Q: I just rescued a kitten from my friend’s neighbor. He was born a couple of months ago and he is cute. This is my first cat. I have heard funny and scary stories about the dangers of getting a cat to the vet and how hard it can be. I want to do this right and make him a well-adjusted kitten. What are your thoughts on the best way to get a kitten to the vet?
A: “Very carefully,” as my father used to say to me many years ago. He was right, of course, but there is a little more to it these days. With a little planning and practice, you two will be cruising around happily together.
Cats are unique animals. They are not small dogs. They learn from their experiences, so it is so important that all aspects of that first visit, starting with your carrier at home, be positive.
Picking a carrier
His carrier should be sturdy, with several ways to get him in and out. Carriers that have openings on the top and in the front are nice.
Swinging doors are stronger than zippers on cloth, which cats may be able to claw or chew through. The carrier should be just large enough for your cat to walk in, turn around and lay down. If it is too big, he will slide all around and feel less secure.
To get your cat used to the carrier, make it part of his normal environment. Keep it out for him with the door open. Place an article of clothing and some favorite toys in it. You can use it as a place to feed treats to your cat, so he associates the carrier with a reward.
After a time, he should be comfortable getting into and out of his carrier to rest, play and eat. There is even a feline pheromone called Feliway that you can periodically spray into the carrier to make him more comfortable.
Leaving the house
At some point prior to your first veterinary visit, start making road trips with your boy. Encourage him to go into his carrier with treats and petting, like you have been practicing. (A top door will let you pet and scratch him while he is in the carrier.)
Continue to calmly talk to him as you close the doors quietly and pick up the carrier. Give him some treats now to let him know all is well. Treat rewards need to be given within three seconds of the desired behavior for cats to associate the two and learn.
When we are with someone who is driving poorly, we become back-seat drivers and talk more loudly to be heard. Cats will do the same thing if they are scared. They are known to meow a lot, and loudly.
So the first time you put him in the car, don’t drive anywhere. Start the engine, radio, heater, etc., and then talk to him and offer more treats for good behavior. The next time, do the same routine, but start the car and go around the block or some short distance. Always give treats and reward calm behavior.
Now it’s time to go to the vet. But for the first few times, call first and see what is going on in the waiting room, and say you would like to bring your cat in for a social visit. You can go into the waiting room and sit down with him in his carrier on your lap. Give treats as he sits calmly and observes the often crazy world of a veterinary waiting room.
Repeat this exercise until your cat comes to think it is a normal outing. Eventually, you can build up to seeing a tech and weighing him in a room if they have time. Continue to give treats and praise as you go.
When the day comes for your awesome veterinarian to finally get her paws on your kitten, share with her all the work you have done and the improvements he has made. Make sure your veterinarian is calm and gentle with him and takes her time as she looks at him. Have her give him treats and toys. I bet you, it will be fine.
Voila. You did it! You got him to the veterinarian, where he had already been multiple times, for his first visit and checkup. Are you tired? You should be. Nothing worthwhile or important is easy. But the payoff is a great experience today and years of great experiences with your cat and now your veterinarian too. Good luck.