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The politics of felinity

On companion animal practice in the age of the cat

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Fire up your can openers and sharpen your scalpels: October 16 is National Feral Cat Day!

Whether you deem the day yet another social inanity or consider it a milestone in our hunt for enhanced awareness of feline welfare issues, its existence is proof of one thing: Some people care a lot about cats.

But I didn’t have to tell you that—not if you’re a companion animal veterinarian laboring in private practice anywhere in the United States. Though it’s true I live in a temperate coastal community, one long considered a hotbed of feral feline politics, I understand enough about national animal welfare issues to know that the politics of felinity don’t end at the county line.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I won’t check the stove to see if it’s still hot. Last month I dedicated one of my weekly columns in the Miami Herald to the issue of feeding unsterilized, unvaccinated community cats. I argued that it’s immoral to feed unsterilized cats given that calories contribute to fecundity. And, as usual, I got burned.

It’s not like I didn’t know the topic would be controversial. Still, I didn’t count on the volume of email I received, nor that all my mailers, supportive or not, would hiss and spit their way through endless vituperative missives variously outlining the evils or virtues of feral and free-roaming cats. You’d have thought I’d invoked national politics—and picked a side—for all the hate heaped on my lowly column.

In hindsight, it seemed so obvious, more so from the vantage point of Northern Europe, where I’d been attending a conference when I received the bulk of these nastygrams. For some reason that I’m sure I’ll never completely understand, Americans are uncommonly polarized by the concept of cats in ways other cultures are not. Even as individual cats are cherished in our homes as our nation’s most popular pet, the notion of their catness doesn’t play so well in all contexts.

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It’s a love-hate thing, to be sure. We don’t want feral cats to clutter our communities, become biohazards, consume our ecosystems’ sensitive species or suffer on the streets, but most of us don’t favor eradication, either. Not only does it seem unfair to kill them—humans caused the problem, after all—we know what happens when you nix a predator but don’t remove his resources. As they say, nature finds a way, and they’re back before you can say “Friskies.”

All of which got me to thinking: As small animal companion animal veterinarians, this love-hate relationship is by no means limited to the streets outside our practices. If your place is anything like mine, we face a similar conundrum in our practicing lives.

Of course, we cherish our feline patients. All of them. But the truth is somewhat uncomfortable, mirroring the complexity of the feral cat conundrum more accurately than we might care to contemplate. Let me count the ways:

#1 Cats are tough customers.

To be sure, cats are high-tension patients, and they’re armed. In our two-thirds practice—40 percent cats, 60 percent dogs—cats are equally likely to send our staff to the hospital. In fact, cats are responsible for the bulk of our worker’s comp premium increases over the past decade. (Rabies post-exposure vaccines are expensive!)

#2 They have keepers as well as claws.

It’s not just the teeth and claws I’m concerned with. Relative to our canine patients, cats are complicated creatures that come attached to clients with intricate needs. At this point let me say what most of you are thinking:

Cat people generally come in three groups: the community cat collectors, the highly devoted 1-to-5 cat keepers and the relaxed ones who often bring the cat along with the dog for their annual. For better or worse, the first two groups are often considered challenging, with educational needs that exceed most canine owners.

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#3 Human welfare issues figure, too.

Did I mention the emotional toll some of our feline clients often take? I don’t know about you, but I used to do my best to direct my cat collectors to mental health services. Sadly, I’ve learned that I no longer have the stomach for it. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t have to watch them, week after week, spiral ever downward as they almost invariably do. Talk about compassion fatigue, right?

#4 Cats require careful concessions.

Most cats require unique concessions and a sophisticated level of care, even for their most basic health care needs. Low-stress handling, Fear-Free hospital status, sound-dampening workplaces, separate housing, etc.

#5 The money thing.

For a variety of reasons, cat owners come from a culture of wanting to pay less per patient. Cats, generally speaking, rank a distant second to dogs when it comes to allocating disposable income. Moreover, because so many cats arrive as either foundlings or free roamers, keepers often expect financial concessions for their good works. Which is backward, seeing as these often cost us more to treat.

Indeed, cats are no less expensive than dogs (not unless you practice in an urban setting where space is truly dear). Given their unique needs, cats can cost the hospital as much or more than dogs do, yet our fees per transaction are way lower. In fact, given this hit to profitability, I’d be willing to guess that for some practices cats are loss leaders.

Finally, back to the ferals.

#6 Feral cats make for dangerous and depressing patients.

Did I sign up to be a wild animal veterinarian? Absolutely not. I don’t care for the risks, not to my staff, anyway. Plus, I find the work to be stressful for everyone given that our findings are almost always heartbreaking (rampant retroviral infections, frequent trauma, pervasive parasitism, etc.) and its rewards to be minimal (everyone wants to help but no one wants to pay).

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In a word, it’s Sisyphean.

Which brings me full circle to my unfortunate Miami Herald column.

Though I’d like to do more to help my community’s cats—make no mistake, I do help—I’ve realized there’s only so much we can do for our cats. There are only so many financial and emotional resources to go around.

What’s more, as veterinarians, we can offer only so many concessions to our feline patients—feral or otherwise—even when our clients meet us halfway.

Which is not to say I’m done reaching for that hot stovetop. I guess I’m a little like my collector clients in that way. I can’t seem to help myself. It’s a love-hate thing, indeed.

Dr. Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at www.drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News. 

Originally published in the September 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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