“Science Friday!”: Comparison of stress experienced by cats examined in a clinic vs home setting

In Press: Nibblett, B. M., Ketzis, J. K., & Grigg, E. K. (2015). Comparison of stress experienced by cats examined in a clinic versus a home setting. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

In this recently published study, Nibblett et al. set out to examine whether cats might experience more stress when examined in a veterinary clinic relative to their own home. The authors arranged for a series of physiological and behavioral measures to be obtained during two examinations conducted identically one week apart. For 10 of the 18 subjects, the first examination took place in the clinic while the remaining subjects received their first examination in their own home.

Physiological parameters of stress included temperature, pulse and respiratory rate, blood pressure and serum cortisol levels. Behavioral parameters, coded from videotape, included head scanning, escape attempts, hiding, vocalization, ear position, pupil dilation, and eye movement.

Examinations were conducted by the same veterinarian throughout, using low stress handling techniques as recommended by Yin (2009), and took place on an exam table covered with a towel that had been sprayed with Feliway facial pheromone. Cat treats were offered to all cats at the beginning and end of the exam. For exams in the clinic setting, cats were transported directly into the exam room so as to avoid other animals. Some attempt also was made to control confinement time in a crate or room of the home prior to examination.

Blood glucose levels were lower for each cat in the home exam relative to the clinic exam, but cortisol values were not significantly different. A significant difference in cortisol was seen across examinations, with all cats showing reduced serum cortisol levels in the second exam relative to the first, regardless of setting. The setting still played a role, however, in that there was an interaction effect. When the cats had their first exam in the home and their second exam in the clinic, cortisol dropped by 110%, showing the main effect of a reduced stress response with repeated exposure to familiar personnel and procedures. When the first exam was in the clinic, however, and the second exam was in the home, cortisol dropped by 218%. In other words, the cortisol drop was doubled when the home exam followed the clinic exam, demonstrating the calming effect of the home environment that goes above and beyond the calming effect of repeated exposure to familiar routines and people. 

Behavioral measures did not reveal significant differences between first and second exams, but cats were significantly more likely to hide during clinic exams than during home exams.

These results suggest that the stress experienced by cats during veterinary examinations might be reduced by repeated exposure to the same veterinary personnel and the use of similar (low-stress) handling routines. The relative drops in cortisol levels combined with observations of increased hiding and increased blood glucose levels during clinic exams also suggest that examinations taking place within the home may result in less stress than those conducted in the clinic environment, a result also supported by previous research. When cats exhibit less stress during veterinary examinations, owners may be more likely to schedule exams and veterinarians may be more likely to obtain accurate measures during the exam, leading to the improved overall welfare of the cat.

For more information about this research, including a description of how the low stress handling was conducted and further clinical suggestions based on these findings, read the study in full at: