If you’re anything like me, you probably hug your cat several times a day. It wasn’t until I became a veterinarian that I realized many cats don’t like being hugged, and if they do, it’s not by strangers poking them with needles at the vet clinic. Many cats also dislike having areas of their body handled such as their paws and mouth. Unfortunately, when your cat gets examined by a vet, they’ll often need to be hugged by a technician while they get all of those areas handled and more. By doing some exam training at home, pet parents can help lower their cat’s fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) at the clinic.
When your cat arrives at the clinic for their annual visit, if they won’t walk out of their carrier on their own, the veterinarian or technician may take the top off the carrier. Unfortunately, if your cat is brought to the clinic in a pillowcase, a carrier with rusted screws, or no carrier, this adds stress to the visit before handling even begins. Make sure you have a plastic carrier of an appropriate size with a top-entry option and buckles on the side so the top can be easily removed. The tips on carrier training here can also help.
For the first part of exam training, place a non-slip cat bed on the floor. Using high-value treats such as Churu or squeeze cheese, reward your cat for going onto the bed. Next, place the bed on a coffee table or slightly raised surface and give more treats. Eventually, you want your cat to be comfortable on a surface that’s waist-high to simulate an exam table.
For the next part of exam training, practice restraint by standing behind them, gently squeezing their shoulders for a second, then giving a treat. Gradually increase the length of time your cat is held until you reach a minute. Repeat these steps with a folded bath towel, a tool used by many veterinarians for handling cats. Scruffing cats is not recommended because it increases their FAS, so do not attempt this with your cat.
Keep training sessions short and spread over multiple days. Stop if you see tail flicking, squirming, or loss of interest in treats. If your cat hisses or growls, stop immediately and talk with your Fear Free veterinary staff about how to hone your technique. You may find that putting a spreadable treat onto a Licki Mat helps your cat tolerate restraint for longer.
After your cat is used to restraint, start training for the exam. There may seem like a lot of parts to an exam, but most cats can be examined by a vet within a few minutes, especially if you’ve already done some training at home. Using the same principles used for restraint, break down each area of handling into the baby steps that comprise it. Keep treating and don’t move onto the next baby step unless your cat stays relaxed. If your cat has arthritis or another painful condition, avoid handling those areas. Training is important, but not at the expense of injuries or stressing your special bond.
If your cat is overall healthy, face your cat from behind and practice the following giving a treat after each procedure:
–Trailing your hand over the back and upper legs.
–Trailing your hand under the front legs from chest to abdomen.
–Touching the tail, then lifting it from the base.
–Lightly squeezing the spine with your fingers from the shoulders to the hips.
–Picking up one leg at a time under the armpits or hips, then moving it forward and backward.
–Touching each paw, then lifting it.
–Very gently squeezing the abdomen from the ribs to the hips.
–Touching each ear, then lightly putting a finger inside the ear.
–Touching the lip, then lifting it.
–Holding the face while briefly making eye contact.
If you take the time to do exam training with your cat, not only will you teach them that being handled results in treats, but you might find problems like a broken tooth that warrant a vet visit. While your cat may still be a bit nervous when they’re examined by your vet, any training you can do will go a long way toward achieving a Fear Free annual visit.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Julie Liu, DVM, CVA (Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist) is a small-animal veterinarian who practices in Austin, Texas. In addition to advocating for Fear Free handling of pets, she is passionate about feline medicine and senior pet care.
Published May 10, 2021