are two veterinary-labeled supplements containing L-theanine. Start the supplement per manufacturer’s directions 2-3 days before the vet visit.

Supplements or medication can help a cat relax at the vet and complement the training you have done to reduce your cat’s anxiety at his vet visit. Your cat will be less anxious and more willing to draw on what he has learned before and to accept new experiences.  Given under your veterinarian’s supervision, these drugs and supplements are safe and effective.  While the supplements are palatable, gabapentin and trazodone are bitter, which some cats may find aversive.  In the next post, we will see what we can do to encourage your cat to take a bitter pill.

references:


1. Fries RC, Kadotani S, Vitt JP, Schaeffer DJ. Effects of oral trazodone on echocardiographic and hemodynamic variables in healthy cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2019;21(12):1080-1085. doi:10.1177/1098612X18814565

2. Makawey A, Iben C, Palme R. Cats at the Vet: The Effect of Alpha-s1 Casozepine. Animals (Basel). 2020 Nov 5;10(11):2047. doi: 10.3390/ani10112047. PMID: 33167443; PMCID: PMC7694447.

3. Dramard, V., Kern, L., Hofmans, J. et al. Effect of l-theanine tablets in reducing stress-related emotional signs in cats: an open-label field study. Ir Vet J 71, 21 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13620-018-0130-4

 

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A feline practitioner listens to this cat’s chest in his preferred position.

What can your cat expect at her veterinary exam? The typical exam starts at the head and works through the body to the tail. This way health vitals are systematically collected. But it is important that the feline practitioner pay attention to the individual cat. For example, if your kitty seems to have pain in her mouth, in the cat friendly exam the vet may work through the rest of the exam first, and address the possibly painful mouth last. Saving the worst for last keeps your cat from anticipating pain throughout the entire exam.

Cats prefer high-intensity interactions that don’t last long. So, your cat may be offered a break between parts of the exam. Your cat may enjoy treats, toys, or gazing out a window during these breaks.

The Cat friendly Exam


Auscultation of the chest
Here your vet “listens” to your cat’s heart and lungs, measuring a heart rate and respiration rate in addition to noting abnormal heart rhythms (eg. heart murmur) and abnormal breathing sounds (eg. congestion). The vet typically will approach the cat from the back or side and use a stethoscope.

Head and Neck examination
Parts of this exam may happen even before your cat is on the exam table. Head tilts and facial swellings can be observed from a distance while your cat is walking around the room. In the more hands-on part of this exam, your vet may use an ophthalmoscope or otoscope to check the eyes and ears. He or she will also raise your cat’s lips to get a look at her teeth and open her mouth to check the oral cavity and get a quick look under her tongue.

Abdominal Palpation
In this part of the exam, the vet massages your cat’s belly to feel her intestines, kidneys, and bladder. It is also a check for possible growths in the abdomen and thickened walls in the intestines and bladder.

Back and limb assessment
This part of the exam includes assessment of the muscles along the spine and legs. The paws will also be evaluated and the claws extended.

Under the Tail Check
A quick look under the tail for fecal debris, swelling, and discharge… completes the exam.

Reference: “2022 AAFP/ISFM Cat Friendly Veterinary Interaction Guidelines: Approach and Handling Techniques”, Rodan et al.,  Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, Volume 24, Issue 11, November 2022, Pages 1093-1132

the cat friendly exam: practice at home


Some of the handling your cat may encounter at his vet visit includes being lifted up onto an exam table, getting weighed on a scale, sitting on an exam table to have his chest auscultated, having his head and mouth examined, and having his back and legs massaged and handled.

You can practice some of the cat friendly exam handling with your cat at home.  Training some basic behaviors such as “pick up“, “sit” and “target” can make this a pleasant experience for you and your cat.

First – choose an area at home where you will train
Pick a table, counter, or dresser (avoid the kitchen table or counter) where you can set up your “exam room”.
You can purchase a baby scale to weigh your cat if you want to monitor his weight or just get the bathroom scale and place it on your counter. The weight from the bathroom scale will not be accurate but your cat will have the experience of getting on a scale.

Fast Forward…
Let’s say you have trained your cat to be picked up, to sit and to target. Your practice vet visit at home may go something like this:

Give your cat the “UP” cue and gently lift him (support his front and back body) and place him on the counter. Make sure to reward him (treats, head rubs…).

Once on the counter, use your target stick or finger, to guide him to walk over to the scale and climb on it. Once he is on the scale, ask him to “Sit”. Reward him when he sits.

Next, ask him to get off the scale using the target stick or your finger and have him sit on the counter.

Approaching him from behind, rub his head and hold it gently. Work up to lifting his lip to view his upper teeth.  Reward and repeat on the other side.

To evaluate his feet, massage each foot, gently extending his claws – reinforce cooperative behavior with a reward.

Give your cat the pick up cue, and gently put him back on the floor. Reward him for a job well done!

It does take some time to train your cat to be picked up, sit, and target and combine these behaviors as outlined above. And – unless your cat is used to performing away from home – he may not go through his home routine at the vet clinic, especially if he is being handled by strange people. But the handling in the cat friendly exam will be familiar due to his practice exams at home and should not trigger him to engage in protective or defensive behaviors.

Cats that are used to being handled do not get as stressed and anxious as those who are only handled occasionally. A cooperative cat needs little or no restraint and can often be examined by one person. Make sure you let your vet know which behaviors your cat is familiar with and what the cue is for each one.

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Cat in carrier in waiting room
Your cat will do better in the waiting room if her carrier is covered and on a higher surface.

Your cat is in his carrier and the ride to the vet clinic went well. He went into his carrier for some treats without a whole lot of fuss. You played some of the cat specific music on the ride and your kitty was actually quiet for a change.

You pull into the clinic parking lot and pick a spot to park. What’s next? The dreaded waiting room!

managing your cat’s stress in the waiting room


You enter and check in at the front desk. You put your cat in his carrier on the floor and immediately a small dog and child run up to the carrier. You are thanking your lucky stars that you covered that carrier. After checking in, you look for a place to sit and wait. The place is packed with barking dogs and some terrified looking cats in carriers. You find a seat and squeeze in to wait.

your cat’s stress in the waiting room


The Cat – Both Predator and Prey

The waiting room at a veterinary hospital can be a terrifying experience for your cat. By nature, cats are hunters but they are also hunted by larger animals, from coyotes and mountain lions to domestic dogs. Now your cat is shut in his carrier, with potential predators around.

The Cat – Both Solitary and Social

The waiting room may also have some other cats waiting. They may be frozen in fear or hissing and growling.
Cats are by nature solitary hunters but they will come together in social groups called colonies if there is enough food available. The core of the colony is the mother cat and her daughters, sisters, and their offspring. Consequently, cats are social with their immediate families, although not necessarily with other cats.

The Cat – the Language of Smell and Scent

Cats communicate in large part by smell. The waiting room is most likely full of unfamiliar scents and smells. There are the scents of strange cats and canine “predators”, in addition to the odors of humans, cleaners and disinfectants.

The Cat – Unfamiliar Sounds

Cats have one of the broadest range of hearing of any land animal – they hear the high-pitched sounds of mice (that we can’t hear) but also lower pitched sounds, like that of the human male voice. Returning to the waiting room, your cat may be hearing not only the barking dogs and hissing cats but also the sounds produced by the clinic office equipment. These unfamiliar sounds can be stressful for your cat.

tips for managing your cat’s stress in the waiting room


  1. Cover the carrier so that your cat will not see other animals or people.
  2. Place the carrier on a higher surface off the floor – on a chair, on your lap. Being higher up helps your cat feel safe, less vulnerable to predators.
  3. Play cat specific music – this music can be downloaded to your phone and played at a very low volume. Your cat can hear sounds that are almost inaudible to people. Place the phone in your cat’s carrier and allow her to hear some familiar, soothing music.
  4. Spray the carrier cover with pheromone spray (“Feliway” Classic, Comfort Zone Calming) prior to leaving for the vet clinic. Pheromone sprays can send your cat a message of safety and territory.
  5. Bypass the waiting room: Ask the clinic staff if you can wait in your car until an exam room is open. Explain that you are trying to keep your cat’s stress levels down.

Choosing a cat-friendly practice can alleviate the concerns we have listed above.  A Cat Friendly Practice will have a strategy to keep your cat from seeing, smelling and hearing other animals that can make your cat fearful and anxious.

  • waiting area just for cats
  • cat-only appointment times
  • allowing you to wait for an open exam room in your car

Managing your cat’s stress in the waiting room is another step toward having a good veterinary appointment.  Because you have prepared your cat for travel to the clinic and given her ways to cope with the stress in the waiting room, she will not be so anxious during her exam.  Our next step is to demystify the veterinary examination for our cats.  Thank you for being an active participant in your cat’s health care!

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stressors your cat experiences during a car rideCats tend to be homebodies – your cat’s ideal day may include eating breakfast, then finding a sunny window to nap in. Midday is time for a stretch and a snack; if the weather is nice, he may want to spend some time in his catio. Unlike dogs, few cats become ecstatic at the prospect of a car ride, hanging their heads out of the window.

Once your cat accepts his carrier, the next step to getting him to the vet is the car ride. The car ride introduces additional stressors for your cat to experience. Here are some tips to help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride.

Help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride


Unfamiliar Smells and Scents

 

Include your cat’s familiar bedding in her carrier to offset the unfamiliar smells of the car with the reassurance of her own, individual scent. Spraying the carrier with feline facial pheromones (Feliway Classic, Comfort Zone Calming) also sends a message of security and territory to the traveling cat. Make sure to spray the carrier 15-20 minutes before your cat enters it so that the alcohol in the spray dissipates.

Lack of Resources

Delays due to accidents or road construction are part of car travel. Make sure to provide your cat some resources on the way. A non-slip absorbent pad for accidents is part of a well-equipped carrier. On long car rides, you may want to consider putting some ice cubes in a bowl that will gradually melt, provide water to drink and less mess in case of spills.

Motion

Some pets may be prone to motion sickness – this may be in part due to anxiety. Carrier/travel training can alleviate some of this. Travel medications for anxiety and nausea will be addressed in a later post in this series.

Unfamiliar Noises

Horns honking, engine noise, and sounds of passing vehicles are part of the car travel experience. Try offsetting these unfamiliar noises with some cat-specific music (https://www.musicforcats.com/).

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin composed music that would calm cats. In 2019, this cat music was tested in the veterinary clinic at Louisiana State University.  Stress and handling scores were lower for cats exposed to the “cat music” than the scores of cats exposed to silence or classical music. (see Cat Music:Just for Cats).

Unfamiliar Sights

 

Flashing lights and large vehicles going by your car can startle and frighten your cat. Consider covering your cat’s carrier to shield him from unfamiliar sights.

Cat-Carrier-Cover

Help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride: Practice rides


Of course, there is nothing like actually having some positive travel experience. When teenagers first get their drivers’ permit, there is some anxiety and excitement on those first few drives that goes away as they gain experience driving.

Some short “practice drives” with positive reinforcement can help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride.  If your cat is clicker-trained, the clicker can be used to trigger some positive emotions – your cat associates the sound of the click with something good such as treats.

First, let’s get your cat used to the car.

  • Have your cat enter his carrier. Click and treat.
  • Carry the carrier to the car and put it inside.
  • After a few minutes, take the carrier back into the house and let kitty out.  Click and treat.

Once your cat is comfortable sitting in his carrier in the car, get ready to do some driving.

  • Have your cat enter his carrier.  Click and treat.
  • Carry the carrier to the car and put it inside.
  • Start the engine and let the car idle for a few minutes.  Play music if you plan to use it.
  • Go for a drive around the block.
  • Return home and turn car off.
  • Take the carrier back into the house and let kitty out. Click and treat.

Your cat now has some travel experience under his belt. Car travel should now be a little less scary.  Every so often, take kitty for a spin around the block or to a park nearby if he will ride in a backpack or stroller.  Try to allow him some positive experiences where the car drive does not end up at the vet.  (For information about your cat’s safety and carrier placement in the car, visit https://www.centerforpetsafety.org/).

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cats with carrier and treats

Cats love boxes and a carrier is just another box! However, your cat may have a love-hate relationship with her carrier – when the carrier comes out, she runs and hides under the bed. On the other hand, she may be relieved to enter it at the vet clinic at the end of her visit.

Carrier Training for your cat


Why your cat may not like her carrier:


  • It only takes her to the vet
  • The carrier is not comfortable – maybe it too small, too big or too open like a cage?
  • The carrier is an unfamiliar object and does not smell like her – smell means a lot to cats who use odors to communicate.

One of the reasons to do carrier training is to try and give your cat some positive associations with her carrier. We want our cats to feel safe in their carriers. It should be a little piece of home that travels with them.

carrier training for your cat: carrier basics


SIZE MATTERS


Your cat should be able to stand up and turn around in her carrier. If she can’t, it is time for a new carrier.  For tips on choosing and maintaining a carrier see  https://www.felinepurrspective.com/tips-for-choosing-a-cat-carrier/

SCENT MATTERS


Start by cleaning the carrier.

  • Hard, plastic carriers: clean with a mild detergent, rinse and wipe dry.
  • Fabric carriers: Launder the “slipcover” on the pad in the bottom. Wash the carrier with mild detergent (unscented if possible) and water, then rinse and let dry. If you are concerned about urine in a fabric carrier, be sure to use an enzymatic (biological) laundry detergent.

Most laundry detergents these days contain enzymes to break down protein and fat based stains in fabrics. However, there are detergents designed to clean materials such as wool and silk that do not have enzymes. Check the list of ingredients on your detergent to see if enzymes are listed.

Once the carrier is clean, place a towel, blanket, or cushion in it. Select something that your cat sleeps on. We want something with her scent on it in the carrier. Place the carrier in a quiet place where your cat hangs out.

carrier training for your cat: three methods


Carrier training for your cat can be done in a number of ways.

Method I: You might be able to simply leave the carrier out with your cat’s blanket and some catnip in it. If your cat goes in and takes a nap, he is comfortable with his “home away from home”.  You should be able to load him in the carrier with some treats or catnip.

Feeding in Carrier BottomMethod II: Feeding your cat in his carrier

Another method to acclimate a cat to his carrier is to feed him in it. This is perhaps more appropriate for easily cleaned hard plastic carriers. The “Kitty Diner” can also be a way to separate cats while feeding, allowing each cat his own place to eat.

 

  • Take the door off the carrier.
  • Place your cat’s food bowl near his carrier.
  • Over the next few days to a week, gradually move the food bowl closer to the carrier.
  • Work up to placing it just inside the carrier.
  • Move the bowl to the back of the carrier.

You should be able to coax him into the carrier with some treats or catnip when you need to travel.

Method III: Carrier Training for Your Cat using a clicker

This may seem more complicated but if your cat is food motivated and knows how to sit and target, it is fast and reliable. You can go a bit slower with a carrier with a removable top. One piece carriers can start at Step 3. 

Keep sessions short.  Make sure your cat is comfortable with one step before moving to the next. This entire process can take as little as a few days or maybe a week or more. Be patient and go at your cat’s pace.  Click on this link for an overview of clicker training.

Step 1 : Top off

  • Lure Kitty into the carrier with the target stick or a trail of treats.
  • Once in, ask her to sit, then click and treat.
  • Lure her out and click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 2: Door off

  • Assemble the carrier leaving the door off.
  • Lure your cat in with a target stick or treats. Once in, click and treat.
  • Using treats or the target stick, lure her out. Click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 3: Door open

  • Put the door on the carrier.
  • With the door open, lure kitty into her carrier. Click and treat.
  • Lure her out. Click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 4: Close the door

  • Lure Kitty into her carrier and close the door.
  • Click and treat.
  • Open the door and have Kitty come out.
  • Click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 5: Moving the carrier

  • With your cat in the carrier, pick the carrier up and move it to another room.
  • When you arrive in the other room, open the door and let her out.  Click and treat.

All Done! Celebrate with treats!

A video presentation is available in the video gallery: https://www.felinepurrspective.com/aiovg_videos/carrier-training-your-cat/

Whatever method you use, leave the carrier out where your cat can nap in it or play around it. It will become familiar to your cat, a “part of the landscape”. It will be there in case of emergency, such as a house fire or wildfire, when you have to pack your cat up quickly and leave.

Consider making a cover for the carrier – it can match your decor and your cat will like the feeling of safety afforded by a cozy, dark space.

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Working at a cat hospital, I have become sensitized to my patients’ distress. Many cats are terrified coming to the veterinary clinic. The experience is not only stressful for the cat but it can be stressful for you, the cat owner. Perhaps you feel embarrassed when your cat misbehaves or maybe you just dread the ordeal of getting your cat into his carrier. These are a few of the reasons why we don’t see as many cats at a veterinary clinic as dogs, although cats outnumber dogs as pets.

The net result of this stress and anxiety is that you may delay medical care for your cat because getting to the vet is so stressful.

What can we do to reduce the fear and anxiety of the vet visit for us and our kitties?

This is the first of a series of posts about making vet visits better for your cat. We will start by looking at how your cat feels about the vet clinic.

making vet visits better for your cat (and you!)


from the feline perspective


You know something’s up – your carrier is out. You hide under the bed but your human pulls you out and proceeds to squeeze you into the dreaded box.

You swing along in the air and then are loaded into a larger box that moves and smells funny.

You finally stop moving and swing through the air some more and arrive at another house where you smell lots of other animals. Oh no, not this place again! You can smell other cats – most of these cats too are afraid. As you move through the fog of smells, you arrive in a small room with a metal table.

A strange human opens your carrier door and tries to coax you to come out – you’re not sure what is out there but now your carrier seems like a good place to stay.

Suddenly, your world tilts and you slide out of the carrier onto the cold, hard table.

You hiss your displeasure. Another strange human proceeds to look into your eyes, put a hard plastic thing in your ears, and presses a cold metal disc against your chest.

Then, the strange human pokes you with a needle and you are finally allowed to escape back into the dreaded carrier – at least, it has taken you back home before.

The veterinary visit can make the most mellow cat anxious.

Does your cat…

  • Turn into a frozen lump on the exam table?
  • Or does he become a Tasmanian devil, hissing and striking at the veterinary staff?
  • Or will he frantically eat the treats offered in an effort to soothe himself?

How can we ask our cats to accept handling and medical exams?

Making vet visits better for your cat (and you!)


Sedation is one way to relieve anxiety and fear. But sedation works better when your cat is used to being handled. (For more about sedation, see https://www.felinepurrspective.com/medication-before-your-cats-vet-visit/).

In this series of posts, we are going train our cats to accept the handling that goes along with the veterinary exam. We will break the vet visit down into parts and work on making your cat comfortable with each part. We will use a technique known as “clicker training” to communicate safety and familiarity to your cat.  Your cat voluntarily accepts handling in exchange for something he likes. In this way, your cat becomes an active participant in his health care.

THE VET VISIT IN PIECES


  1. Getting kitty into the cat carrier
  2. The car ride
  3. The waiting room
  4. The exam room/vet exam
  5. Other procedures
  6. Homeward bound

From getting your cat into her carrier to the return trip to home, training can help reduce situational anxiety by making handling and traveling positive, familiar experiences.

However, don’t expect your cat to go through his entire repertoire of behaviors in a distracting environment with strange people such as the veterinary clinic. Unless you train your cat in such an environment, he may behave as if he has never done any of these  things before. However, because he is used to being handled, appropriate handling should not elicit defensive behavior.

A frightened cat fighting for his life is very intimidating to handle. However, the past 2 decades has seen the advent of stress-free handling techniques designed to address the frightened cat. If you have concerns about how your cat is handled at the veterinary practice, consider taking your cat to a Cat Friendly practice, where staff is trained in feline handling techniques.

Making vet visits better for your cat is challenging, even if your cat is calm, relaxed and food motivated.  We will start next week with carrier training.

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