Dogs Get This Special Care Five Times More Often Than Cats, but Why?

cat veterinary care

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cats in the U.S. don’t make it to the vet’s office nearly as often as their canine counterparts
  • There are many logical reasons to avoid veterinary visits, but the reality is that every cat should see a vet at least once a year
  • It’s important to find a veterinarian who doesn’t push a regular vaccine schedule or unnecessary pest control products, especially for indoor-only cats
  • It’s also important to find a kitty-friendly veterinary practice, or mobile cat practice, one that is either cats-only or follows feline-friendly handling guidelines
  • There are many things you can do as your cat’s primary advocate to improve his or her experience during veterinary visits

By Dr. Becker

If you share your life with a cat and a dog and are like the majority of pet parents, your canine pal sees the vet much more frequently than your cat does. In fact, according to one report, only 1 cat is seen by a veterinarian for every 5 dogs, even though there are several million more pet cats in the U.S. than dogs.1

Recently a pet food company took a survey of over 1,000 cat and dog owners to gauge their “beliefs and motivations,” with the following results:2

  • Compared to dog owners, six times as many cat owners didn’t take their cat to the vet in 2016
  • Two-thirds of cat owners simply believe cats have fewer health issues than dogs
  • The older a cat gets, the more likely the owner is to take her to the vet only when she is sick
  • Thirty-one percent of those with a senior cat only take her to the vet when she is sick, compared to 20 percent for adult cats, 18 percent for adolescents and 17 percent for kittens

The lack of routine feline vet visits worries veterinarians, especially feline practitioners, and cat advocacy groups like the CATalyst Council and others. Their concern is understandable, but so are the reasons kitties don’t make it to the vet’s office all that often, including:

  • Many cats live entirely indoors, so the risk of acquiring an infectious disease or injury is extremely low
  • Cats are notoriously stoic when they don’t feel well, because they’re wired that way, so it’s difficult even for expert cat guardians to tell when kitty is sick
  • Whereas many dogs are rambunctious and accident-prone, cats are naturally cautious and much less likely to court disaster
  • The vast majority of kitties absolutely despise car rides and vet clinics, so for many cat parents, the stress of vet visits seems to outweigh any benefit their pet receives
  • Many conventional veterinarians continue to heavily promote routine re-vaccinations and pest control chemicals (flea/tick, heartworm, etc.) even for indoor-only kitties whose exposure risk is minimal. Many cat guardians don’t agree with that approach and don’t appreciate being pressured

So what’s a conscientious cat parent to do?

My Recommendations for Cat Veterinary Visits

First and foremost, try to find a veterinarian whose practice philosophy you’re comfortable with. This may be a holistic or integrative veterinarian, or a conventional veterinarian who doesn’t aggressively promote vaccines, pest preventives or veterinary drugs at every visit.

Alternatively, you’ll need to advocate for your cat with your vet, and push back as necessary, politely but firmly. Keep in mind that you have the final say in what treatments and chemicals are administered to your pet.

Unfortunately, there are still many conventional practitioners who continue to over-vaccinate pets and recommend unnecessary pest control products during routine vet visits. Ideally, I recommend twice-yearly wellness visits for the following three reasons:

  1. Changes in your kitty’s health can happen in a short period of time, especially on the inside where you can’t see it, like sudden changes in kidney health
  2. Sick cats often show no signs of illness, but early detection allows for early intervention
  3. Semi-annual visits give you and your veterinarian the opportunity to closely monitor changes in your kitty’s behavior and attitude that require further investigation

At a minimum, younger healthy cats should see the vet once a year. Kitties over the age of 7 and those with chronic health conditions should be seen twice a year or more frequently if necessary.

I also recommend performing regular at-home physical exams on your cat to learn what’s normal and what’s not. This will help you stay on top of her health, and if you can only manage an annual visit to your veterinarian, at-home exams will help alert you to changes in her health in between checkups.

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Finding a Cat-Friendly Veterinary Clinic

Because veterinary visits are so stressful for cats, I recommend finding either a cats-only practice or one that actively takes steps to make their feline patients as comfortable and relaxed as possible.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) created a set of “Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines”3 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.

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. If your cat must be hospitalized, ask that she be housed away from dogs and loud environments.

Vets who treat cats and their staffs should know how to safely and effectively manage every type of kitty, from the most docile to the most “fractious” (aggressive).

Very aggressive cats may be best managed by breathing in sevoflurane gas (similar to the “laughing gas” used for highly stressed dental patients) to reduce anxiety.

Believe it or not, I have a client with an aggressive cat who brings him 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, the cat’s owner and the entire veterinary staff because kitty’s happy coming in, happy going under and happy going home!

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. 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, and not every cat parent can afford the extra expense, but this is my favorite recommendation for highly stressed cats when it makes sense.

5 More Tips for Better Vet Visits

1. Do some dry runs to the veterinary clinic to help get your cat accustomed to trips in the car and the clinic environment.

2. Get your cat used to being handled. Manipulate his paws, inspect his ears, clip his nails, open and inspect the inside of his mouth, move your hands over his legs and body and comb or brush his coat. If you do this regularly your cat will be less stressed when it’s the real thing at the vet’s office.

3. Get your cat accustomed to a carrier. If the only time she sees the thing is for vet visits, you can’t blame her for panicking. Put her in the carrier with a few treats for five 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 her own. Leave the carrier out for a week prior to the vet visit so she can inspect it. The morning of the appointment, find her well in advance of the time of your vet appointment and encourage her to enter the carrier on her own. Put an item with a familiar scent in the carrier, like her bedding or a favorite toy.

4. Consider administering a natural calming agent like Bach Rescue Remedy or homeopathic aconitum prior to the visit. Talk with a holistic vet about specific homeopathic, herbal or nutraceutical remedies that might help address your kitty’s stress level.

5. Keep your cool. Your kitty can sense your anxiety and stress, so remain calm. Stay positive and proceed at your cat’s pace. Tune in to how he’s responding, and use treats and other rewards to encourage desired behavior.