More than half of U.S. cats have not seen a veterinarian within the past year for needed checkups, according to a study conducted by Bayer HealthCare and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Reasons for the lack of feline veterinary care range from how cats are acquired to people’s perceptions of the health care they need.
The study’s findings, released at the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in Chicago, uncovered several reasons for the lack of veterinary care. They ranged from how cats are acquired and people’s relationships with them to feline personalities and people’s perceptions of the health care they need.
The third phase of the "Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study” was based on an online survey of 1,938 cat owners and several focus groups. Sixty percent of survey respondents were from cat-only households, while 40 percent had both cats and dogs.
The study "confirms that we treat cats differently than dogs when it comes to caring for their health, in part because cats are so effective at masking signs of illness and injury,” said Ian Spinks, president and general manager of Bayer HealthCare’s North American Animal Health Division, based in Shawnee, Kan. "Since only half as many cats get annual checkups as dogs, Bayer is working with the American Association of Feline Practitioners to get the word out that cats need regular veterinary care, too.”
The more engaged an individual is in selecting a new pet—especially if acquired from a breeder, pet store or shelter—the more likely the pet will receive annual checkups, the study discovered.
Dogs are often purchased or adopted at considerable cost and frequently go home with written veterinary care instructions. Cats, on the other hand, are usually acquired informally. The majority of cats, or 59 percent, were acquired without prior intent, and many had been lost or abandoned. "The cat found me” or "the cat showed up at my house” were common responses of the survey’s participants.
Nearly 70 percent of cats were obtained at no cost, and their owners received little or no initial instruction on proper veterinary care.
"Unfortunately, cats do not come with a care label or tag and, in fact, many are acquired because they are perceived to be low-cost pets,” said past AAFP president Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP.
An owner’s relationship with a pet often differs by species.
"Owners of both dogs and cats expressed an emotional attachment to their cats, but clearly there was a marked difference in their relationship with their cats as compared to their dogs,” Dr. Colleran said. "Owners said they consider their dogs to be companions and dependent, and their cats to be pets and independent. As a result, it appears they consciously or subconsciously perceive dogs may have more value than cats, and this can influence how they think and act on their cat’s health care needs.”
A cat’s personality plays a role in its veterinary care. The study found that 81 percent of cat owners believed that cats are very self-sufficient and independent and therefore require little attention. Dogs, on the other hand, were viewed as much more dependent and needy.
Low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance, said Cristiano von Simson, DVM, MBA, director of veterinary services at Bayer’s Animal Health Division.
"Cats’ independent nature makes them appear more standoffish than dogs, and they keep secrets by often hiding signs of illness,” Dr. von Simson said. "The study showed that 81 percent of owners believe their cat was in excellent health, while 53 percent said their cat had never been sick or injured. These perceptions help account for why cats visit the veterinarian less. Dog owners already consider visits to the veterinarian part of responsible pet ownership. It should be that way for cats, too.”
As for habitat, the study revealed that 63 percent of cats in cat-only households live indoors exclusively and never go outside. Many owners therefore assume that their indoor cats are safe from disease. Many feline diseases, such as diabetes, heart conditions and thyroid deficiencies, may develop regardless of where the cat lives.
Traveling to a veterinary office is an issue by itself, the study determined.
Fifty-eight percent of owners reported that their cats hate going to the veterinary clinic. The study found that most cats fear being placed into a cat carrier and transported by car, so many owners rule out travel.
The AAFP’s Colleran offered tips for veterinarians to improve feline health care.
• During a feline patient’s first visit, emphasize the need for annual exams, teach appropriate cat care-including carrier use-and advise on signs of illness.
• Send home written care instructions and follow up with well-care reminders.
• Make a clinic cat-friendly by creating a calm, nonthreatening environment, including a cat-only waiting area or section, and exam room.
• Become an AAFP Cat Friendly Practice. More information on the certification is available at CatFriendlyPractice.catvets.com.