Dissecting The Cat-Dog Healthcare Disparity

It seems that some cat lovers don't care for their feline pets to the same tune they do their dogs.


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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock lately, you’ve doubtless borne witness to the latest round of handwringing within our national community. This time it’s to do with our nation’s most populous but least served companion animal species: the cat.

Though statistics tracking both canine and feline hospital visits reveal a significant downward direction, cats are far less likely to receive the routine treatment we’ve collectively determined they deserve.

Yes, it seems that some cat lovers don’t care for their feline pets to the same tune they do their dogs. So say those of us who observe the differences between how people treat their own beloved cats and dogs on a daily basis. And so say our collegial powers that be.

A Look at Numbers

Because of this, Bayer Healthcare and the American Association of Feline Practitioners teamed up to confirm our suspicions with the Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Fidings. Here’s a quick summary of the basic findings I received firsthand at a lunchtime panel discussion-style press event at the American Veterinary Medical Association conference in Chicago this past summer:
* 52 percent of cats hadn’t seen a veterinarian within the past year.
* 83 percent of cats see a veterinarian within the first year of ownership yet only 48 percent get yearly visits.
* Meanwhile, 95 percent of us believe cats should receive annual checkups and 72 percent believe that wellness exams are the most important service we provide.
So what’s up with that?
This nagging question prompted Bayer and the AAFP to dig deeper, ultimately identifying six root causes to explain why cats aren’t receiving the care we think they should:
  No. 1. Economic impact of the recession.
  No. 2. Fragmentation of veterinary services. (Lots of choices in veterinarians can be confusing and may actually interrupt access to vet services.)
  No. 3. Use of the Internet versus office visits.
  No. 4. Pet resistance.
  No. 5. A perception that regular checkups are unnecessary. (The suggestion is that we aren’t always adept at communicating the importance of routine care.)
  No. 6. Rising cost of care.

All of which makes sense. Yet is still doesn’t explain why cats receive less care than dogs do.

All six causes affect dog owners, too, after all. (Though Nos. 4 and 5 are more apropos to catdom.) That’s why most of us have long believed this issue has way less to do with the current economics affecting all companion animal species and more with why cats garner so little respect in our culture.

The panel agreed, offering a checklist of well-researched reasons to help explain this disparity:
  No. 1. Cats are independent, free-thinking creatures and too many cat owners assume these qualities extend to their healthcare needs, too.
  No. 2. Plenty of pets hate going to the vet, but cats almost uniformly dread the experience.
  No. 3. Their horror often translates into trouble when it comes to transport.
  No. 4. Cats can be masters of deception, obfuscation, fraud and outright trickery. Their ability to occult evidence of pain and illness eludes our clients more often than not.
  No. 5. Dogs are more companionable than cats in certain ways. Because they share our basic social structures, we tend to value them more like family members and companions and less like mere pets.
These five are pretty obvious. The next three, however, are less so:
  No. 6. How we acquire our pets makes a difference in how we perceive their value: Cats tend to be acquired accidentally, whereas dogs are acquired purposefully. Dogs are typically paid for and cats are almost always freebies whose value to the household is correspondingly lower.
  No. 7. Dogs are perceived as high maintenance and cats as low maintenance. (Refer back to the independence and obfuscation issues.)
  No. 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.

What Does This Mean?

The presenters concluded with the assertion that we must accept that cats are different and adapt our business practices to meet their needs. This came down to two basic recommendations: Make your practices more feline friendly and communicate more effectively with your clients on the subject of cats and their healthcare needs.

But surely there’s more to it than that? I think so.

With all due respect to the enormous detail offered by some of the panelists in follow-up sessions, the uncomfortable and highly inconvenient reality is that our culture simply doesn’t esteem the cat as it does the dog.

Although we talk about cats being different but theoretically equal, the truth is that it’s just not so.

It’s this very disrespect, not numbers one through eight, that’s at the crux of what we perceive as the "feline problem.” And nothing we do at the micro level—that is to say, in our practices—is going to change that fact substantially.

D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

Why else would we be forced to deal not only with clients who fail to seek routine care for their cats, but also with kittens abandoned in boxes by our back doors, colonies of ferals in our community’s alleys, and so-called "animal lovers” who ask us to euthanize their inconveniently "incontinent” felines among other imponderable cruelties less common among dogs?

What’s to Blame?

What’s worse is that we’re just as much to blame.

The ubiquitous axiom reminding us that cats are not small dogs notwithstanding, our profession has long relied on a business model that effectively treats both fairly identically—despite the clear downside for our cats.

Indeed, we’ve long paid lip service to the notion that cats are different but equal when the truth is that it’s just not so. We don’t even believe it. To wit, the researchers found that about 20 percent of us don’t even treat our own cats to annual visits.

Perhaps it’s time we started having a franker dialogue about how our culture cares for its cats—and by extension, how we as a profession plan to have a hand in these matters. Because there can be no progress until we confront the obvious: Cats are not on par with dogs in our culture’s eyes.

This fundamental fact is why I predict it will take a whole lot more than concentrating on one discrete area—the veterinary non-compliance of cat owners—to improve the lot of our felines on a national scale.

Though I plan to use the information I gleaned at the conference, I believe we’d do way better to direct our efforts at angling for policy changes that have a global impact on how cats are cared for in our communities.

After all, given that we practicing veterinarians don’t have a great track record for being the tail that wags the dog, going macro makes way more sense for cats than the "not-small-dog” recommendations we’re currently being spoon-fed. 

Dr. Khuly is a small animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com.

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