Q: Our cat, who's at least 12 years old, has always been traumatized during her yearly veterinary exams. On her most recent visit, the vet indicated the cat's heart was galloping, apparently because the visit was so stressful, and prescribed Atenolol. What can we do to make these trips less traumatic? Also, when we're away traveling, how should we arrange for our cat to get her medication? She won't take anything from anyone by us. -- M.A.N., Las Vegas, NV
A: You might try desensitizing and counter-conditioning your cat to her carrier and to car rides. The idea is to establish the carrier as a friendly place. To begin, start leaving the carrier out all the time. Spray Feliway (a knock off a friendly pheromone which often calms anxious kitties) inside the carrier. Periodically, drop treats inside so the carrier becomes a treat dispenser. When your cat feels comfortable enough, feed her from the carrier, as well.
Next, zip or snap the carrier shut with your cat inside, and carry her to another room. Don't allow her out if she meows; otherwise let her out immediately. Time the relocation to just before mealtime. The idea is for your cat to learn that good things happen after she's been in her carrier.
After another week or so, take your cat out to the car (inside the carrier). At first, go nowhere, except maybe down the driveway, then take your cat back in the house for a meal. If she meows or complains anywhere along the way, back up to the previous step. Eventually, a trip down the driveway will extend to around the block.
"This all sounds good, and often the behavior modification works," says feline veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, director of veterinary services at Ceva Animal Health. "The reality is that some cats will always be unhappy away from home, and may do better with a veterinarian visiting the home."
Typically, a galloping heart is not a sign of stress at the veterinary clinic, but instead may indicate hyperthyroid disease or heart disease, and the cat may be hypertensive (have high blood pressure).
Hodgkins, author of "Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life" (St. Martin's Press, New York, NY, 2007; $29.95), says "Your veterinarian can test for hyperthyroid disease, which could, in part, explain your cat's extreme anxiety. Depending on what your veterinarian heard (when listening to your cat's heart), a visit to a veterinary cardiologist may be a good idea, and perhaps an echocardiogram. Atenolol is a beta-blocker drug, and (is prescribed for a medical condition) not because a cat is extremely stressed."
Purchase an inexpensive pill gun from your vet's office. Practice using the device by filling it with tasty baby food or moist cat food (without a pill). After your cat has become accustomed to getting such amazing morsels from the pill gun, it should be easy to sneak in a small pill like Atenolol. Some medication can be compounded to taste like chicken or tuna. Other drugs may be given in a form that can even be rubbed on a cat's ear.
Q: I read in your column about J.C., from Oregon, whose dog was having breathing (problems), which sounds like what our dog used to experience. She'd been leash trained and always pulled. I began to think I was harming her and purchased a harness instead for our Beagle/Pekeapoo mix. Was I right, and could a harness be more useful? -- M.W., Canton, IL
A: "You're right that constant pulling on the leash can affect a dog's breathing, and even create pressure on the eyes (possibly leading to glaucoma)," says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg, of Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. "A harness or head halter is definitely preferred." Many veterinarians also believe that "choke collars" can cause or contribute to collapsing tracheas later in life.
You could consult a dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant on how to encourage your dog to walk on a loose leash. Clicker training can be a great tool for this. There are also some excellent video examples teaching techniques at the website of the American Behavior Research Institute.
Q: My 6-year-old male cat has a love/hate relationship with his tail. After he began mutilating his tail, the vet took off about two inches. The cat is also being treated for roundworms (though he's indoors only) and we put him on anti-anxiety medication and a product that's supposed to deter licking. Still he licks and bites at his tail. My veterinarian suggests amputating the entire tail. This cat gets along well with our dog, but is only tolerant of our other cat; they're not friendly to one another. I read that my cat's problem is called hyperesthesia syndrome. Any advice? -- P.S., Bartlett, IL
A: Dr. Martin Godbout, a veterinary behaviorist in Quebec City, Canada, offers some general advice, but please see a veterinary behaviorist.
"If you amputate the tail, I'm not of the belief that the cat will be any less anxious," says Godbout. "And following surgery, he may offer another abnormal behavior to replace the tail chasing and biting." Also, cats with amputated tails may have problems defecating. In fact, Godbout suggests this cat may be more anxious following surgery.
Hyperesthesia syndrome is a behavior disorder or neurological condition (or both). Cats with this problem may suddenly lash out at themselves or a nearby person and seem to have supersensitive skin. Their skin ripples, their eyes dilate, their tails twitch, and they may have muscle spasms. Godbout suggests videotaping some episodes with a camera or a smart phone. Keep in mind that the problem may be explained by an anal gland issue or muscular skeletal problem. Your cat may even be experiencing seizures.
Godbout says your veterinarian may want to consider a drug called Gabapentin, since it may lower anxiety and also addresses the associated neurologic pain. Getting a sound diagnosis is key. Find a veterinary behaviorist near you.