By Ann Eliopulos | Pets
With all the dog-oriented venues and products abound, it would be a seemingly easy bet that they are the number one pet in American households — but they are not. That status belongs to that often misrepresented and misunderstood four-legged creature: the cat. While the dog is viewed as loving, loyal, fun, patient and giving, the cat is often portrayed as independent, not loyal, finicky, demanding and not very bright.
As someone who loves and lives with cats and dogs, I know that depiction of cats could not be further from the truth, but many people define themselves as either dog lovers or cat lovers, with little gray area in between, and dogs seem to rule. Unfortunately, that paradigm seems to be true with veterinary and health care as well.
An estimated 78 million dogs and 86 million cats live in American households. Of those animals, anywhere from half to less than half of cats, compared to dogs, have veterinary visits. Many cats never make it to the veterinarian other than for their first series of vaccines and then afterward, only when they become ill. Why does our number one kept pet not receive the care that dogs do?
The reasons appear to be many, with the primary reason being the stress (on the person as well as the pet) of putting the cat in the carrier and actually getting it to the vet. Other reasons are that the cat is indoor-only cat and doesn’t need vaccines; the cat appears healthy, and the cat hates the vet. Unlike dogs, older cats go to the vet far less often than young cats, indicating they are not getting the senior care that their canine counterparts are.
If I could singlehandedly change one thing in the world of cat ownership, the overall lack of veterinary care would be it, and not for reasons of financial gain. Cats are masters at hiding illness and disease. Often times when they become sick enough to require veterinary care, they have been sick for a while. Cats are sedentary creatures that spend a lot of time lying around. When they become ill, they tend to become more sedentary, though will still engage when awake.
If your cat normally sleeps 18 out of 24 hours, you may very well not notice that they have started sleeping 20 hours because of an illness. Since we do not walk our cats or engage them in play the way we do our dogs, their symptoms are often harder to identify until they become quite severe.
Older cats are prone to a few very serious diseases, all of which can be life threatening: diabetes, kidney failure, hyperthyroidism (over-production of thyroid), heart disease, and various cancers. Early detection and treatment of these conditions can make all the difference in quality and longevity of life.
I have had more than a few cat owners tell me that their older cats are perfectly healthy and don’t need to see a veterinarian because they are still eating and drinking well. However, at least two of the very concerning diseases of the older cat have increased appetite (eating well) as one of their symptoms – diabetes and hyperthyroidism. Kidney failure is hallmarked by increased drinking (drinking well) and increased urination, which is the opposite of how most people think kidney failure works. Even I can’t tell the difference in the causes of these symptoms without diagnostics, so am fairly sure that most pet owners cannot either.
As a profession, many veterinarians are now recognizing that cats require a completely different approach to their care, to the point where we are changing our environments and handling to accommodate America’s number one pet. They are not small dogs. They do not appreciate being cooed to, stroked and fussed over when they are off of their turf. They do appreciate being given freedom in the exam room, less handling and quick, efficient care. They can’t be distracted with food treats, but they can be calmed to some degree with pheromone (a natural cat hormone) diffusers in the room.
If you know that your cat gets stressed beyond belief by going to the vet, consider having one of the home care vets come to you. Or, if fear of the vet is preventing you from going, look for a certified cat-friendly practice, one which has committed to the welfare and comfort of our feline friends. Whatever it takes, do your best to have your cat examined yearly, whether they live indoors or especially if they spend time outside and are potentially exposed to other cats with contagious and deadly feline viruses.
Whether we love them or revile them, as a culture we give our cats too much credit for being able to fend for themselves. The myth of nine lives is just that. A yearly exam, proper nutrition, and early disease detection can allow our most popular pet to live one long, healthy life, with no need for those other mythical eight.
—Ann Eliopulos is a veterinarian at Bodhi Animal Hospital in North Park.