America’s cats are facing a healthcare crisis. The findings of a feline health study conducted by Bayer Health Care found that 52% of America’s 74 million cats are not receiving regular veterinary care. The actual number is probably much higher, since this study only captured data from cat guardians who do seek some veterinary care, not those who never take their cat to the vet. The study also showed that cat guardians are not willing to spend as much money on healthcare for their feline charges as dog guardians. Ironically, while spending on veterinary care is declining, spending on pet products is increasing steadily each year.
Why feline veterinary visits are declining
There are two problems with declining veterinary visits for cats. One is the perception among many cat guardians that cats are self-sufficient. And while cats may be more independent than dogs, they’re also masters at hiding signs of illness, which is why regular veterinary exams are so important. By the time a cat shows symptoms, the disease may already be in the advanced stages, requiring more extensive, and expensive, care. The second problem is that taking a cat to the vet is stressful for most cats and their guardians.
The Cat-Friendly Practice Initiative hopes to remove the barriers that prevent cats from getting the care they need. All cats should get annual exams, and cats seven or older should be seen by a veterinarian twice a year. Clinics enrolled in the program receive training and support from the AAFP that will lead to a better understanding of cats and their unique needs at the veterinary clinic.
Veterinary visits start at home
The biggest obstacle to getting cats into the veterinary clinic is the stress associated with even just the idea of a vet visit. From getting the cat into the carrier to the stressful car ride to being in a place that is unfamiliar and scary for the cat, it’s enough to make a cat guardian throw up their hands and say “forget it!” However, none of these challenges are insurmountable. Educating cat guardians on how to train cats to accept the carrier and the car ride is crucial. Additionally ,cat guardians need to understand that it’s often their stress who makes a vet visit even more challenging than it needs to be. Cats are sensitive creatures and they will pick up on their guardian’s energy.
What happens at the clinic
Clinics are encouraged to have separate cat and dog waiting areas. Taking the cat into an exam room as soon as she arrives at the clinic, rather than having to spend time in a waiting room where she may see or smell other cats, helps keep cats calmer.
Proper handling of cats is crucial. Cats should never be dragged or dumped out of carriers. Veterinarians prefer carriers that can be disassembled, or have openings on both the front, side and tops. These types of carriers will often allow the entire exam to be performed while the cat remains in the carrier. Gone are the days of heavy restraint. Less is more when it comes to handling cats. Gentle handling is critical, especially for older cats.
Veterinarians and staff who work with cats need to learn to manage their own energy. There should be no raised voices in the clinic, and interactions with cats should be guided by calm demeanor and slow movements. Perception is important for veterinary staff, as well. If staff assumes that cats are going to be hard to handle, they won’t be able to approach them in a relaxed manner. For that reason, Dr. Marcus Brown, the current president of the AAFP and owner of Nova Cat Clinic in Arlington, VA, does not allow the word “fractious” to be used in his practice.
The sequence of how an exam is performed can make the difference between a pleasant visit and a stressful debacle. Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, who owns two cat hospitals, Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, CA and Cat Hospital of Portland in Portland, OR, leaves taking a cat’s temperature for last. She also doesn’t recommend that a technician goes into the exam room first. “Cats will be impossible to touch if a technician takes their temperature before the doctor even comes into the room,” says Colleran. She prefers talking to the cat’s guardian first and getting a complete history while the cat has a chance to acclimate to the strange environment before the actual physical exam even starts.
Hospitalized cats require different arrangements than dogs. Ideally, they will be housed in a separate ward. They will need places to hide within the cage so they can feel safe. The benefits of hospitalizing a cat will always need to be weighed against the stress of the experience.
Look for a cat-friendly practice
A feline-only practice will often be the optimal solution for cat guardians, but even though there are more and more of them, they still aren’t widely available. Looking for a certified cat friendly practice can now present another option. Certification requires a practice to have at least one staff member who belongs to the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Practices will receive training and must comply with a 10-item checklist. If approved, the clinic earns the “Cat Friendly Practice” designation and is listed in the “Cat Friendly Practice” online database.
For more information about the initiative, please visit The Cat Friendly Practice.
Is your veterinary hospital cat friendly? What do they do that makes it easier for your cat to visit?
Photo by Lindsey Turner, Flickr Creative Commons