Monday, February 2, 2015

Pitch the Perfume and Toss The Talc: Reuniting Cats Following a Visit to the Vet

Reuniting cats following a visit to the vet

Steven J. Bailey, DVM, DABVP

Traditionally, veterinarians have speculated that new odors on the cat returning home from the veterinary practice were a stimulus for antagonistic behavior between cats. I do not believe this is entirely true, and perhaps leads to clients (and professionals) further antagonizing these stressed cats by applying unnatural scents (perfumes and Baby Powder) with the intent to cover, mask, or replace other scents.

Cats have the ability to detect many more odors and pheromones than we people can even imagine. I have never appreciated that our feeble attempts to address these 'odors' has had any positive impact on feline behavior with respect to these homecomings. 

My perception of some of the causes has been:

- When a cat leaves a clowder of cats (even if the clowder is just a pair) it appears that they need to receive permission to rejoin. If this reintroduction is rushed and stressful, then antagonistic behavior is more likely to occur.

- The client's stress of bringing the cat to the veterinary hospital and then returning the cat to the home is undoubtedly perceived by the cat. Despite our efforts, cat owner’s actions don't always do a good job allaying feline anxiety. Often, we make it worse. Time and again, when clients are planning on a vet visit, cats hide from owners "even before they get the cat carrier out." Cats seem to have the ability to read us. They indeed have a ‘sixth sense’.

- The patient returning from a visit to the clinic has experienced a lot of stress. The cat may be experiencing pain from treatments or surgery; additionally the cat may have altered physiological reactions due to various administered drugs (even pain medications). The sympathetic nervous system is ‘turned on’ and they want to hide, fight, or flee. 

- Undoubtedly, new smells abound, but I suspect that fear pheromones, postural changes, facial expressions, eye contact, and other sympathetic reactions to the presence of other cats are far more important than simply the new scents acquired at the veterinary clinic. While friendly pheromones have been studied in cats, I am not aware that feline fear pheromones have been demonstrated in this species1. On the other hand, fear pheromones have been demonstrated in other species (man, cattle, pigs, rats, & fish) so I expect they exist for cats2. There is even a report suggesting that ‘feel good’ pheromones can have a negative effect in the face of preexisting antagonism3. Many of us in feline practice report that having a terrified cat in an exam room early in the day seemingly triggers previous relaxed cats to be reactive for the remainder of the day. I can’t imagine that adding new odors to a cat's coat will somehow negate the presence of fear pheromones.  I can imagine that the application of additional smells would serve as an additional stressor to both the cats returning home, and the others accepting them.

My recommendation to avoid anticipated antagonistic reunions is to isolate ALL potential  antagonistic cats to a separate environment (e.g. an isolated room). The returning cat is given free access to all the 'normal' inhabited regions of the home, while the others are confined to the ‘spare’ room.  Once the returning cat's behavior and physiology returns to normal, and fear pheromones have dissipated, then the other cats can be let out, one at a time.  Depending on how serious the antagonistic behavior is, this transition time could take 2 hours, or 2 days (or more?).  This time period also allows the owner's subliminal behavior to return to normal, and it creates a situation where the newly-isolated cats have to ask permission to be accepted back into the normally inhabited home environment. I believe we reinforce antagonistic behavior when the returning cat is isolated to the ‘spare’ room as this furthers the need for this (treated and stressed) cat to get permission before reuniting with the clowder.

If antagonistic cats are food motivated, then feeding them, or offering them a treat during reunions may be helpful as well. Cat nip has a variable effect on cats, and it will make some cats more aggressive so I would somewhat discourage this.

My opinion as a feline practitioner is we should not be trying to mask odors on our cats. Please pitch the perfume and toss the talc.