According to the latest statistics (2017) there are 95.6 million owned cats in the United States, compared with 89.7 million pet dogs, making cats the most popular pet. A third of U.S. households own at least one cat and more than half of those own at least two. Despite the fact that in the last five years the number of pet cats has increased the number of feline veterinarian visits is declining. Compared with dogs, nearly three times as many cats did not receive any veterinary care in the past year.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners and American Animal Hospital Association recommend a minimum of one annual wellness exam for cats, with more frequent exams for senior and geriatric patients, or those cats with medical or behavioral conditions. Cats age faster than we do, so an annual exam for them is similar to you visiting your doctor or dentist every four to five years. Prevention is always safer and less expensive than treatment, and is why your cat needs to be seen at least once a year by your veterinarian.
Cat guardians love their cats, so why are cat veterinary visits on the decline? There are multiple reason for this decline. There are many commonly held misconceptions regarding feline veterinary needs. One common misconception is that cats are more self-sufficient than dogs. The truth is that cats require the same amount of attention as dogs. They need proper nutrition, clean water, socialization, play, exercise, and veterinary care.
Another common misconception is that cats are healthier and experience fewer health problems than dogs. The truth is that cats are no more or less healthy than dogs, and require annual veterinary exams as much as dogs do.
Cat guardians may also mistakenly believe that cats will show signs of illness, just as dogs do. The truth is cats are masters at hiding illness and for this reason alone they need regular veterinary wellness exams. As more cats are being kept indoors guardians may perceive that cats are not exposed to disease or illness. But even indoor cats can become injured or ill. Vaccination protocols have changed for the better in recent years and many veterinarians aren’t recommending annual vaccinations. This does not mean that cats don’t need annual wellness exams.
Misconceptions aside, probably the biggest reason cat guardians don’t bring their cats in for annual exams is that the whole experience is just so stressful for the cat and guardian. Picture frazzled guardian chasing frightened cat around the home trying to catch the poor creature and stuff him into a dark, scary box. Usually this scenario ends with the guardian getting scratched and or bitten and the cat traumatized before he is even at the veterinary practice.
In the car the cat may experience motion sickness and might vomit, urinate, defecate or salivate excessively.
Once at the veterinary practice the cat, possibly soaked in vomit, urine, stool, or saliva, will have to sit in a waiting area where there are strange animals, and scary sounds and smells. No doubt the cat guardian is also highly stressed and this only makes things worse for the sensitive cat. When cats are stressed and frightened they are more likely to act out in an aggressive manner, making handling for a thorough exam very difficult. These guardians believe their cat hates going to the vet. And they are right.
It certainly is possible that the veterinarian and his or her staff don’t enjoy working with cats and aren’t adept at the special handling that the feline species requires. Cats must be approached in a very different way to dogs because there are fundamental differences between the behaviour of these species. Cats are well-armed with teeth and claws, and they know how to use them. Teeth and claws harbor bacteria, and anyone unfortunate enough to be scratched or bitten may suffer from a serious infection; in fact, a cat bite nearly always results in a serious infection if it’s not treated immediately. Complications from cat bites are a leading cause of permanent disability for veterinarians and their staff.
According to a 2013 Bayer Veterinary Usage study, just 17 percent of veterinarians prefer cats in general, while 48 percent prefer dogs—although 70 percent own cats and 81 percent own dogs. Twenty percent of veterinarians examined their cats less than once a year. According to the survey, 65 percent of veterinarians found cats easy to work with during examinations, in comparison with 90 percent for dogs. Fifty-seven percent found it challenging to diagnose conditions in cats, in comparison with 34 percent for dogs. According to this same study, 78 percent of veterinary practice owners say cats represent one of the most significant missed opportunities for the profession. The study found that many, but not most, practices are taking steps to increase feline veterinary visits.
It seems obvious that the veterinary profession is failing its feline patients. Much, much more needs to be done by veterinarians to elevate the status of cats in the veterinary world and cat guardians need to demand and seek out appropriate care for their cats.
What veterinarians can do to increase cat visits:
-Find the un-served/underserved cats in the practice by asking about other household pets on every visit and tracking reminder compliance.
-Educate cat owners on carrier use and transporting cats.
-Make the waiting room as cat-welcoming as possible by establishing separate areas for dogs and cats and installing visual barriers.
-Reserve one or more exam rooms for cats only.
-Train all staff regularly in cat-friendly handling.
-Review and refine feline exam protocols.
-Talk through the exam with cat guardians.
-Use and dispense feline-friendly medications.
-Send home an exam report every time.
-Schedule the next exam before the cat leaves the practice.
-Join AAFP and become a certified Cat Friendly Practice.
Participating in the AAFP’s Cat Friendly Practice Program is one approach for companion animal practices to use in making changes to improve the quantity and quality of feline veterinary visits.
The AAFP launched the member program in late January 2012. The program allows practices to evaluate their care of feline patients, their environment for cats, and the relevant skills, training, and education of their personnel.
What guardians can do to make their cat’s veterinary visits less stressful:
Never transport a cat without a carrier. It is not safe for the cat and will only add to the cat’s stress levels. Carrier habituation is the simplest and probably the most effective way for cat guardians to reduce the stress of vet visits. Don’t let the carrier accumulate dust in the garage for 364 days of the year. Keep it out in the cat’s environment, and work to change your cat’s relationship with it. Make the carrier into a safe place. Put soft bedding and catnip in the carrier and feed your cat special treats near the carrier.
The type of carrier makes a difference as well. Get a hard-sided carrier with a metal grill and metal screws. This type of carrier can be taken apart if needed and easily cleaned. Soft sided carriers can be difficult to get the cat into and out of and are not easily cleaned. You want your cat to see the carrier as a familiar safe haven. This will never happen if the carrier is hidden away and only brought out once or twice a year.
Carriers have the potential to be comfortable refuges for cats. Nervous cats like to retreat to enclosed or confined safe places (think of hiding under the bed). A comfortable carrier that is always available with cozy bedding can provide exactly such a place. The stress of going to the vet will be markedly reduced if the cat feels secure in the carrier.
Don’t feed your cat for several hours before going to the vet. This can help cut down on any motion sickness. Although it can be tempting to try to verbally comfort your cat or pet her a lot when she is stressed, try to back off a bit, because those things can escalate their fear and arousal. Instead, give your cat the opportunity to just watch and see what is going on around her when you get to the veterinary clinic. Speak softly and remain calm because your cat will pick up on your emotions.
If your veterinarian’s waiting area is crowded and busy you may want to ask at reception if you can wait with your cat in your car until there is an exam room available to go straight into. Practice regular care such as grooming and nail trimming at home. Touch your cat's face, ears, feet and tail at home so he will be used to similar procedures at the veterinary hospital.
Don’t be shy about asking your vet what steps she takes to make the office cat-friendly. Your vet should want to be cat-friendly — that is the very first step.
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with over 20 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.