Understanding The Gap In Feline Care

Veterinarians see more canines than felines for wellness visits.


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Cats outnumber dogs in American households by 90 million to 62 million, but when it comes to veterinary care, veterinarians see far more canines for wellness visits, routine examinations and medical treatments.

That frustrates Patricia Olson, DVM, PhD, president and chief executive officer of Morris Animal Foundation, the Englewood, Colo., non-profit group that funds more studies for companion animals than any other foundation.

“There is a definite concern among leaders in the pet industry as to why veterinarians see relatively fewer cats and why less research is being conducted on cats than dogs,” says Dr. Olson. “Despite the cat’s rising popularity–the population of owned cats is growing 25 percent faster than dogs–less money is spent on health care for cats.”

In 2006, the Morris Animal Foundation funded $4 million for 44 new and 53 ongoing studies for companion animals. Of those studies, canine-related studies represented 38 percent, followed by horses at 13 percent. Feline studies garnered only 10 percent of those research dollars.

James Richards, DVM, past president of the American Assn. of Feline Practitioners and director of the Feline Health Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., says one reason for the discrepancy may be the natures of the two species.

“Cats give us the impression that they can take care of themselves–it is their nature to appear self-sufficient,” says Dr. Richards.

“Dogs typically give owners and veterinarians a lot more opportunities to witness what they do. Dogs are taken for walks and are usually fed a couple of meals a day, so owners can tell if there are any problems such as diarrhea or lack of appetite.

“In a multi-cat household, owners tend to just put food out and refill the bowls, and do not necessarily know if one cat is eating too much or not enough.”

A recent survey also indicated that in multi-pet households, people are five times more likely to spend more time with their dogs.

Another factor: Initial out-of-pocket investment in cats is often far below what people spend to adopt dogs, making the perceived value of cats less than of dogs.

“Most kittens and cats come to us in ways that do not cost us any money–as strays who wander up to us–or they cost us very little money as shelter adoptions,” Richards says. “It is not uncommon for people to spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on a puppy or dog [from a professional breeder or rescue organization].”

He adds that spending less money up front for a cat makes it easier for some owners to relinquish them or view them as replaceable when health or behavior issues surface.

This gap in feline care served as a focal point at the recent Hill’s Global Symposium on Feline Care in Toronto, Canada. According to a report released at the symposium, 35 percent of owners did not take their cats to their veterinarians in 2005. On average, cats are taken to veterinarians for preventive and wellness care about half as often as dogs.

Paul Richieri, DVM, veterinarian and owner of Melrose Veterinary Hospital in Vista, Calif., reports a common trend in small-animal practices.

“When it comes to treating cats, we tend to see kittens needing vaccinations and first-year care and senior cats who have developed diseases,” Dr. Richieri says. “While we tend to see dogs at least once a year, that is not the case with cats. It can be several years before a cat comes back to the clinic–and often, it is only because the owner has detected a health problem.”

In fact, a 2005 study sponsored by BNResearch found that one-fifth of cats are not vaccinated and more than one-fourth do not get boosters. Less than 10 percent receive twice-a-year exams and even fewer receive preventive dental care.

Groups like the AAFP and Morris Animal Foundation are taking steps to close this gap in veterinary care. Last year, AAFP launched a cat wellness campaign and web site (www.catwellness.org). Next year, the Morris Animal Foundation plans to conduct more educational campaigns and earmark more research dollars for feline studies and feline medicine internships as part of its 2008 Feline Affirmative Action Campaign.

“We are pushing for more studies, more feline medicine fellowships and more preventive care aimed at cats,” Olson says.

Adds Richards, “The real challenge for veterinarians and cat owners is to ensure that cats receive wellness and veterinary care throughout their entire lives–not just when they are real young or real old.”

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