Cats are becoming increasingly kept as companions around the world. There are 75 million pet-owning homes in Europe. In these homes are kept 72 million cats, 63 million dogs, 40 million caged birds, 22 million small mammals and 5 million ornamental fish (FEDIAF Facts and Figures 2014). Despite more cats than dogs being kept as companions, feline veterinary visits lag behind those for dogs in numbers/pet, total numbers and amount spent per animal. Most people bring their cats to the veterinary clinic in the first year after adoption. After the initial visit(s), most people only bring their cats in when they are ill, with less than half bringing them in for vaccines. This leads to two questions:
1. Why don’t cats visit the veterinary clinic as often as dogs?
2. What can we do to improve the experience for the cat, the client and the clinic team?
Clients may consciously or subconsciously be reluctant to bring their cats to the clinic because they:
1. Falsely believe that cats are low maintenance and that indoor cats do not need regular preventive health care.
2. Don’t recognize how subtle the signs of sickness are in this species.
3. Feel guilty, stressed or even fearful about travelling with their cat, seeing their cat upset in the veterinary clinic, worrying about their cat’s response when they return home and fear about their ability to perform prescribed treatments.
4. Don’t like paying for something they don’t really want to do.
In addition, many clinic team members are less comfortable handling cats and fear being hurt by a self- defensive patient. This often translates into escalation of defensive handling, use of sedatives and fewer recommended recall visits.
In order to change this negative picture, we have to recognize the essence of a cat. Cats are prone to self-defensive behaviours because they are not just predators (towards small birds and rodents) but are prey to any other animal. Because they have evolved to eat small frequent meals, they hunt alone and eat alone. As a consequence, they need to define and maintain a resource-based territory. Being self-dependent makes them very vulnerable: should they become injured, no one will nurse them or feed them. Elaborate and dramatic body language and vocalizations encourage potential threats (other cats, predators and people) to keep their distance…in order to prevent the cat from physical harm. Rather than being aggressive, our patients are being self-defensive. When a cat is showing fear- based behaviours, distract him/her, identify and reduce the (likely) perceived threat.
Cats need to feel in control of their situation in order to feel safe. If frightened, they will flee, freeze or fight. When handling them, allow them to feel that they have the chance to flee by not blocking them completely, by keeping as many paws on the ground as possible and giving them space. Assess the clinical facility to identify what smells, sights, sounds, textures and tastes are threatening to cats and make small chances to reduce these threats. Be aware of the patient’s (and client’s) experience and adapt accordingly. Allow the cat to acclimate to a safe and quiet consultation room. Perform diagnostic tests in this safe space rather than taking the cat “to the back”, a new, frightening environment.
Wellness programs are useful ways to educate and provide a culture of lifelong preventive healthcare. A first year of life program sets the stage for good preventive care, but prescheduling subsequent annual visits through adulthood and screening visits for senior life-stages provides appropriate ongoing care. All cats require vaccination and prophylactic parasite treatment whether they have access to the outdoors or not. Many clients have other animal companions at home that we are unaware of. Perform a pet inventory by asking them if they have any other pets; this allows us to provide preventive healthcare for those animals as well.
Educate regarding the subtle signs of sickness: (www.haveweseenyourcatlately.com/Health_and_Wellness.html)
1. Inappropriate elimination
2. Changes in interaction
3. Changes in activity
4. Changes in sleeping habits
5. Changes in eating and drinking (manner as well as amount and frequency)
6. Unexplained weight loss or gain
7. Changes in grooming as well as hairballs
8. Signs of stress/distress
9. Changes in vocalization
10. Bad breath
Travelling to the clinic does not have to be stressful.
Teach all clients to have a carrier that they feel comfortable keeping in the house where the cat can use it as a safe and favoured space. Transport the cat in the foot well of the car for optimal security, keep the carrier horizontal with minimal rocking/sliding, cover it with a towel and keep it off the floor of the clinic to avoid interactions with other animals. (www.cathealthy.ca)
The more relaxed the cat and clinic team are, the more relaxed the client will be.