Kicking and screaming: Don’t let your cat bully you out of taking her to the vet

File photo. File photo.

Nobody really likes to bring their cats to the vet. Unlike dogs, who are typically excited to do anything at all, cats can smell a hospital visit from miles away. While most are easy enough to catch and corral, others go DEFCON 1 as soon as they see that carrier come out of the closet. It’s so much easier to just ignore that nagging reminder card and get on with life. You’re happier. The cat is happier. Everybody wins.

Not really, though. It’s a recognized problem in veterinary medicine that, compared to their canine counterparts, cats are far more likely to have their health ignored. Routine visits are fewer and farther between. Important vaccines are frequently left to expire. And even once cats make it to the vet, recommended diagnostics and procedures are more likely to be declined. 

This is a big problem for cats who, by their nature, are fairly secretive. Many of the most common health problems in cats go completely undetected by owners, not because of neglect, but because cats simply keep to themselves. Unlike dogs who get dedicated leash walks to the bathroom, cats use litter boxes stashed well out of sight. Simple diagnostic questions like “is he urinating more than he used to?” have accordingly murky answers. Lethargy is harder to notice because even on a good day, many cats don’t get much exercise beyond creeping a few feet every hour to follow a shifting sunbeam. Cats keep their mouths shut, and aren’t apt to pant the foul fumes of dental decay straight into your face like a dog might. In short, signs of illness that are flagrant in a dog are subtle in a cat.

Sadly, this means that I frequently don’t see cats until disease has progressed well past the stage where intervention would have been most successful. Even severe disease can develop so gradually that it’s hard for anybody at home to notice. One day, you wake up, and it all seems like it’s just happened overnight. But it didn’t, and the poor cat sits on the exam table with five years of undetected renal failure, rotting teeth, and heart disease. Any of those problems might have been manageable on their own, but taken together, they become an intimidating gestalt with no easy path to treatment.

Regular exams give me the chance to discover things like dental disease, heart murmurs, weight loss, and other nascent symptoms before they snowball out of control. Even in cases where we wouldn’t choose to aggressively manage those symptoms, the knowledge helps owners to better monitor their cat’s health and plan for future progression.

I don’t think anybody doubts how big a nuisance it can be to drag cats to the vet. And there is definitely a small sliver of the feline population that objects violently to the entire process. But for most, it’s just an unpleasant day—one apart from hundreds of others spent in uncontested luxury. I think it’s worth a few minutes of caterwauling in the car for the prospect of gaining hundreds more.


  • Ami Somers

    While it’s true that most cats hate their carrier and will do anything to avoid being put in it, the main reason is everything associated with that carrier is unfamiliar and scary to them. It’s kept in a closet somewhere in the house and only brought out on those dreaded days. No wonder your cat sees it and heads for the most remote hiding place.

    However, there are a lot of simple things cat guardians can do to keep stress levels to a minimum. Cats don’t like anything unfamiliar in their environment, so start with leaving your cat carrier out all the time. Put catnip, treats, and/or toys in it to encourage your kitty to explore and spend time in it. You can also throw in a piece of material that has a familiar scent on it, like a t-shirt you’ve worn or a piece of their bedding. Make it a place they can enjoy and own (cats love to own things!). Leave your carrier out in the room while you’re watching TV. If he happens to wander in there, throw a treat in the carrier with him. Keep treats handy so every time he goes in there, he gets a yummy tidbit. He’ll start to realize that this plastic box means good things happen. You can then ease him into having the door closed. When it’s closed, treats are delivered. Pick him up in the carrier and walk around the house for a short time, drop a few treats as you go. If the gets upset or stops eating the treats, put him down carefully and open the door—but throw a treat in the empty carrier so he’ll go back in there on his own terms. Gradually you can extend the time he
    is in it with the door closed. You can then try putting him in the car, taking him on short rides around the block. Make sure you turn the radio down and keep the windows rolled up to minimize scary sounds from outside the car. Spraying a bit of a feline pheromone spray like Feliway® in the car about 30 minutes before you place him in it may also keep stress levels down. When you return from the vet, make sure you give him a safe place to recover. He will smell different, so if you have other cats, he will need some time to reenter his old environment. Put some treats out for everyone so his coming home is viewed as a positive event.

    Persuading a cat that the carrier isn’t a bad place and he will survive a car trip now and then takes patience, but the best advice is not to wait until the day he needs to go somewhere to try to make it a good (or better) experience. It only takes a few minutes a day, with your carrier out where it’s accessible, to start to change your cat’s mind about what it means in his life. And trust me, it’s worth every second you’ve spent when you have a peaceful trip to the vet’s office for that much needed annual checkup.

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