A study conducted by Bayer HealthCare, in collaboration with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), found that 52% of the nation's cats had not been taken to a veterinarian for needed checkups within the last year.
Because the first two years of a cat's life equal 24 years of a human's life — with each successive year equivalent to four human years — annual examinations are essential to keeping cats healthy and preventing potentially serious disease problems.
The study uncovered several reasons behind this finding, ranging from how people acquire cats and our relationships with them to their personalities and our perceptions of the health care they need.
These and other pet owner insights from the "Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings" were presented at the American Veterinary Medical Assn.'s annual convention in Chicago, Ill.
This is the third phase of findings reported in a series of studies sponsored by the Bayer HealthCare LLC Animal Health Division. The results were presented in partnership with AAFP and Brakke Consulting.
The study's findings are based on a nationally representative online survey of 1,938 cat owners as well as several focus groups conducted across the U.S. Sixty percent of survey respondents were in cat-only households, while 40% had both cats and dogs.
The study "confirms that we treat cats differently than dogs when it comes to caring for their health, in part because cats are so effective at masking signs of illness and injury," said Ian Spinks, president and general manager of Bayer's Animal Health Division North America. "Since only half as many cats get annual checkups as dogs, Bayer is working with AAFP to get the word out that cats need regular veterinary care, too."
"To understand why pet owners typically are more attentive to their dogs' health needs than their cats', it is important to take a few steps back to understand how we typically acquire our cats and how we relate to them versus dogs," according to AAFP past president Elizabeth Colleran, owner of Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, Cal.
The study found that the more engaged an individual is in selecting a new pet — especially if acquired from a breeder, pet store or shelter — the more likely it is that the pet will receive annual checkups. For instance, dogs, which are often purchased or adopted for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, frequently have written instructions for veterinary care.
However, the study found that cat acquisition is usually informal. The majority of cats — 59% — were acquired without prior intent, with many being lost or abandoned cats. "The cat found me" or "the cat showed up at my house" were common responses. In addition, 69% of cats were obtained at no cost, with little or no initial instruction on proper veterinary care.
"Unfortunately, cats do not come with a care label or tag, and in fact, many are acquired because they are perceived to be low-cost pets," Colleran said.
In the study, "owners of both dogs and cats expressed an emotional attachment to their cats, but clearly, there was a marked difference in their relationship with their cats as compared to their dogs," Colleran said. "Owners said they consider their dogs to be companions and dependent and their cats to be pets and independent. As a result, it appears they consciously or subconsciously perceive that dogs may have more value than cats, and this can influence how they think and act on their cat's health care needs."
While the cat study found that the vast majority — 81% — of cat owners believe that cats are very self-sufficient and independent, "low maintenance" doesn't mean "no maintenance," Cristiano von Simson, director of veterinary services at Bayer's Animal Health Division North America, said.
"Cats' independent nature makes them appear more standoffish than dogs, and they keep secrets by often hiding signs of illness," he said. "The study showed that 81% of owners believed their cat was in excellent health, while 53% said their cat had never been sick or injured. These perceptions help account for why cats visit the veterinarian less. Dog owners already consider visits to the veterinarian part of responsible pet ownership. It should be that way for cats, too."
A cat's habitat further complicates the feline health care picture. The study found that 63% of cats in cat-only households live indoors exclusively, never going outside. In turn, many owners assume that their indoor cats are safe from disease, not realizing that many feline diseases — such as diabetes, heart conditions and thyroid deficiencies — are not infectious and can develop regardless of where the cat is living.
According to the study, 58% of owners reported that their cats hate going to the veterinary clinic and 38% said just thinking about going was stressful. The study found that most cats fear being placed into a cat carrier and transported by car, so many owners simply opt not to put up with the hassle.
"There are five easy steps owners can take right now to increase the likelihood that their cats will be healthy," von Simson said. "We call them the 'Feline Five'":
1. Make the cat carrier a familiar, comfortable place. Reduce feline resistance to the cat carrier by placing it near where the cat rests. Use soft bedding, leave the door open and occasionally place treats in the carrier.
2. Familiarize the cat with riding in cars. Prepare cats for the car ride to the clinic by taking them on rides in the carrier while running normal errands.
3. Recognize the importance of regular checkups. Cats need veterinary checkups at least annually.
4. Realize that cats keep secrets, so owners must be "cat detectives." Health problems often go undetected for a long time because cats hide signs of illness, so be attentive.
5. Know the signs of illness and injury, including changes in interactions, activity, sleeping habits, food and water consumption, grooming and/or vocalization; unexplained weight loss or gain; signs of stress, and/or bad breath.
The first phase of the "Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study" focused on the decline in veterinary visits from the pet owners' perspective and identified six root causes.
The second phase aimed to identify any correlation between clinic revenue and pet visits, identify the use of successful practice tools and establish the degree to which veterinarians are utilizing services identified in phase one of the study.
This third phase aimed to improve the veterinary care of cats by determining why cat visits were declining and helping veterinarians reverse the trend.