Learning to be good for the vet (part 7)

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Teach your cat to be comfortable in a vet surgery and to be more relaxed when being examined by your vet.

The better your cat is able to cope with being handled by the vet, the less restraint will be needed, thus making the visit more pleasant for both cat and vet. And, if your cat learns that being handled by a vet is a positive experience, your vet can be more confident that any negative response is related to something other than intolerance of handling, such as?pain related to injury or disease.

Please note, though, that if your cat is not comfortable with being stroked, then the training advice in this article is inappropriate. Instead, we suggest you read the last training article on meeting new people (part 6) and apply this training with interactions with yourself first.

Choosing the right rewards for handling training

Cats make associations with what happens around them. For example, your cat quickly learns that standing at the back door can lead to the outcome of it being opened to be let outside. We can use this type of learning to teach our cats that being touched on different areas of their body can have positive consequences, such as being given a food treat, being fussed under their chin, or some of their other favourite things.

While food is often used to reward certain behaviours, a cat could become over-excited by it. In this state he is unlikely to stay still and remain calm so it would be a good idea to use something else that your cat likes. Avoid play as a reward for the same reason.

For example, my cat Cosmos likes to facial-rub on a grooming brush and for Herbie, being scratched under his chin and on his cheeks is a very positive experience (see video below). Both of these rewards are most definitely positive for the cats but also help to keep them in a relaxed state and do not make them too excited. This is important during handling as the cats should remain calm and relatively still to ease examination.

Training to touch

This training should never be rushed and it should be accepted that this process could take many weeks and even months for some cats. Before you start, ensure your cat is well and not in any pain, as he may be less tolerant to being touched and we do not want to create an association that handling leads to pain.

Begin your training session by ensuring your cat is settled on his mat inside the base of his carrier (see part 3 of this series for mat training). We begin the training in the bottom half of the carrier as it is a place that your cat should now feel safe and secure. Ask your vet to begin any examination with your cat in the base of the carrier, removing the top to access the cat rather than taking him from the carrier straight onto the veterinary table. Your cat is likely to feel much more secure and safe on his familiar mat, as well as feeling less exposed as the carrier sides will provide some privacy.

Techniques for fidgety cats

If you find that your cat moves away as soon as you touch him, try a different technique using a continuous supply of a tasty food. Make a runny meat paste and place it in a syringe or small piping bag. You can use it as a lure to move your cat into either a sitting or standing position.

While your cat is eating the food, touch an area your cat is comfortable with and then gently move to the new area you wish to touch. The food should hopefully be good enough to keep your cat wanting it and therefore staying in the same position while you touch him. It is harder for your cat to learn that handling is positive in this situation as the food is so rewarding - it overrides any association that the handling is linked to the food.

You need to gradually remove the food during the touch, then deliver the food immediately after the touch. This can be done by holding the food syringe close to your cat but not pushing the plunger to deliver food until after the touch. Gradually, fade out the presentation of the food-filled syringe until after the touch. This way you will not be using the food as a simple distraction, but teaching the cat that handling has positive outcomes and is therefore a worthwhile experience.

Training for an injection

Touch the neck area with light pressure very briefly - just a second to begin with. Move your hand slowly towards and away from your cat. If he shows signs of being uncomfortable with this, stop immediately and go back to the head area where your cat is comfortable.

If he remains calm while being touched lightly on the back of the neck, follow this behaviour with your chosen reward immediately after the touch. Repeat this several times. Your cat will learn that being touched on the neck and remaining calm results in something really positive. Remember that the touch always occurs before the food, not at the same time: touch, release, reward, in that order.

Gradually increase the pressure and the length of contact time of the touch. Do this over lots of short training sessions, and always end the session with your cat content and happy to do more training - short (less than one minute at the beginning) and often is the best way.

As you gradually build up your touch, you can start to gently lift the skin at the base of the neck, then release and reward. This will help your cat associate the feeling of having this skin lifted with something positive, which will greatly help when the vet has to do this to administer an injection.

Remember when you do visit the vet, to take something really positive with you, such as a piece of ham, chicken or prawn (whatever is your cat's favourite), to deliver to your cat immediately after the injection. This is ok even for cats that get very excited about food as long as your vet will not need to handle your cat after the injection.

When your cat is in an unfamiliar or negative environment, we often need to use higher value rewards to ensure they are really rewarding. For example, a piece of your cat's complete biscuit diet may be really rewarding in the home but not so appealing at the vets.

Paws, mouth, eyes and ears

Next you can begin to work on developing positive associations to other types of handling, such as the paws. Begin by simply touching a paw, then work up to being able to hold the paw and gently press on a toe to extend the claw. Most cats are more tolerant of having their front paws lifted, so start with these.

To touch the mouth area, begin by scratching under the chin and cheek (most cats tend to prefer to be touched here) and then gently touch the lip and reward.

Build this up from a touch to a gentle lift of the lip to expose the front teeth. Introduce holding your cat's head by touching the head and the lip at the same time. Remember, gentle handling coupled with small successive steps always followed by reward is the way to progress. If at any time your cat shows discontent (a slight flattening of the body and/or ears, turning the head away from you, dilating of pupils, tail swish etc), stop immediately. Your cat is telling you he is not enjoying the experience and what you are doing is a step too far. Wait until another time when he is more relaxed and start from the beginning.

Using the same training techniques, you can develop positive associations with having the ears touched and opened for inspection, having the eyes opened and checked, lifting the tail, and brushing the fur in the opposite direction from growth to inspect the skin.

None of the training has to be a special event - you can integrate this training into your daily routine. Do a little training here and there when your cat chooses to interact with you. Pick times when he is relaxed and happy.

Once your cat is doing very well with this handling, ask a member of your family or a friend your cat knows well to engage in some of the training too, so he starts to get used to other people touching him in this manner. This will help him learn the association of handling leads to rewards when handled by others, including the vet. Do ensure the other person understands the techniques and importance of the timing of the reward - touch, release, reward in that order. If you have a young kitten then you should start this training from day one so it becomes part of his normal routine.

Learning to be touched by objects

Your vet may need to touch your cat with items such as a stethoscope, syringe and cotton wool, to name a few. Continue the training on your cat's mat so you start with him in a relaxed state.

Use something that's easy to hold in your hand and will not frighten him - for example, a spoon will mimic a stethoscope. Place it on the floor in front of your cat and allow him to investigate it. Reward if he sniffs or rubs against it. If, however, he seems uncomfortable with the spoon being so close (he backs away from it), do not touch his body with it.?Instead, reward him for being near the spoon on the floor, thus teaching him that it is a pleasant thing to be around, before moving onto using it to touch your cat.

Only once he is comfortable with this, lift it close to the cat's body without touching him. Move it away from him and reward immediately. Repeat this action, taking the spoon slightly closer to your cat until you're touching his body with it (ensure the spoon is at room temperature before you touch him with it). You should always start in an area of your cat's body where he is relaxed about being touched.

By carrying out such regular training at home, you should be able to ensure your cat copes much better during a veterinary examination. Cats often view the veterinary surgery as an unpleasant environment, so it's vital to help them cope with it. Ideally, owners should aim to make vet visits as positive as possible from kittenhood.