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Compendium April 2012 (Vol 34, No 4)

Editorial: Feline Friendly: Frivolous Fad or Priceless Paradigm Shift?

by Margie Scherk, DVM, DABVP

    Margie Scherk

    We’ve all heard the stats: while the number of cats kept as companions in North American homes is increasing, the number of feline visits to clinics has been declining since 2001. Based on the AVMA’s 2007 pet ownership and demographics survey, cats outnumber dogs as pets by 13%, yet cats fail to receive the same degree of veterinary attention.In small-animal practices, dogs represent 59% of office visits, cats only 39%. Why is this?

    The 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study1 cited three factors that limited the number of cats being brought in to clinics. The first is that clients are unaware that cats need regular preventive health visits other than for vaccination. Cats seem so “independent” and self-sufficient, after all.

    The second reason is that getting the cat to the clinic is a distressing experience, for the cat and for the person who cares for him or her. It’s bad enough that cats verbalize their anxiety, but getting them into the carrier can be downright scary (and result in bites or scratches). And then there’s the variety of smells associated with urine, feces, and vomit during the car ride. Any caring person feels guilt from being associated with such distress. Once at the clinic, further fear-related behavior exhibited by their normally pleasant kitty adds to owners’ trauma. Clients’ reluctance to engage in this experience was reflected dramatically in the Bayer study by the fact that 40% of cats had not been to a veterinarian within the preceding year, compared with only 15% of dogs.

    The third reason cited was the cost of veterinary care, particularly the frequency and size of price increases. Adding surprises and hefty costs to an already unpleasant process is negative reinforcement for bringing kitty in to see the doc, regardless of how good the visit may be for the cat’s health.

    As valid as the study findings may be, however, I believe that there is also another, unspoken factor behind the low numbers of feline visits: many people working in veterinary clinics, regardless of their capacity, feel frightened when hearing or handling a defensive cat. I well remember in veterinary school how, at the end of a lecture, as the paper rustling and packing up started, the lecturer might say something like, “In cats, you shouldn’t use this drug,” or “That doesn’t apply to cats.” Cats were an afterthought. Flash-forward to the present day, when in conference lectures, everything is assumed to be about dogs unless indicated differently. Veterinary teaching hospitals still see many more canine than feline patients, so while we all know that cats aren’t just small dogs, many externship students, graduates, and seasoned practitioners are not as savvy about feline medicine or as comfortable around cats.

    It’s time to change this. Let’s roll our sleeves up and turn these stats around! The Year of the Cat was 2011…but there is still a lot to do! How can we address the factors keeping cats out of our clinics?

    1.    We need to communicate the subtle signs of sickness that a prey animal, such as a cat, shows when ill. The message that they don’t moan, cry, or whine, but rather make small changes in their routines and behaviors that often signal serious disease needs to be delivered again and again…to all cat owners, regardless of whether they are our clients. The resources exist! You don’t have to create them. The “10 subtle signs of sickness” are on the Healthy Cats for Life Web site. Include them on your invoices, link to them on your own Web site, send them to a local newspaper…get the word out!

    2.    We need to help teach people how to shape the experience of getting in to the carrier, traveling to the clinic, and being at the clinic for new patients and how to reshape the “getting to the clinic” experience for already fearful cats. All members of the team can help instruct clients in this, whether by talking to them on the phone or by sending a Web link or mailing a brochure before the next visit. In conjunction with the International Society for Feline Medicine (ISFM), the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has a brochure titled “Getting your cat to the veterinarian.” (You can bookmark it here.) Additionally, the Catalyst Council has excellent videos in its resource section. One, “Cats & Carriers: Friends, not Foes,” provides basic tips for making carriers cat-friendly (even for fearful cats), while two others show beginning cat carrier training, as demonstrated by Dr. Jacqui Neilson and Bug (the cat). These are useful and fun videos!

    3.    We can give clients information about pet health care plans or programs that can help them plan for costs. You can design your own or use very carefully designed templates within a free (to clinics) service called Partners in Wellness. Wellness programs help clients follow your medically driven life-stage or disease-centered recommendations with regular, affordable payments.

    4.    Finally, we need to make a shift within our own clinics. How do we address our fear and reactions? We have to start by learning more about these creatures we call “cats.” What motivates them, and what are they frightened of? If we understand that, we can create an environment that is less threatening for them. AAFP’s Cat Friendly Practice program is designed as a do-it-yourself, step-by-step program that provides you with all of the tools you need to make your clinic cat friendly. By achieving silver or gold certification, you are well on your way. I strongly encourage you to check this initiative out at http://catfriendlypractice.catvets.com.

    Being willing to slow down, be fearlessly empathic, and “listen” to what cats are telling you is the next, natural step to enjoying cats in the practice. The AAFP/ISFM Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines describe many techniques for successfully and respectfully interacting with cats in the clinic. Vetlearn has put together a brief slide show of highlights from the guidelines here. The full text of these practice-changing guidelines can be found here.


    Making your practice feline friendly has another benefit beyond improved health care for cats—it can grow your practice by increasing your number of patients! Start by asking all your current clients if they have any other pets at home. Perhaps they have a cat they’ve never brought in because they didn’t realize that healthy cats should have regular wellness exams or because of previous bad experiences associated with getting to or visiting a clinic. Cats aren’t receiving enough health care, and you can change that. It’s time.

    Margie Scherk, DVM, DABVP (Feline Medicine)
    Feline Focus Series Editor


    1. Bayer HealthCare Animal Health, Brakke Consulting, National Commission of Veterinary Economic Issues. Bayer veterinary care usage study. 2011. http://www.ncvei.org/articles/FINAL_BAYER_VETERINARY_CARE_USAGE_STUDY.pdf. Accessed March 2012.

    NEXT: Excellence in Exotics: Case Report: Crop Burn in an Umbrella Cockatoo


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