Cat at vet

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, says Aretha, is all she’s askin’. Same goes for me. Only I’m not talking about what a man should muster, rather what plenty of cat owners should manage more of on behalf of their felines.

Turns out some cat lovers don’t care for their feline pets to the same tune they do their dogs. So say veterinarians like me who observe the differences between how people treat their own beloved cats and dogs on a daily basis.

Survey Says…

Pharmaceutical giant Bayer HealthCare and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) conducted a study that confirmed our suspicions. Here’s a quick summary of the basic findings I received firsthand at a lovely lunchtime press event last month at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conference in Chicago:

  • More than half of owned cats (52 percent) hadn’t been to the vet within the past year.
  • Older cats see vets less often than younger cats do.
  • Meanwhile, 95 percent of veterinarians believe cats should receive annual checkups, and 72 percent believe that wellness exams are the most important service we provide.
  • And get this: Only about half as many cats get annual checkups as dogs.

So what’s up with that?

A Number of Contributing Factors

1. The economic impact of the recession. The study was conducted during the height of the economic downturn.

2. Fragmentation of veterinary services. Lots of choices in veterinarians and specialists can be confusing and can actually interrupt access to vet services.

3. The use of the Internet versus office visits. Lots of cat owners seek help in inexpensive places first.

4. Feline resistance. Cats don’t like going to the vet.

5. Perception that regular medical checkups are unnecessary. Veterinarians aren’t always very good at communicating the importance of regular vet visits.

6. Cost of care. Fundamental health care costs have skyrocketed, and veterinary hospitals haven’t been unaffected.

All of that makes sense. But that still doesn’t explain why cats receive less care than dogs do. After all, all six of these causes could be applied to the case of dogs, too. Which is why I think this issue is less to do with economics and more about why cats garner less attention than their canine counterparts.

Unique Feline Challenges

Here again, I offer you a checklist of reasons I expect are at play:

1. Cats are independent, free-thinking creatures, and too many cat owners assume these qualities extend to their health care needs, too.

2. Plenty of pets hate going to the vet, but cats almost uniformly detest the experience. So much so that it makes pet owners feel like great big meanies when they drag their cats in to see us.

3. Hatred of the vet’s office often translates into trouble when it comes to transport. Getting a cat inside a crate without claw marks and the occasional fang bang can be something of a feat for the owners of some otherwise mild-mannered felines.

4. Cats can be masters of deception, obfuscation, fraud and outright trickery. Though it may surprise you to learn that cats are so crafty, their ability to occult any evidence of pain and illness is legendary in veterinary circles. Hence, why so many of our super-sick feline patients appear to have been “just fine yesterday” and why so many cat owners fail to seek veterinary attention on a regular basis.

5. Dogs are more companionable in certain ways. Because dogs share our basic social structures, we tend to value them more like family members and companions. Cats, on the other hand, often get treated more like pets and less like loved ones.

A Difference in Perception

The Bayer and AAFP people agree, adding the following items to my list:

6. How we acquire our pets makes a difference in how we perceive their value: Cats tend to be acquired accidentally, whereas dogs are usually acquired purposefully. Dogs are typically paid for, and cats are almost always freebies whose value to the household is correspondingly lower.

7. Dogs are high-maintenance (they need more care, vet care included), and cats are perceived to be lower-maintenance (back to the independence thing).

8. Most cats aren’t boarded at kennels that require vaccinations, they’re not licensed in most municipalities, and because many don’t even go outdoors, there’s “no pressing need” for routine checkups.

Are Cats Valued Less Than Dogs?

All of which makes sense. But there’s more to it than that. Consider the elusive disrespect factor I alluded to earlier. Because the reality is that, overall, our culture doesn’t esteem the cat as it does the dog. Nowhere close.

Why else would veterinarians have to deal not only with clients who fail to seek out regular checkups for their cats, but also kittens abandoned in boxes by the back door, colonies of ferals in our back alleys and so-called animal lovers who ask us to euthanize their inconveniently “incontinent” felines (among other imponderable feline cruelties).

Most small animal veterinarians in this country would readily admit that cat care takes a distant back seat to dog care because of the R-word (or is it the D-word?), but here’s the thing: No one wants to characterize it as such.

Most veterinarians I know would prefer to talk about cats being “different” — but theoretically equal. And that’s just not so. Which makes me think that perhaps it’s time we started having a franker dialog about how our culture cares for its cats. Because there can be no progress until we confront the truth:

Cats are nowhere near equal to our dogs in our culture’s conception. Which is why I predict it’ll take a whole lot more than studying why cat owners are noncompliant — or listening to Ms. Franklin — to improve the lot of our health care-challenged felines.

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