Feline physical rehab: 7 tips to reduce stress to boost success

August 21, 2017
Mary Ellen Goldberg, BS, LVT, CVT, SRA, CCRA, CVPP, VTS-physical rehabilitation (OC)

Yes, you CAN rehab a cat. Really! Here's a short guide.


Believe it or not, cats make willing patients for physical rehabilitation therapy if the sessions are kept short and interesting and are held in a quiet, relaxed environment, says CVC educator Mary Ellen Goldberg, BS, LVT, CVT, SRA, CCRA, CVPP, VTS-physical rehabilitation (OC). The rehabilitation plan must be creative, easy to follow and have short intervals for cats, she says, as cats have less of an attention span than dogs do.

Before beginning a rehabilitation session, the patient needs to be examined by the veterinarian to ensure that pain and stress aren't factors, and to have the veterinarian draw up the therapeutic plan, Goldberg says. The rehabilitation veterinary technician or nurse will most likely interact with the pet owner, carry out parts of the therapeutic plan and monitor the cat's comfort.

When cats are in situations they find stressful, they will most often try to create distance between themselves and the stressor.1 Or if they can't move away, they'll attempt to groom or “waste time,” hoping the stress will go away. As a last resort they'll use aggression, Goldberg says. She offers the following tips for successful rehab sessions.

1. Use pheromone diffusers in the hospital and rehabilitation area to help reduce stress. Remember, some kitties may arrive already stressed from travel or the condition that necessitates the therapy. Waiting rooms are also very stressful for cats.

2. Keep waiting time to a minimum and provide benches so the cat's carrier can be placed up off of the ground so cat feels less exposed, Goldberg says.

3. Gather any required equipment for the physical rehabilitation session before getting the cat out of the carrier.

4. Have the pet owner bring the cat's own bedding and toys. This not only makes the owner feel useful, but can help the cat feel more settled through the retention of a more familiar scent, Goldberg says.

5. Have the pet owner bring the cat's favorite treats. Having a variety of low-calorie, palatable treats on hand is helpful in bonding with the kitty and goes a long way to establishing trust for future rewards after therapeutic exercises, Goldberg says.

6. Let the cat acclimate to its new surroundings and explore the area to feel more comfortable. The exam area should be quiet and secure, with little or no traffic to cause disruption, Goldberg says. The acclimation time spent with a patient also helps to develop a rapport between the cat and the nurse.

7. Less is more when it comes to restraint. Also avoid sudden or rapid movements, because it can seem threatening.

Keep in mind that cats mask pain, Goldberg says. The rehabilitation nurse must be skilled at recognizing pain in feline patients. Therapy will provide little to no benefit if the patient is in pain. If you suspect pain, alert the veterinarian and discontinue any stressful therapy until the cat is no longer suffering pain. Unless this is followed, the cat will associate the rehabilitation with pain. You don't want that!


1. Ellis S. The Veterinary Nurse workshops 2015: feline patients and stress. The Veterinary Nurse. March 2015;6(2):78-82.