Cats are not people. They don’t think like people or understand their environment the way people do. To give them the best possible care, it’s so important to not anthropomorphize them, AKA treat them like they see, act, and react the same way humans do.
I’ve always been very careful about that in my many years working with cats. Sometimes, I recall a story from Temple Grandin’s book. A lion being transported on a plane was given a pillow so he would be more “comfortable.” A human would appreciate that and lay their head down. But the lion, anxious and confused, tore the pillow up, ingested the stuffing, and died because of it.
We need to sympathize, not anthropomorphize. Put ourselves in cats’ paws and learn how to best keep them calm and stress-free on their terms and not ours.
I’ve been on edge lately because I was told I needed surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder. Lots of people have had this surgery, and I was assured that it was an outpatient procedure and I would go home after just a few hours.
Still, I kept putting it off. I just could not bring myself to have that surgery until last week.
When I arrived at the hospital that morning, my surgeon walked me through what would happen. I knew just about everything there was to expect. While waiting after checking in, there was a wonderful musician playing a harp to create a soothing atmosphere. I’m not making that up. Apparently, this is to reduce stress for the patients. My nurses were terrific and had a great sense of compassion and humor.
Even so, I couldn’t help but be stressed. Before surgery, I received a nerve block so I wouldn’t feel any pain. After the surgery in the recovery room, I had two amazing nurses who got me everything I needed, but I was still confused, anxious, and in pain. I had been intubated to help me breathe during surgery, so my throat hurt like heck. My bad arm felt disturbingly dead and even my good arm was hurting and very, very bruised from where blood was drawn for the procedure. I was extremely nauseated from the anesthesia.
On top of it all, I had to go to the bathroom something awful.
I could understand why I was feeling like I did and what my nurses were telling me. I could communicate even though my throat was raw. Medicine was administered quickly to relieve me of my nausea, and I was escorted to the toilet. But I was still rattled.
Now imagine going through that without knowing or understanding what was happening or that it was to help you. Imagine not being able to communicate anything to anyone. Imagine waking up suddenly in a strange and scary place and feeling sick, having to go to the bathroom, and being in pain.
That’s what cats go through when we take them in for surgery. Especially community cats, who are not socialized to people and cannot be soothed by a human voice or touch.
It’s no wonder that advancements in veterinary medicine have revolved around the ways we handle cats when taking them to a clinic or hospital—even for just an examination.
One of the very first points I make when I talk to people about cats going for medical care is ‘fear’. F. E. A. R. It’s an important four-letter word. The feeling that drives cats and their reactions when they’re thrust into an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar smells and unfamiliar hands all over them. Fear is what has long made the veterinarian’s office no better than a torture chamber to cats.
This in mind, in our clinics we did everything we could to help cats feel safe and less frightened. Today, there are entire veterinary certification programs dedicated to tapping into a cat’s instincts and senses to reduce stress and anxiety. One of those is, very aptly, called Fear Freesm.
The Fear Free and Cat Friendly Practice® programs were created with the goal that animals no longer squirm in terror at just the sight of their carriers, knowing it means they’re going to the veterinary clinic. With traditional veterinary visits a horrible hodgepodge of strange smells, handsy strangers, and painful needles, can you blame animals for being stressed out?
The programs address all five of an animal’s senses and predict their FEAR reactions so veterinary clinics can adjust their environments and practices to take away the dread, anxiety, and discomfort of veterinary exams and procedures. Detailed explanations won’t soothe a cat like a person, but gentle music, calming pheromones, and a distracting dollop of whipped cream during a vaccine injection will.
Veterinary professionals who are certified in the programs react to their patients’ moods and stress levels and adjust accordingly. If an animal is more comfortable in the car, the veterinarians do the exam in the car. Slip-free surfaces are placed over cold metal exam tables. Clients are encouraged not to baby-talk to their animals, which creates a back and forth noise loop that is especially anxiety-inducing for cats. Veterinarians move slowly and carefully to not trigger a fear reaction. Even wall colors are changed; apparently white walls create a glare that can make animals nervous.
Even the basics of surgical procedures have changed for the better. For people, it used to be that surgeries meant a night in the hospital, or sometimes two or three. Now, major surgeries like hip replacements are outpatient procedures that allow people to leave the same day of their surgery. I know exactly why that change is important. I could only start to relax and heal from my surgery when I was home with the people who cared about me.
The same is true for cats after surgeries like spay and neuter, especially as part of a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program. When I first started bringing feral cats to be neutered in a clinic in Washington D.C., the cats were kept for several days to recover. Naturally, it was a traumatizing experience for them. Now, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians and Dr. Julie Levy, DVM, a shelter medicine expert, say the best practice is to return community cats to their outdoor homes the very next day after surgery. Because a community cat will also only feel safe again when she is back in her outdoor home and away from suffocating walls and scary smells.
This change is possible because there are now shelter medicine specialties in veterinary schools such as the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. There are even programs, like at the ASPCA Spay/Neuter Alliance and Open Door Veterinary Care in Asheville, North Carolina, where veteran DVMs can attend extensive training to perform a spay on a female cat in 10 minutes or less.
Even something as basic as painkillers for cats didn’t used to be a part of the surgical procedure back in the 80s and early 90s. Can you imagine that? Now, they are standard and required. There are even ‘reversal’ drugs that can reverse the effects of anesthesia so cats can wake up, recover, and be sent home—be that indoors or outdoors—as soon as possible.
These strides have made an enormous difference for the health and wellbeing of cats. The key has been understanding the instincts that motivate cats and fine-tuning our techniques to fit their needs. With programs like Fear Free already boasting over 32,000 certified individuals since it began in 2016, it’s clear that more veterinarians and clients are catching on to the importance of this humane change.
Cats may not be human, and we should never treat them like they are, but we can empathize. Human medical practices are developing around what makes the patient most comfortable. It should be the same for cats, too. They deserve no less.
My surgery was successful and thanks to the new approaches to patient care, my experience was much better than it would have been not long ago. Now, I’m recovering and even traveling for work (as always). With veterinary medicine evolving the same way, I can rest easier knowing cats are getting some of that same relief. Even if they don’t realize how much better they have it.