3 Out of 4 Cat Owners Skip This Crucial Part of Care - Do You?

Pet Care

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study indicates that over 75 percent of DVMs feel cats are not receiving the quantity or quality of veterinary care they require for optimum health. The reasons for the problem are varied, but one of the biggest is the very negative way many cats react to vet visits.
  • Only a small percentage of veterinary practices have taken steps to improve the vet visit experience for kitties, despite a set of clearly defined recommendations published by feline practitioner organizations.
  • Vet practices that want to attract kitties and their owners do things like train staff to make visits less stressful and create cat-only exam rooms, cat-only waiting areas, and even cat-only days and appointment hours.
  • If the veterinary practice you visit stresses you and your cat out, you can go to the Cat Friendly Practice Program website and search for a feline-friendly practice near your home. You can also see if there is a mobile vet practice in your area.
  • There are many things cat owners can do before and during vet visits to help make checkups much less stressful for their pet.

By Dr. Becker

According to a Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, over 75 percent of DVMs feel more and better care of cats is a huge area of opportunity for most vet practices today.

The study examined the progress made so far toward improving veterinary care for kitties, as well as how far we still have to go. You can download the study here.

Why So Many Cats Don’t Visit the Vet as Often as They Should

It seems most DVMs realize the way cats respond to vet visits plays a major role in why cat owners don’t make more appointments for their pets.

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP):

  • In the U.S., there are 86 million pet cats and 78 million pet dogs
  • Almost twice as many cats as dogs never visit the veterinarian
  • Cats who do see the vet average 26 percent fewer visits than dogs
  • Over 40 percent of cat owners visit the vet only for vaccinations (which is not a good reason)
  • Almost 40 percent of cat owners say they take their pet to the vet only when the kitty is sick
  • Sixty percent of cat owners report their pet hates going for vet visits
  • Almost 40 percent of cat owners report they get stressed just thinking about bringing their cat to the vet

Even with awareness of the reasons cats aren’t brought in for checkups, one-third of vet practices polled for the Bayer study have not taken recommended steps to make visits less stressful for cats or their owners.

These steps include training staff on how to make visits less stressful and establishing cat-only exam rooms, cat-only waiting areas completely separate from dog areas, and cat-only days and appointment hours. And at my practice medical procedures (drawing blood, taking an x-ray, etc.) are all completed in dog-free zones to reduce cat stress. 

Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and owner of Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, CA, theorizes part of the problem could be that some veterinarians – like some pet owners – are simply not “cat people.” Their own biases may play a role in their desire (or lack of desire) to make their practices more attractive to cat owners and their pets.

Finding a Cat-Friendly Veterinary Clinic

The AAFP and the International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) created a set of Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines that offers suggestions for veterinarians who want to create an inviting environment for their cat patients. These include:

Managing clinic odors. Cats are macrosmatic, which means their very acute sense of smell drives them to behave in specific ways. Certain scents, for example, air fresheners, disinfectants, and blood, can cause kitties to feel anxious or fearful.

Placing synthetic feline facial pheromone (FFP) analog diffusers and sprays throughout the clinic. Research shows these products have a calming effect on cats under stress, and can help reduce anxiety, fear and aggressive responses during vet visits. In my clinic we have diffusers in every exam room, in both lobbies and in the treatment area where we can diffuse many all-natural calming substances.

Reducing what feline patients see and hear during visits. Keeping other people and pets out of a cat's line of sight can alleviate anxiety. If the clinic is able to provide a separate entrance and waiting room for cats, even better. Noisy environments – including loud voices -- should be avoided. Ask the receptionist if you can wait in your car with your cat if you feel the waiting room is anything less than serene.

At my practice we have a separate kitty ward so feline patients never see a dog during their stay. If your cat must be hospitalized, ask that she be housed away from dogs and loud environments.

Vets who treat felines and each member of their staff should know how to safely and effectively manage every type of kitty, from the most docile to the most aggressive.

Very aggressive cats may be best managed by breathing in sevoflurane gas to reduce anxiety (this gas is similar to the “laughing gas” used for highly stressed dental patients). One of my very smart clients who owns an aggressive cat brings her pet in his own travel box (a clear Rubbermaid tub), which she equipped with two small holes that allow for oxygen and inhalant gas to be easily administered. This dramatically reduces stress on the cat and my entire staff because he’s happy coming in, happy going under and happy going home. That’s a successful kitty vet visit. 

If you aren't comfortable with how your cat is treated or handled during vet visits, it's up to you to advocate for your kitty with the vet and staff, or find another practice more attuned to the special needs of feline patients. If you visit the AAFP’s Cat Friendly Practice Program site, you can search for cat-friendly practices in your area.

The least stressful way to make sure your cat is healthy without traveling at all is to consider calling a mobile vet clinic to visit your home. Not every city or town has the luxury of a mobile veterinary service, but this is my favorite recommendation for highly stressed cats, if it's available.

How You Can Help Your Kitty Have Better Vet Visits

  • Do some dry runs to the veterinary clinic to help get your cat accustomed to trips in the car and the clinic environment.
  • Perform mock vet exams at home to familiarize your cat with being handled. Do things like manipulate your pet’s paws, inspect her ears, clip her nails, open and inspect the inside of her mouth, move your hands over her legs and body, and comb or brush her coat. If you do these regularly your cat will be less stressed when it’s the real thing at the vet’s office.
  • Get your cat used to his carrier. If the only time your cat sees the carrier is for vet visits you can’t blame him for panicking. Put your cat in his carrier with a few treats for 5 minutes a day for a week prior to the visit. Even consider feeding your cat in the crate, leaving the door open to encourage exploration on his own. Leave the carrier out for a week prior to the vet visit so your cat can inspect it.
  • The morning of the appointment find him well in advance of the time of your vet appointment and encourage him to enter the carrier on his own. Put an item with a familiar scent in the carrier, like his bedding or a favorite toy.

  • Consider administering homeopathy and Bach Flower Essences prior to the visit. There are several remedies including Bach Rescue Remedy and homeopathic Aconitum that can reduce anxiety and fear.
  • Keep your cool. Your kitty can sense your anxiety and stress, so remain calm. Stay positive and proceed at your cat’s pace. Be aware of his response to what is happening, and use treats and other rewards to encourage desired behavior.
  • Talk with your holistic vet about specific homeopathic, herbal or nutraceutical remedies that might help address your kitty’s stress level. Also consider other blended flower essences, such as Spirit Essences or OptiBalance Pet.

I Recommend Twice-a-Year Vet Visits for Kitties

I encourage semi-annual vet checkups for cats for a number of reasons. Your kitty's health can change quickly, and especially if your pet is older. I frequently see senior cats with normal kidney enzymes in January who have elevated kidney enzymes six months later. The earlier I detect a problem, the more successful I am at slowing, stalling or reversing a disease process.

If your cat has a health problem brewing, the earlier it is found and treated, the better the chance for a full recovery. Because I take a proactive approach to your pet's well being, I'm able to address a developing issue before it turns into full-blown disease. But I can't do that unless I see your kitty regularly.

Unfortunately, many cats these days are overweight or obese. I have found getting a too-heavy cat back in shape is more successful when the owner and I work together toward a weight loss goal. And since good nutrition is the foundation of good health, even for kitties at optimum weight I find it extremely beneficial to regularly review diets and nutritional supplements and make adjustments as necessary.

Many indoor cats never get out of the house except for trips to the vet. More frequent trips can sometimes reduce the amount of stress your kitty feels at each visit.

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