Plan ahead for future healthcare by teaching your cat to be handled in specific ways, as Sarah and Chirag explain...
In the last training article (part 10), we started to discuss how you can make it easier and less stressful to give your cat medications by starting some basic training steps. We looked primarily at giving medications orally and now we continue this theme with training for spot-on products, and drops for eyes and ears.
Often the only time owners will use the latter is when their cat is ill. At such times, the cat is already likely to be in some level of discomfort and pain so unfortunately will only learn to associate the treatment with pain or discomfort. For this reason, it's a good idea to start training when your cat is in good health and can learn to associate the treatment with a positive event.
Start with teaching your cat that it is fun to receive tactile contact on his ears. Your aim is to have a relaxed cat so you can touch around and in the ears. Ideally, carry out this training session for a minute every day. If your cat is meal-fed then it may be an idea to do 30 seconds of training when he has his food.
Begin with a soft and light touch, progressing to a stage where you can use two fingers to hold an ear. Once your cat is comfortable with this, carry on to the next stage where you can rub a finger lightly inside the upper part of your cat's ear while he remains relaxed. This training will build a solid foundation for teaching easy acceptance to ear drops.
When you introduce the ear drop bottle, it is a good idea to allow your cat to investigate it first. He may chose to sniff or touch it with his nose or paw. Reward any investigation with a food treat or your cat's favourite reward (play or fuss, for example). Allowing your cat to see and explore the ear drop bottle before using it gives him some sense of control. He should realise it's nothing to fear but instead something that predicts yummy treats or other fun things.
Next, take a closed ear drop bottle and move it towards your cat's ears. Stop short (about 10cm) then reinforce your cat with a treat, a game or praise. Repeat this but slowly start to take the bottle closer. Watch your cat carefully and if you see any hesitation or early signs that your cat is uncomfortable, such as flinching away, you are moving too fast - so slow down, as this is a sign that you may need to break the training down into smaller steps.
Once you get close enough that you are nearly ready to place the top of the bottle into your cat's ear, you should aim to get your cat used to it touching the outer parts of his inner ear first. Do this very gently - the touch should start with the lightest pressure and be rewarded, gradually placing more pressure and touching the bottle all around the outer part of the inner ear, all the time rewarding at each stage.
Making these stages very reinforcing [rewarding] will mean that you are building up your cat's trust in your handling of him. Thus, if your cat does ever feel pain or discomfort when you have to treat his infected or injured ear if he has a problem, he has had many more positive than negative experiences with you touching his ears. These positive experiences should build your cat's future trust and tolerance of handling in this manner.
So remember, ensure there are many more positive experiences than negative (sometimes negative are unavoidable in cases of pain) and by training, ensure those experiences that are negative are minimised as much as possible.
Gradually, you need to get your cat used to the bottle being held further inside the ear, so start to position it more this way but still working in very small steps. Reward your cat at every stage with treats, play and praise.
Once your cat is happy and relaxed with the above, he will have to get used to feeling a wet sensation inside his ear. This can be strange at first, so you need a plan of action before opening the bottle and placing any ear cleaner in your cat's ear. We would recommend that you start first by using a damp piece of cotton wool and in a step-by-step process as described above, get your cat used to feeling it rubbing against the inside of his outer ear.
Make sure the damp cotton wool is at room temperature. Next you can wipe the closed bottle of ear cleaner/drops with damp cotton wool and practise the bottle placement as described above. When your cat appears relaxed with this, we would suggest that you start to open the bottle. If the bottle is ear cleaner (and not medication as it is imperative medication is only ever used under veterinary instruction) and is a twist top, you should untwist it so that it is half open. This ensures that only a little fluid comes out.
We would also suggest that rather than place the nozzle of the bottle in the ear as you will eventually, place it so only a little liquid will run against the outer part of the inner ear at first. Remember to reward your cat using really high-value treats such as tuna, cooked chicken or another of his favourite treats. Using the same method, you can build up to squeezing some of the ear cleaner into the inner ear (always seek veterinary advice before using any form of cleaner in the ear, even for training purposes).
Although we cannot give eye drops to cats when they are not needed, it is worth practising the process of holding the cat and his eye area in the way that's needed to apply eye drops. You can also train your cat to become accustomed to the feeling of damp cotton wool around the eye, which is often required when cleaning infected eyes. Remember to use a step-by-step method as described for the ear drops.
Start your training when your cat is relaxed and begin by touching around his eyes without anything in your hand at first. You will need to get him used to having his head held in a slightly different way and having his ears held, so work on this first in small steps, reinforcing [rewarding] each one.
Only move on when your cat is relaxed and happy with the previous step. If he shows signs of being unhappy, stop immediately and when he is back to being relaxed and happy, start again but at the first training steps. Make the steps as small as possible to keep the experience positive. By reading the steps for the ear drops (above) and the steps described in the first article, you will see how we break the steps down into small goals.
Spot-on treatments are a commonly-used format for preventatives against flea and worm infestations so it is worth practising for this too. Again, we recommend a step-by-step process as described for ear and eye drops. However, you will need to make some specific considerations for spot-on treatments.
You can use a syringe for practice and eventually add some water to simulate the liquid, but only a very small amount, as the spot-on treatments do not contain much liquid. These are generally placed between the shoulder blades and so you need to train your cat to realise that this sensation predicts a reward. Steps include parting the fur in this area, feeling a small spot-on container touching his body and then the feeling of liquid being squeezed onto the skin.