By: Peta Gay Railton
When I graduated 24 years ago, and started working as a vet, it was very much a given that animals hated going to the vet. It was all about their physical health—nobody was ever looking to see what the animal was dealing with psychologically. No-one stopped to think, ‘let’s make this a cat-friendly vet’ or a ‘dog-friendly vet’. We used to get them through the door, plonk them on the table, then examine them. If they were a placid sort of animal, they’d be fine. But most of them would just freeze in fear. Some of them would try and bite.
Around 15 years ago, I set some goals for what I wanted to achieve as a vet. One of them was to create a surgery that animals would love coming to. I got really tired of seeing people dragging their cats and dogs through the door and thought, well surely there’s a better way than this.
Creating a cat-friendly vet clinic
Now there is a lot more information and training about animal behavior, but there wasn’t much around then. So I started just experimenting a bit. In the consult room, I started giving animals more time to get used to the space before touching them. I used a lot of treats, gave positive reinforcement. To make it as cat-friendly as possible, it was important to put the cats up at a height and keep them away from dogs. So I put them in their own area where they could sit and wait. The results were remarkable.
Then I started looking to see where there was formal training, and what we could do to be better at it, rather than me just experimenting with different things. I thought, there must be other people who are doing this that I can learn from. I discovered resources on low-stress handling, and that there was a process for becoming accredited as a cat-friendly vet.
Recognising a cat-friendly vet
It’s not actually that hard to set up a cat-friendly vet clinic. There are a number of ways to do it. We’ve got three clinics (one in Scone, one in Muswellbrook and one in Denman), and they’re different sizes. With a bigger-sized clinic, where there’s more than one consulting room, you can have a cat-only room. Dogs never even walk in there, so there’s no dog smell ever in that room. In a small clinic, you just schedule your cats separately, so that they’re never with dogs. You don’t have dog appointments backing onto cat appointments. It’s really quite manageable.
You still have to deal with cat carriers, but it doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience. Cats can become acclimatised to the carriers, and when they arrive at the vet, you take the top off the carrier, then put a blanket over the top while you pull them out.
Cats are like ostriches: if they can’t see you, they feel safe. Once you’ve got the cat out of the carrier, you face them towards the owner. Then I can examine them under the blanket very thoroughly, and they don’t even know that it’s not their owner who is patting them. The whole experience is not unpleasant.
Treats are important too. With a really anxious cat, it’s important to make sure they’re hungry when they arrive. Then you can offer really nice things like sardines on a stick. Eating helps animals to relax.
How your cat can love your vet
It may not be perfect the first time, but my motto is, ‘Better next time. Always getting better next time.’ You may not win in one go, but every step is important. Over a period of, say, three or four weeks, if an animal’s coming in regularly, usually by the end of it the cat’s smooching up to you.