Almost as Good as a Spa Day: Taking Your Cat to the Vet Doesn’t Have to Be Stressful

Dr. Arbach of Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital gives Calvin a massage.

Dr. Arbach of Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital gives Calvin a massage.

In the room, there was a faint scent of lavender — just enough to create a calming atmosphere. Soft  instrumental music played in the background. Calvin was comfortable and warm, enjoying the caressing hands of a professional.

Were we at some kind of exclusive cat spa?

Nope.

Calvin and I — and Elsa Clair — were just finishing up a routine wellness exam at Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital, and Dr. Lynn Arbach was giving Calvin a massage.

It was our first Cat Sunday appointment, and it was a great experience for everyone.

Before we go further though, a note: I was not paid for this story, nor was I offered a discount on veterinary services, nor given any free or reduced price products to test. Just sayin’.

Life with Dogs and Cats visits our veterinarian a lot

It doesn’t take a doctorate in calculus to realize that bringing three dogs and four cats to the vet for routine wellness exams every six months adds up to a lot of visits. The dogs are the easiest: I bring Lilah and Jasper in at the same time. Since I adopted them together, they tend to be on the same schedule for bloodwork and immunizations. Tucker goes separately. Whomever I’m taking, though, it’s really simple: put harnesses and leashes on the dogs, walk outside with them, and ask them to hop in the car. They’re always happy to cooperate. They get a little stressed once we arrive at the practice — Jasper once tried to crawl in my lap — but for the most part, they’ll sit for me, step onto the scale when asked, and are always sweet to the staff.

I also bring my cats to the vet in pairs: Dawn and Athena together, and Calvin and Elsa Clair as a set. But that’s where the similarities end. First I have to find the cats, because they always seem to know when a trip to the vet is on the day’s agenda. Then I have to figure out how to remove them from under the bed / beneath the couch / behind the bookshelf (pick one — or more). After that, I have to stuff each uncooperative and very sharp and pointy animal into a carrier. By this time, we’re all unhappy and any one of us may or may not have the stripes to prove it. And we haven’t even left the house yet.

A better way to take cats to the vet

I knew there was a better way. And there is.

When I took Calvin and Elsa Clair in for their routine exams recently, it was a completely different experience. And while it would probably be an exaggeration to say it was a fun-filled extravaganza of kitty bliss, I can tell you it was as stress-free an outing as I could possibly imagine for me and two cats whose personal plans for the day had not included a road trip.

Here’s what I did:

I talked with our vet ahead of time.

Dr. Levinston, the owner and one of the four veterinarians who see patients at BVH had mentioned to me previously that Dr. Arbach had become certified as a Fear Free practioner — learning how to reduce stress for all species before, during and after a veterinary visit. Earlier this year, Dr. Arbach  had experimented with Cat Sundays, as one of ways to implement Fear Free, and to enable the practice to be more especially cat friendly. Though BVH has separate waiting areas and exam rooms for dogs and cats, Cat Sundays mean no dogs in the office on that one day a month.  Less people seemed interested in the summer, but Dr. Levinston told me that they were starting Cat Sundays back up, and suggested I try bringing my kitties in on one of those designated days.

Cat Sundays at Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital

Cat Sundays at Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital

You might ask why my cats would care about being in a place where there are dogs, when they live with dogs; one would imagine they should be used to the noise and nosiness and barking, right? But when you think about it from a feline perspective, you realize that any dogs they would encounter are not the dogs they are used to, and to a prey animal like a cat, every strange dog is a potential predator. In addition, because my cats live with dogs, they have learned that barking at best foretells commotion and the boisterousness of exuberant canines who might not look where their feet are, and at worse may mean that strange people are about to enter the house, and it’s time to run for the nearest cat cave. So for cats — even those who live with dogs like mine: Unfamiliar dogs = Stress.

I bought new cat carriers.

(Remember, I received no money or free products, so I purchased these myself.) I had been wanting to buy Sleepypod Mobile Pet Beds for a long time, as many of my cat blogging friends love them, but I couldn’t justify the $189.99 price tag. I saw that they had a limited edition robin’s egg blue color and I really really wanted them. Did I say I really wanted them? So when I got paid for a large project I was working on this past summer, I treated myself and my cats to these new carriers. (Sign of a pet lover: you spend extra cash on your pets and are just as happy — if not happier — as you would have been had you spent money on yourself. Am I right?)

Calvin and Elsa Clair in their Sleepypods.

Calvin and Elsa Clair in their Sleepypods.

Why do the carriers matter? Because what makes Sleepypods different is that the bottom is essentially a pet bed. You just zip the top on, and it becomes a carrier — one designed for safety and for comfort. It also means you don’t have to stuff the cat in — or dump the cat out; much of the exam can be done without kitty leaving the bed. End result? Less issues getting cats to and from the vet’s office, less stress during the exam. For everyone.

I helped Calvin and Elsa Clair love their beds / carriers.

I did this weeks before their appointments. I’ll write more about how I did it in a future post, but it wasn’t difficult. All it took was time, patience, and high-quality cat treats. After spending just a few minutes a day, in less than a week Calvin and Elsa Clair began to equate the beds with good things: treats, pets, love, and safety. So at the vet, with the top of the Sleepypod off, each cat simply curled up in their beds while Dr. Arbach examined them.

Elsa Clair learns to connect the Sleepypod with good things, like treats and loving.

Elsa Clair learns to connect the Sleepypod with good things, like treats and loving.

I taught Calvin and Elsa Clair to get in their beds when asked.

I had spent a few weeks tossing treats into the Sleepypods and petting each cat in all the right spots when they were in their beds. Now, when Calvin and Elsa Clair hear the sound of the drawer opening where I keep the treats in my office, they’re ready to jump into a bed. When I open the treat container, they’re in, offering their complaints about why I haven’t given them their rewards fast enough.

I “decorated” the Sleepypods with cats in mind.

I sprayed Feliway® — a cat pheromone that is known to elicit a calming effect — in each Sleepypod about a half hour before we were supposed to leave for our appointment, and when Calvin and Elsa Clair were otherwise occupied. Right before I encouraged them to hop into their beds, I added a shirt and shorts I had slept in the night before. The combination of my scent plus the calming effects of Feliway helped make the cats feel even more at home in their carriers.

Calvin actually makes eye contact with Dr. Arbach! Notice the blue cloth behind Calvin: my PJs.

Calvin actually makes eye contact with Dr. Arbach! Notice the blue cloth behind Calvin: my PJs.

I took advantage of the Fear Free and cat-friendly aspects of Cat Sundays.

It wasn’t just that there were no dogs at the office that day. Soothing music composed for feline enjoyment was piped into the room. On the exam table, there was a heating pad under a soft blanket. I placed the carrier on top, making the Sleepypod nice and warm. Dr. Arbach took the time to let each cat feel comfortable with her, and because we just zipped the top of the Sleepypod off, she was able to do nearly the entire exam without taking either cat out of their carriers. The only exception was when she took them out to weigh them. I could see how safe the cats felt in their beds when Elsa Clair lept back into hers after her weigh in.

Elsa Clair leaps back into  the Sleepypod bottom, her safe place.

Elsa Clair leaps back into the Sleepypod bottom, her safe place.

At the end of the exam, Dr. Arbach took a few minutes to do a little feline massage. Calvin — the cat who books it to the nearest hidey place at the mere hint of a possibility that an unfamiliar person might be in the vicinity — actually seemed to enjoy it. I call that a win.

The results are in.

Calvin and Elsa Clair were pronounced healthy by Dr. Arbach, though some bloodwork taken that day showed early signs of kidney disease, and each of them need a dental cleaning. I had to bring them back for urinalysis and to measure their blood pressure, which turned out normal, so they were cleared for the dental procedure.

Here’s the funny thing. I was sure that the cats would absolutely hate their Sleepypods after I brought them home from the vet. I was positive they would equate the beds with the poking and prodding and handling by strange people. I was convinced they wouldn’t trust the beds — or me — after their experiences at the vet.

I was wrong.

Both Calvin and Elsa Clair spend even more time in their Sleepypods now that they’ve been back and forth to the vet several times. It’s like a piece of home travels with them, and I think they feel even safer within the curved walls of their beds.

Calvin sleeps in the Sleepypod I have tucked into my office bookcase.

Calvin sleeps in the Sleepypod I have tucked into my office bookcase.

Anyone can do what I did to make a trip to the veterinarian less stressful and much easier for themselves, their cats and the vet. It’s not just about getting the right carrier, though that helps. Work with your vet. Take time to prepare. Be patient. Think like a cat.

Below are some additional tips for making a trip to the vet for you and your cat less stressful — and maybe even enjoyable.

Tips for Making a Trip to the Vet with Your Cat More Pleasant

  • Choose a veterinarian that’s right for you and your cat: Consider a cat-only practice, or one that is certified as Fear Free or designated a Cat Friendly Practice by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. If you current practice isn’t certified, you may want to ask them if they would be interested in certification, or if they might hold cat-only appointment hours or days. 
  • Work with your veterinarian: Your vet is your partner in caring for your cat. If your pet is extremely stressed by a trip to the clinic, your vet may be able to prescribe medication to help your cat handle the experience better.
  • Keep the carrier out: Bring the carrier out at least a week or two before the appointment. Better yet, leave it out so the cat can get used to it, explore it, and maybe even curl up and take a nap in it.
  • Decorate for cats: Not outside: inside. Make the interior of the carrier interesting and attractive to your feline friend by placing treats, catnip or a favorite toy or two in the carrier. Apply Feliway pheromone spray to the carrier about a half-hour before you will be using it.
  • Offer praise and rewards: For at least a couple weeks ahead of a trip to the vet, make the interaction between the cat and the carrier a pleasant one, by offering treats, chin scratches, playtime — whatever makes your cat happy — whenever he or she interacts with it.
  • Wear it and share it: Put a recently worn article of your clothing — like a t-shirt or sweatshirt — in the carrier. Not only does this give your cat something to snuggle in or hide under, but your scent can also provide additional comfort.

For more information, try these resources:

How to buy a Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed of your own:

So many people at BVH, from the vets to the techs to the receptionists and even other clients asked me about the Sleepypods while I was there, so I thought I’d include a few links to help folks find them online. Full disclosure: if you click any of the links below and eventually buy one, I will get a small commission.

You can also buy them directly from Sleepypod or at any number of online retailers.

 

The Sleepypod is just the right height for even my small Elsa Clair to look over the edge and watch the world through my office window. Oh, and if you wondered why I fell in love with the robin's egg blue of the carrier, check out the color of my office walls. Purr-fect match.

The Sleepypod on my desk is exactly right for even my small Elsa Clair to look over the edge and watch the world through my office window. Oh, and if you wondered why I fell in love with the robin’s egg blue of the carrier, check out the color of my office walls. Purr-fect match.

How do you get your pets to the vet?

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10 Comments on "Almost as Good as a Spa Day: Taking Your Cat to the Vet Doesn’t Have to Be Stressful"

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  1. our vet has diffusers and music in each exam room. they have a small entry so they try to space appointments so that no one runs into each other. and mom would love one of those sleepypods

  2. Johnny says:

    Really great points and I love the look of the sleepy pods!

  3. Those are great tips ! We’re dreaming of Sleepypods, but they are too expensive for us : 339 CHF !!! Purrs

    • We’ve dreamt of them for a long time. It was only because we had a little extra cash that we splurged. But I have to tell you (and I’m not paid to say so), they are worth everything. I was so impressed with the quality — even the zippers are high-quality, and attached easy and move smoothly. I expected to like the Sleepypods, but I didn’t expect to be such a fangirl.

  4. Our vet now has towels sprayed with feliway to help with the stress…and they also offer cat hours one day a week. But we think there is still much more they could do to make it less stressful for us.

    We wish we had Sleepypods, but they’re a little out of our price range, especially since we would need at least 2 of them.

  5. We love the idea of a cat-exclusive day at the vet’s office. What a fantastic idea for making cats comfortable at a multi-species veterinary practice. If our previous vet offered that, we likely wouldn’t have switched to the cats-only clinic.

    • I hadn’t heard of it before, and at first I didn’t think it would mean anything to my cats, who live with dogs. But then I realized that strange dogs would probably be even more scary to cats who know dogs, and who run when they hear our barking. It was a great experience.

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