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What does a cat-friendly veterinary experience look like?

While good feline healthcare clearly requires visiting the veterinary clinic, many components of a veterinary visit or stay may potentially result in negative experiences for the cats. These impacts can be far-reaching, including distress and prolonged recovery from illness for the cats, and, for the medical team, the risk of misleading test results and clinical findings, possible injuries, and increased difficulties with handling the cats at future veterinary visits. 

Now, two recently published “Cat Friendly Guidelines” address in detail how to properly handle cats’ veterinary experiences, including their journey to the clinic, their interactions with the medical professionals, and the physical and social environment of the clinic (such as the presence of other animals in the waiting and hospitalization areas). 

At the heart of these guidelines is the recognition that mental wellbeing is as important as physical health, and that the cats’ emotional experience is crucial during veterinary visits. The experts distinguish between a cat’s positive, or “engaging” emotions – which might lead it to explore the environment and seek food, treats, play, and social interaction – from its negative, or “protective” emotions of fear, frustration, or pain. This framework could help professionals better understand the feline perspective, identify underlying stressors, and decide what approach works best to resolve rather than exacerbate certain negative situations the cat might find itself in during such visits.

Since much of the behavior of cats is derived from their wildcat ancestor (Felis silvestris lybica) – such as their natural preference to rely on themselves for protection – familiarity, control, predictability, and avoidance of threats are essential for a cat’s perceived safety. According to the experts, minimizing negative experiences should start before reaching the clinic by considering what the cat will see, hear, and smell (with their highly tuned sensory system) during the journey to the clinic, and extend during the veterinary visit.

Some advice includes minimizing visual or auditory stimulation, by keeping away even pictures of cats or other animals, protecting the felines from noisy patients and loud clinical equipment, and maintaining all human vocalizations soft, gentle, and slow in tempo. Moreover, if the clinic treats also dogs, the medical team should remove potentially challenging scents by sweeping up dog hair, emptying bins of strong-smelling waste, and perhaps even using synthetic feline pheromones to create a more reassuring environment. Moreover, the medical team should remain “cat focused” during all the interactions, by being aware of the cats’ preferred areas of touch (such as the face), not leaning over or cornering the cats, avoiding direct eye contact, and using friendly equipment and positive distractions.

Implementing this type of “cooperative care” will require new skills to be developed and practiced, both at home and at the veterinary clinic, to help cats feel more relaxed and in control in situations where they may naturally feel fearful and frustrated.

The two guidelines are published in a special issue of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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