Dog owners bring their pups to the veterinarian 1.5 times per year, on average.
Most cats, on the other hand, see their vets less than once a year.
Pet health and advocacy organizations like the nonprofit Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) and the CATalyst Council are trying to understand why there's such a discrepancy between canine and feline wellness visits to veterinary offices.
One reason may be that cat owners view their pets as self-sufficient – almost to a fault.
According to Dr. Jane Brunt of the CATalyst Council:
"Many people hold the misconception that cats can take care of themselves. In fact, cats rely on us for many things, including food, water, shelter, and freedom from illness, pain, and distress."
In addition to viewing their kitties as independent, research shows that a majority of pet owners are more emotionally connected to their dogs than their cats. Almost 60 percent of people who own both a dog and a cat feel more attached to their canines. Just 19 percent feel more bonded to their cats.
I'm encouraged by the ongoing focus of pet advocacy groups on the plight of feline companion animals.
According to the folks at the CATalyst Council, cats outnumber dogs by about 10 million in the U.S. alone, yet they are often viewed as second class citizens when it comes to the care they receive.
I see far too many kitties at Natural Pet, my clinic, that are in an advanced stage of disease – disease that could have been prevented or treated much more effectively if caught sooner.
Changes in Your Cat’s Behavior Can Signal an Illness in Your Cat
Your kitty might seem perfectly healthy to you when she's anything but.
Cats are stoic creatures, even when they don't feel well. It can be quite difficult to detect illness in your kitty. She's covered in fur so it's hard to tell if her skin has pallor.
She doesn't have a wide range of facial expressions, so you won't see her grimace.
And she doesn't speak your language, so she can't tell you where it hurts.
One of the first signs your cat is ill is often a change in behavior you may not even notice -- especially if she's the shy, retiring type. That's why it's important to pay special attention to your kitty and take note of anything she does out of the ordinary.
Changes in behavior might include the following:
- If your normally affectionate cat suddenly becomes stand-offish and doesn't seem to want you to pet her, it could be a sign she isn't feeling up to snuff.
- If your kitty starts doing something new or performs a routine more frequently, take note.
If you find her trying to drink from a faucet or a toilet and she's never done that before, she's thirstier than normal. Increased thirst is a symptom of a number of feline disorders including diabetes and kidney problems.
- If she seems to be scratching or rubbing her ears a lot, or shaking her head as though she's trying to clear it, there could be an underlying problem. It could be an ear infection or allergies. It could also be a problem in your kitty's mouth.
Cats with poor dental health or gum disease often display a range of behaviors -- from head shaking to sneezing and coughing – that seemingly have nothing to do with the condition of their mouth.
- If your cat stops her grooming ritual you might not notice right away, but this is also a sign of an underlying problem – and a fairly serious one since grooming is such an instinctive behavior for felines. If you haven't noticed she's stopped grooming, the first thing that will catch your eye will probably be the condition of her coat. Cats that aren't grooming will eventually have dull, dirty or greasy-looking fur.
- If your normally quiet kitty starts to hypervocalize -- or if your chatty cat turns quiet, you should take note. Some cats are just more vocal than others, but a noticeable change in the level of noise your kitty makes could be a sign something's going on with her health.
There's no need to panic each time your quirky kitty does something unexpected. Just keep a close eye on any changes you notice in her behavior and if they continue or get worse, consult your veterinarian.
A Change in Your Cat’s Eating Habits Should Also Be Taken Seriously
Any change in your cat's appetite that isn't the result of a change in the food you're feeding him is cause for concern.
Many cats are finicky eaters and will walk away from a meal they don't like the taste of, but if your kitty turns away from food he normally gobbles up, there could be something else going on.
On the flip side, if your cat suddenly becomes ravenous and you can't seem to keep him full, it can also signal an underlying problem.
In either case, it will be important to watch his appetite for a few days to see if the change you've noticed persists. If it does, it's time to call the vet.
Keep in mind -- if you have more than one cat and they eat together, it will be difficult to notice a change in appetite. Chances are if one of your kitties isn't finishing his meal, another is finishing it for him.
It will also be difficult to determine if a suddenly overly hungry cat is eating his own food and half of someone else's unless you stay in the feeding area and watch them while they eat.
My recommendation is to feed every four-legged member of your household separately so you know exactly what's going on with each of them.
For the same reason, I don't recommend the all-day-buffet method of feeding your pets. It's difficult to control calorie intake when a bowl of food is available all the time, and it's impossible to know who's eating too much or too little using this method.
Monitoring the Litter Box
In addition to watching what goes into your cat, it's important to be aware of what comes out of him.
You should be alert for changes in the consistency, appearance and quantity of poop and urine you scoop from the litter box. You should also make note of any change in smell – if there's a sudden strong or unusual odor emanating from the litter box, it could be a sign something's going on with your kitty's digestive tract.
As is the case at feeding time, a multi-kitty household presents its own challenges when it comes to monitoring "output." You should have a minimum of one litter box per cat in the family, and if you're lucky, each of your kitties has selected his or her "favorite."
If that's the case at your house, it should be a simple matter to figure out which of your cats might be having an elimination problem. However, if all your cats use all the litter boxes and you notice a change as described above, you'll have to be extra vigilant to discover which of your kitties is having a problem.
And while we're on the subject of litter boxes, keep in mind that your cat's behavior with regard to his box can also signal a problem. If your kitty suddenly starts eliminating outside the box, or alternatively, starts spending a lot of time in the box you should investigate.
Why I Recommend Regular Wellness Visits
Ideally, your kitty should visit her holistic veterinarian twice a year for wellness checkups. I recommend this semi-annual schedule because:
- Changes in your cat's health can happen quickly, especially if she's getting up in years. I frequently see older cats have normal kidney enzymes in January and elevated kidney enzymes in July of the same year. If detected early, I can dramatically slow how quickly this disease occurs.
- If your kitty has a developing health condition, early detection and intervention will give her the best chance for a full recovery. As a proactive vet, I can detect many health issues before disease occurs, but this requires me to examine the pet regularly.
- Twice a year exams allow your vet to more closely monitor any behavior or other changes that require further investigation.
- Calorie control for an overweight or obese kitty is more successful when you and your cat's veterinarian work together toward a weight loss goal.
- Many cats never leave the house except for trips to the vet. More frequent trips can reduce the stress your kitty feels both leaving the house and visiting the doctor.
In addition to regular professional checkups, I also recommend your perform routine at-home physical exams on your cat. This will help you learn what's normal for your pet, and therefore, what's not normal.
And if you can only manage an annual visit to your veterinarian, at-home exams will help alert you to changes in your feline companion's health in between checkups.
No More Shadow Cats!
Just because the feline in your family isn't as in-your-face as other members of the household doesn't mean he doesn't deserve liberal doses of love and attention.
With the hectic pace of daily life and constant demands on your time, it can be easy to overlook the needs of your independent, self-sufficient cat. Waiting until your cat develops symptoms of disease means you've waited too long. Partnering with an integrative vet to identify health issues before disease occurs will ensure your cat won't be left in the dark when it comes to creating wellness.
With increased awareness of how kitties react to illness and a bit of preventive care, you can ensure good health and a long life for the feline in your family.