Reducing Stress for Cats in the Clinic
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2013
Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECAWBM (BM), CCAB, MRCVS
Behavioural Referrals Veterinary Practice, Upton, Chester, UK

Increasing Popularity

Cats are becoming increasingly popular pets and they are now numerically more common within UK households than man's traditional best friend, the dog. More and more cats are being seen within veterinary practices and the importance of appropriate handling of cats in a veterinary context is increasing.

Dealing with Cats

An understanding of the cat's natural behavioural patterns and their influence on feline behavioural responses is essential and veterinary personnel need to learn how to effectively handle cats in order to minimise stress for the cat and practice staff alike as well as to minimise the risk of physical injury. It is important to consider ways in which confrontational encounters with cats may be prevented

The Relevance of Feline Ethology

There are a number of aspects of visits to the veterinary practice which make them a particular challenge for cats.

1. Moving Away From Home

Cats are territorial creatures and they rarely leave their home environment. When they do the process of transportation is often associated with a negative destination such as the veterinary practice or cattery. As a result the cat basket and car become conditioned aversive stimuli and the sight of the cat carrier or the experience of travelling commonly triggers anxiety responses. Indeed the cat carrier is often seen as a fear-inducing stimulus and confrontational encounters around the basket add to the tension and fear related to the experience of leaving home. Repeated trips to the veterinary practice lead to a buildup of learned associations which prepare the cat for conflict.

2. Coping with Restrictive Handling

During a veterinary examination there is a need for intimate handling and a level of physical restraint. Cats are commonly lacking in appropriate habituation for such procedures and since the primary feline defence strategy is flight this decreases their inherent tolerance of close physical contact. Handling cats in a way that restricts their perceived level of control over the situation will exacerbate feelings of confinement and increase the likelihood of fight responses being selected as a means of dealing with the apparent threat from veterinary staff. It is important to remember that the veterinary practice is often associated with pain or discomfort associated with disease, treatment or even prophylactic procedures such as vaccination or worming. The possibility of negative emotional reactions to the veterinary context are therefore further complicated by the conditioning of a fear response through association with pain or discomfort

3. Diffusing Conflict

One of the major differences between cats and dogs in relation to displays of aggression relates to their differing capacities to diffuse conflict once it has occurred. Dogs are social pack animals with an inherent need for social interaction and as a result of their hierarchical social structure they have a range of appeasement gestures, which enable them to diffuse conflict. In contrast the cat has a co-operative social system based on territorial responses and while they can value and appreciate social interaction they have no fundamental need of it. At the end of the day cats are solitary survivors and their communication systems are largely based on a desire to avoid strangers and keep their distance in order to avoid confrontation. However, many of these signals are ineffective in the veterinary context and the likelihood of physical confrontation is therefore increased.

In adult cats the lack of a hierarchical social structure means that the role of submissive behaviour is minimal and the lack of appeasement signals in the feline behavioural repertoire leads to an inability to diffuse conflict. This has serious implications in a veterinary context where cats find that they are unable to maintain a safe distance and are therefore more inclined to lash out with intense aggressive responses in order to deal with the perceived threat.

Increasing Emotional Stability in Cats

In order for domestic cats to cope well with the pressures of living in a human environment there are certain factors which need to be taken into consideration. Some of these are outside the control of the veterinary practice but it is worthwhile advising people who are considering taking on a kitten to pay attention to the potential influences of genetics and early rearing environment on the behaviour of their pet. Research has specifically identified the influence of the tom on the boldness of his offspring and breeding from confident toms and queens will increase the probability of producing confident and emotionally stable kittens. Exposing kittens to a wide range of social and environmental experiences during their primary socialisation period will also decrease the incidence of fear related responses and specific introduction to restrictive handling is essential for a cat that is destined to be a domestic pet.

Preparing Kittens for the Specific Experience of the Veterinary Practice

The veterinary practice poses certain specific challenges for the cat and it is important to take time to introduce kittens to the range of activities associated with this venue. Habituating kittens to confinement, travel and examination in gradual stages will be the most successful way of decreasing the risk of unwanted behavioural responses during veterinary examination.

1. Habituation to the Travelling Basket

This can be achieved by leaving it on display within the home and feeding kittens within the basket or allowing them to sleep in it. In most cases owners keep the cat carrier in a cupboard and only bring it out when they are transporting the cat to the practice. This favours a rapid association between the carrier and the unpleasant experience and results in the cat arriving at the practice in an agitated and aroused state.

2. Habituation to Car Travel

Taking kittens in the car for short journeys, which are not associated with any aversive experience, will help to latently inhibit any fearful response. Visits to the veterinary practice for a purely social experience will be additionally beneficial.

3. Habituation to Restrictive Handling

Introduction to restrictive handling associated with examination should begin as early as possible. Daily examinations of eyes, ears and teeth within the home environment will help to increase the kitten's acceptance and owners can maximise the benefits of these experiences by associating them with the provision of high value food rewards.

4. Habituation to the Scents of a Veterinary Environment

It is important to consider the influence of scent and auditory signals on fearful responses in cats. Ideally kittens should be exposed to the smells and sounds of a veterinary context as early as possible and in an unchallenging manner.

Borrowing a laboratory coat from the practice and allowing kittens to sniff at it before meals and in association with playtimes can help. Sound stimuli such as the bleeping of an electronic thermometer and the opening of syringe packaging can also be introduced within the home and using Feliway diffusers in the home and in the veterinary practice can assist in forming positive scent associations.

Effective Handling During the Consultation

In the majority of cases the cat would rather flee than fight and this is certainly true when they encounter the veterinary practice for the first time. Using minimal restraint in order to get the job done is always the best course of action and it is best to start with this approach. If necessary, restraint can be gradually increased as the cat's confidence increases.

Breaking the examination process down into small stages and allowing the cat to recover between them decreases the risk of exceeding its threshold of tolerance and learning to read feline body language and facial expressions is essential if veterinary personnel are going to avoid unnecessary conflict. Paying attention to subtle changes in ear position or body tension can help to avoid injury and while temporarily suspending handling and allowing the cat to return to a calm emotional state may appear to delay proceedings it will actually be very beneficial in the long run.

One feature of feline fear is that it will persist for as long as 30 minutes or more after the actual frightening situation has been removed and this means that cats that have been returned to the peace of their cage or basket may still react aggressively when they are approached again, even if some minutes have elapsed. It is therefore far better to interrupt a procedure at the very first signs of tension than to keep going until the cat is really fearful and run the risk of inducing even more significant delay.

Conclusions

The veterinary practice is a potentially threatening environment for the cat and their natural behaviour does not prepare them for dealing with it. An appropriate understanding and application of learning theory combined with an understanding of feline ethology is therefore essential in order to avoid stressful encounters for cats and practice staff alike within the veterinary context.

  

Speaker Information
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Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECAWBM (BM), CCAB, MRCVS
Behavioural Referrals Veterinary Practice
Upton, Chester, UK


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