According to Veterinarian Practice News, twice as many cats as dogs never see the vet. Of those, 41% visit only for vaccinations and 39% visit only for sickness. Moreover, the American Animal Hospital Association reported that 60% of owners say their cat hates the vet; 38% say they hate the EXPERIENCE of taking their cat to the vet.
How do we change these stats? In modules five and six of Dr. Sophia Lin’s Low-Stress Handling course, Dr. Yin advocates for training cats to associate all potentially scary things with pleasant experiences, especially those related to vet handling. In particular, owners should acclimate their cats to claw trimming, pills and syringes, injections, and towel wraps. Dr. Yin didn’t mention getting cats used to a weight scale and to their teeth being brushed, but I recommend these as well. In each of these situations, handling should always be paired with treat, as food will be key to changing your cat’s emotional state. Moreover, handling should also be paired with different people in different locations, so that your cat learn that handling can happen in different situations. Finally, to make it easier to learn this skills, I recommend working with a partner when possible.
Start by simply picking up your cat and giving treats without handling the claws. After you’ve done this for several sessions, wait until your cat is occupied with eating treats before you handle their paws. Be sure to stop handling right before your cat finishes the treats. This way, your cat’s attention is focused on treats the entire time it’s being handled. Ideally, your cat shouldn’t even notice you handling its paws, and will instead be looking expectantly to you for more treats. At this point, Dr. Yin advises to “handle the paws more robustly to get the claws to extend.” Once you’ve handled your cat’s paws for several sessions, tap a paw with a pair of nail clippers but don’t clip. Remember to keep giving your cat treats. You might need to practice this step a few times to get the timing right. Your cat should always associate handling with treats. Once you’ve had several sessions of tapping your cat’s paws with clippers, try clipping a claw or two while your cat is eating treats. Eventually, you should be able to clip the claws on all four paws in one grooming session. Remember continue giving treats.
Pills and Syringe
To teach your cat to accept pills, feed your cat tuna out of a pill gun. If you do this procedure enough times, your cat will instinctively think when you present a pill gun that something good is going to happen. At this point, you can place a pill in the pill gun. To sweeten the deal, you could coat the pill with cat food. Then after you place the pill in your cat’s mouth, immediately follow up with a treat.
Dr. Yin noted that sometimes you might need to administer a pill without food. However, she said, if your cat has learned to associate a pill gun with a positive experience, having to feed them something that tastes “yucky” will not be so bad.
What about the times that you must give a pill by hand? First, get your cat used to having its head held level in a gentle restraint. While your cat’s head is in that position, give your cat tuna or some other treat. The goal is to get the food to your cat before there’s a struggle. As soon your cat finishes eating the food, release its head. When your cat consistently focuses on the treats, you can slightly tilt your cat’s head, still keeping it in a gentle restraint. As your cat becomes more comfortable, you can tilt your cat’s head a little more to put it into position for taking a pill. Over time, your cat should instinctively think that being asked to open its mouth will mean something good is going to happen. When you do really need to give a pill to your cat, be sure that you always follow with a treat.
To teach your cat to accept a syringe, use a similar process. Cut the tip of a syringe and fill the syringe with baby food or wet cat food that you then feed to your cat. The goal is that when your cat sees a pill gun or syringe, they will think something good is going to happen.
To get your cat used to having injections, you’ll first need to get your cat used to having its skin handled. Start by gently grasping your cat’s skin while you feed it treat. After three to five seconds or right before your cat finishes the treat, release your grip. This way your cat will learn to associate handling with treats. After a few seconds, grasp the skin again. At this point, Dr. Yin advises to “handle the skin a little more roughly to mimic how a vet might have to give injections.” Next feed your cat some tuna on a plate while poking your cat with your finger or another safe object that resembles a syringe. The reason for using tuna on a plate is that you’ll need two hands for the procedure, one to grasp the skin and one to poke the skin. As always, the goal is to have your cat always focus on food while being handled.
Yin says that the traditional methods of handling cats have been to scruff, stretch, and force-restrain. The result has been bites, scratches, and cat owners and/or veterinary staff. According to Yin, low-stress towel wrap techniques can make it easier and safer to handle cats. She also notes that these techniques should only be used on cats that need them. She dedicated an entire module to listing the steps for, demonstrating, and giving examples of seven towel wraps. Six of these are for when a cat is calm; the seventh is for an emergency such as when you need to catch a cat that has escaped. These techniques are intended mostly for animal welfare workers, so I won’t overview them here. Instead I recommend that you purchase Yin’s DVD Feline Wraps or her book Low Stress Handling, Restraint, and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats.