Medication to Reduce the Stress of Veterinary Visits for Cats

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

Why is my cat so stressed when I take her to the veterinary clinic?

For most cats, a visit to the veterinarian is an overwhelming experience. The cat is taken out of its familiar home environment, usually roughly pushed into a carrier, put into a noisy car, driven to the veterinary clinic, taken into the reception area where there are intense smells from many other pets and people. Then they are taken into an examination room where an unfamiliar person examines them and administers various treatments. Any one of these things can be stressful, and when they are all combined together, it is no wonder that your cat is so frightened or stressed.

Can I give my cat a sedative or antianxiety medication to decrease this stress?

Sedatives are prescription medications that should only be administered to healthy animals. If your cat’s veterinary appointment is for a routine wellness examination, your veterinarian may prescribe a sedative or antianxiety medication if your cat’s stress is severe. Since these drugs may have side effects, NEVER administer a sedative if you have ANY concerns about the cat’s present state of health - even if your veterinarian has provided you with a sedative for routine wellness visits in the past.

Buprenorphine (brand names Buprenex®, Simbadol®, Belbuca®, Vetergesic®, Buprenodale®, Sublocade®, Suboxone®, Subutex®, Temgesic®), gabapentin (brand names: Neurontin®, Aclonium®, Equipax®, Gantin®, Gabarone®, Gralise®, Neurostil®, Progresse®) and alprazolam (brand names: Xanax®, Niravam®, Alprazolam Intensol®) are examples of medications that have recently begun to be used to reduce the anxiety associated with car travel or veterinary visits. If one of these medications is appropriate for your cat’s situation, your veterinarian will prescribe it.

What about natural medicine?

Natural medicines, also known as complementary therapies, cover a wide range of products including herbs, nutraceuticals, supplements, and homeopathic remedies (see our handout “Behavior Counseling – Complementary Medication”). Although the marketplace is full of products that claim to treat anxiety, these claims are largely anecdotal and there are few controlled studies that support their effectiveness in either humans or pets. One of the biggest concerns that many veterinarians have with complementary medicines is that there can be variability in their purity, quality, level of contaminants, and effectiveness from batch to batch. While natural products are often thought of as benign, this is not always the case, particularly when it comes to treating cats, who have different metabolic processes than we do.

"Pheromones, such as Feliway®, are natural alternatives that provide some sound scientific evidence of effectiveness and can have rapid action."

There are veterinary products available on the market that claim to have generalized calming effects or treat anxiety disorders. Although these products generally meet a level of quality control and standardization that is similar to pharmaceuticals, studies on the effectiveness of these products are generally lacking. Most of these products are intended for use to treat behavioral problems and take several weeks to become effective. Pheromones, such as Feliway®, are natural alternatives that provide some sound scientific evidence of effectiveness and can have rapid action.

What are pheromones?

Pheromones are naturally-occurring odorless substances that are emitted by animals and humans and trigger an emotional response in members of the same species. Pheromones work by stimulating the vomeronasal organ (also called Jacobson’s organ) and affect areas of the brain that lead to emotional responses. They are species specific; in other words, the pheromones of one species will only have an effect on other members of that species.

Feliway® is a synthetic pheromone that has been specifically developed for use in cats. The pheromone in Feliway® is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure. By mimicking the cat’s natural facial pheromones, Feliway® creates a state of familiarity and security in the cat's local environment. As a result, it can help comfort and reassure cats while they cope with a challenging situation, and help prevent or reduce the stress caused by a change in their environment.

Feliway® is available as a spray for intermittent use in areas such as the car, the cat’s crate, or the veterinary examination room, and as a plug-in diffuser to aerosolize the pheromone in a specific area for up to a month.

How would I use Feliway® to reduce the stress of my cat’s veterinary visit?

You should spray a towel or blanket that you put into your cat’s carrier and allow it to dry. Additionally, spray your car before putting the cat into it. When you get into the examination room, you can put the towel on the examination table to provide further reassurance for your cat.

What about Rescue Remedy®?

Rescue Remedy® is a Bach Flower Remedy that contains five flower essences intended to relieve panic following emotional or physical stress. Similar products are manufactured by other companies under different names. Although there are no controlled studies to support their effectiveness, anecdotal evidence does exist that these products may be beneficial in calming some cats during veterinary visits. Because of the extreme dilution of these essences, they are unlikely to be harmful to your cat (see handout “Flower Essences” for more information).

Are there any other tips to reduce my cat’s stress levels during the veterinary visit?

One of the most important ways to decrease your cat’s anxiety level is to remain calm and relaxed during the visit. Speak to your cat in a calm and soothing voice and reassure her by petting her on her head or stroking her in her favorite spot. See the handout “Reducing the Stress of Veterinary Visits for Cats” for more information.

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