Get cats out of the shadows

Get cats out of the shadows

Data show that feline health is experiencing an alarming downward spiral. But what do you do with the knowledge of this disturbing trend? You help. Here are a few practical ways any team member can illuminate these dark days for cats.
Mar 01, 2009

Cat owners just don't care about their pets' health. At least that's the gloomy picture recent data paints. Even though more cats than dogs live with American families, most veterinary patients are dogs. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of pet cats and dogs increased, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. During that time, the number of visits dogs made to the veterinarian decreased 4 percent but the number of times cats saw the doctor decreased 6 percent. Each dog saw the doctor an average of 1.5 times per year, but each cat went just 0.7 times—less than once a year.

Add all these numbers together and you get a medical equation that equals better health for dogs than cats. This has the veterinary industry as a whole worried—and a little flummoxed. To help look for a solution, groups championing the feline cause have sprung up. To name one, the nonprofit Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) launched the Happy Healthy Cat Campaign to encourage feline-health research. Currently, MAF receives 30 percent less in financial support for feline-health research than for canine research, and the foundation is able to fund only one–third the number of studies for cats versus dogs.

Then there's the CATalyst Council, a multipartner, multisponsor nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the perception of cats as aloof and elevating their status to pets that deserve medical care. This group held a national summit in February 2008. One of the outcomes was a partnership between the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the American Animal Health Association to create feline life-stage guidelines, which are due to be released by year's end.

The decline in feline health concerns individual practitioners, too. "Cats have long been relegated to second-class status," says Dr. Gary Norsworthy, DABVP (feline), owner of Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio. "Even though they've overtaken dogs as America's favorite pet, they remain shorted on health care."

Solving the mystery

The essential question: Why? Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council, says one of the main reasons is that cats are misunderstood. "Many people hold the misconception that cats can take care of themselves," Dr. Brunt says. "In fact, cats rely on us for many things, including food, water, shelter, and freedom from illness, pain, and distress."

Another challenge is how cat owners view their pets, says Dr. Roberta Lillich, president of the AAFP. "Some people see cats as family members. When these people receive reminders that their cats need an annual wellness screening, they come in immediately," says Dr. Lillich, an owner of Abilene Animal Hospital, a mixed animal practice in Abilene, Kan. "Then there are others who bring their cats in only for a rabies vaccination because the cat is intended to live in a barn."

Research seems to support Dr. Lillich's theory. Owners in households with at least one dog and one cat were more attached to their dogs than their cats by a 3-to-1 margin (57 percent to 19 percent, respectively), according to a special report in the Feb. 15, 2008, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAVMA). This could account for the statistic included in the JAVMA report that 33 percent of these pet owners believe it's more important to take a dog versus a cat to the doctor for a wellness exam.

Working in a rural town of about 3,500, Dr. Lillich sees a lot of barn cats that don't receive much wellness care. But she talks to their owners the same as her other feline clients. "I try to open the lines of communication with everybody," she says.

And so should you. As veterinary team members, you're in the rubber-meets-the road position for helping cats. You talk to pet owners for longer periods of times and in a more candid manner than do the doctors in your practice. Veterinarians absolutely play a role in bringing feline health out of the shadows, but you can do a whole lot on your own to ensure cats get the care they so desperately need. Here are a few ways to get started.