Q: I’ve thrown in the towel. I can’t get our cat, Chico, to go to the vet. I don’t get it because once he’s there he tolerates the exam. But as soon as the carrier comes out of the closet, Chico checks out. It’s impossible to get him into the thing anymore. Any advice? — V.S., Orlando, Fla.
A: Many cat owners can sympathize with your problem. The good news is, desensitizing and counter-conditioning most cats to their carriers is possible, although it takes time.
Begin with a new carrier, and choose a type with a top that can be lifted off, so you never have to “dump” Chico out the door.
Leave the carrier out as if it’s a piece of furniture. Periodically, toss treats inside, or place a sampling of tuna, sardines or salmon inside. It’s best if Chico doesn’t see these goodies are coming from you. And don’t overdo it; you don’t want a tubby tabby. The idea is for the carrier to become an inviting treat dispenser. Once Chico feels more comfortable about the carrier, begin feeding him inside the carrier.
Once you’ve established this routine, toss a treat inside the carrier, let Chico run in, and close the door. Then pick up the carrier and calmly put it down. Open the door and place Chico’s dinner inside. Eventually, he’ll learn that a meal follows a trip in the carrier. Cats can be trained with a command to run into a carrier, knowing dinner will follow. Or Chico may even remind you it’s time for dinner by meowing from inside his carrier.
Next, put Chico in the carrier and place the carrier in the car. Turn on the ignition. If Chico panics, back up a step; you don’t want to reward that behavior. Hopefully, Chico will be fine driving to the end of the driveway, then returning home for a meal. Again, the hope is Chico will associate a trip and the carrier with mealtime.
After a few driveway jaunts, try running a quick errand with Chico in his carrier. My guess is, he’ll accept the ride. Spray Feliway (a “knock off” of a calming feline pheromone) into the carrier 30 minutes before placing Chico inside. By this point, you may even be asking him to jump in the carrier on your request.
Q: We rescued a kitten 12 years ago, and she has always been traumatized at the vet. We even give her medication before visits. The last vet visit showed signs of a heart gallop, for which she now takes medicine. It seems to make sense to avoid stress to the heart. So what should we do about veterinary visits? Also, our cat only accepts pills from us; she really doesn’t trust others, not even the pet sitter. How can we get her to take medication when we’re traveling? – M.A.N., Las Vegas, Nev.
A: Ask your vet if the medication your cat is taking can be compounded to taste like liver, tuna or chicken. If so, go to one place in the house each day and make that the place you give your cat her pill. The idea is to develop a routine, which your pet sitter can then follow. Even if your cat is afraid to appear when the pet sitter is there, she’ll scarf down the pill later.
As for vet visits, applied animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin, author of “Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification in Dogs and Cats” (CattleDog Publishing, Davis, Calif., 2009; $119.20), suggests making appointments when there are few barking dogs around, say first thing in the morning. Your vet might consider using Feliway in the exam room. Wait until your cat has had some time to acclimate to the room before the exam. Put a towel with your scent on the exam table. Everyone should speak softly and dim bright lights, if possible.
The exam might be conducted where your cat is calmest (even if that means removing the top of the carrier while it remains inside). Putting a towel gently over a cat’s head also can be soothing. If these steps fail to calm your cat, look for a vet who makes house calls.
Q: When I lean over to pick up my Shih Tzus, one backs away. Why? How can I help my dog feel OK with being picked up? — S.M., Augusta, Ga.
A: It could be this dog is remembering a bad experience; he may have been dropped or handled roughly in the past. Reaching over a dog, especially a small one, is intimidating. Some dogs are too “goosey,” too wiggly, too antsy; they just don’t like to be picked up.
Whatever the source of your dog’s worries, Dr. Wayne Hunthausen of Westwood, Kan., a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior, suggests telling your dog to sit for a treat. Then, briefly reach down as if you were going to pick him up, but don’t. Instead, offer another treat. Gradually, reach closer, even touching the dog. Finally, if your dog is no longer acting hesitant, squat and have the pooch come to you and sit. Now, try picking him up. If he acts cool about it, put him back down and offer a treat. If he panics, you’ve come too far too fast.
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