Coming Home: The Aftermath of a Vet Visit

This is week two in a series about coping with vet visits. In the first post I shared steps you can take before and during an appointment. Here I’ll talk about coming home.

When Coming Home is Hard to Do

You’ve managed to get your cat in their carrier, survived the vet visit with minimal drama, and even tackled that number on the bill. Everything should be easy from here, right?

If you have a multi-cat household, you know that returning home can be yet another hurdle. Cats that are normally great friends suddenly stare at each other like their complete strangers. There can be hissing and growling or worse. A cat that didn’t even go to the vet might react by peeing outside their litter box! What is going on here??

Scent Strangers

One problem is changes in the “scent scene”. A vet visit leaves all sorts of new smells clinging to a cat: new people, other animals, medications, cleaning products, etc. Cats rely so heavily on scent to understand their environment and identify friend from foe. A change in a cat’s scent can cause housemates to view them as a threat.

One cat sniffing another's tail

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Scent can explain why a cat that stayed home might be aggressive toward a cat that went out. But the returning cat can also be the instigator. If this cat is very stressed after the trip, other pets and human family are at risk of redirected aggression. Redirected aggression happens when a cat becomes amped up or frightened but can’t lash out at their target. Instead, they turn on whatever or whoever is closest.

Recovery

While issues after a vet visit are common, they can be avoided. Taking steps to ensure a vet visit is as calm and stress free as possible will decrease the risk of redirected aggression. After the visit, re-introducing your cat into your home slowly will keep the peace.

Take a Break

Bring your cat, in their carrier, straight to a quiet room away from other pets. Give them a litter box, water, food, and a familiar bed. Open the carrier door but don’t force them out or worry if they want to hide for a while. As your cat settles in again, offer them a short play session and attention if they want it.

Familiar Scents

Just giving your returning cat time alone to groom will help with the problem of unfamiliar scents. You can aid in the process by simply petting, which adds your scent on the cat’s fur. Or find a blanket or towel that your cats lay on and gently rub it on the returning cat (as long as the cat is calm with this).

2 kittens cuddling together
No tension here!

Watch for Tension

Give the cats at least an hour or two apart before letting them back together. Don’t force them together but allow them to see each other at a distance. If there are no signs of trouble, have a group play session or treat time. Continue to monitor for tension until the cats are treating each other normally.

Special Considerations for Long-Term Health Changes

Unfortunately, some vet visits are more than regular check-ups. If one cat’s health has changed to the point that they now need medications or special care, it can be disruptive to not just their life but to the other cats in the home.

When one cat in the home becomes ill, resident cats that previously got along may start to bully one another. Owners often misunderstand this as a younger or healthier cat trying to move up in the ranks. However, cats don’t have a strict hierarchy of “alpha” cat on top with other cats lined up below. When there is conflict, it is about access to safe territory and resources rather than a battle to be in charge. Bullying occurs when a cat sees an opportunity to get access to more desirable spaces or attention. You can reduce bullying by making sure your house has more than enough resources for everyone, all spread throughout the space. This means high perches, sunny sleeping spots, litter boxes, food and water stations, and play opportunities.

Tabby cat sitting on a tree
I just want to sit up here. I'm not trying to be in charge.

Many owners are concerned about giving the same amount of attention to each cat and worried that if one cat gives more attention because of an illness, the others will be jealous and pick on that cat. In fact, maintaining routine and meeting each cat’s individual needs are more important than treating each cat exactly the same.

Rather than jealousy, extra attention from an owner toward one cat is more likely to trigger extra attention from the other cats. Singling out one cat for attention may draw other cats closer and create tension and bullying because of this. If you need to handle a cat for a medical reason, do so away from other pets so they can recover in peace afterward, without extra eyes.

Another reason to handle a cat away from other pets is to prevent redirected aggression if the cat becomes very stressed by the process. Of course,  all medical procedures (pilling, applying ointments, giving injections) are ideally introduced slowly and paired with positives to help a cat be a calm, willing participate. Cats that can be treated while remaining calm are less likely to show redirected aggression or be targets themselves.

Hopefully you can now feel a little more confident to schedule your cat’s routine vet care while keeping the peace at home. 

Part three of the series covers signs your cat needs to visit the vet immediately and tips for managing an emergency vet visit, especially if your cat still hates their carrier. Stay tuned!

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.