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Animal Attraction: Study reveals half of America's 74 million cats are not receiving regular veterinary care

by Stacy Fox

Posted on July 22, 2013 at 10:39 AM

A study conducted by Bayer HealthCare, in collaboration with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), found that more than half of the nation's cats (52 percent) had not been taken to the veterinarian within the last year for needed checkups. 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.1

The study uncovered several reasons behind this finding, ranging from how we acquire our cats and our relationships with them, to their personalities and our perceptions of the healthcare 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 Association's Annual Convention in Chicago. This is the third phase of findings reported in a series of studies sponsored by Bayer HealthCare LLC Animal Health Division. The results were presented in partnership with the 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 from cat-only households, while 40 percent had both cats and dogs.  

"The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings 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, Bayer HealthCare LLC Animal Health Division, North America. "Since only half as many cats get annual check-ups as dogs, Bayer is working with the American Association of Feline Practitioners to get the word out that cats need regular veterinary care, too."

The cat found me, but didn't bring along an owner's manual
"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 Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, MS, Dipl ABVP, owner of Chico Hospital for Cats, Chico, Calif., and past president of AAFP.

According to the study, the more engaged an individual is in selecting a new pet – especially if acquired from a breeder, pet store or shelter – the more likely the pet will receive annual check-ups. For instance, dogs, which are often purchased or adopted for hundreds or thousands of dollars, frequently have written veterinary care instructions.

However, the study found that cat acquisition is usually informal. The majority of cats – 59 percent – 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 percent 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," said Dr. Colleran.

A cat is a pet, but a dog is a companion
"In the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings, 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," said Dr. Colleran. "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 dogs may have more value than cats and this can influence how they think and act on their cat's healthcare needs."

A cat's personality and habitat linked to provision of healthcare
The Feline Findings Study found the vast majority – 81 percent – of cat owners believed that cats are very self-sufficient and independent and, therefore, required little attention. Dogs, on the other hand, were viewed as much more dependent and needy.

But "low maintenance" doesn't mean "no maintenance," according to Cristiano von Simson, DVM, MBA, Director of Veterinary Services at Bayer HealthCare LLC Animal Health Division, North America. "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 percent of owners believe their cat was in excellent health, while 53 percent 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 healthcare picture. The study revealed 63 percent of cats in cat-only households live indoors exclusively, never going outside. In turn, many owners assume their indoor cats are safe from disease, not realizing many feline diseases – such as diabetes, heart conditions and thyroid deficiencies – are not infectious and can develop regardless of where the cat is living.

Feline resistance single biggest obstacle to veterinary visits
According to the Feline Findings Study, 58 percent of owners report that their cats hate going to the veterinary clinic and, for 38 percent of them, just thinking about it 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.

The Feline Five: five things cat owners can do to improve feline healthcare

"There are five easy steps owners can take right now to increase the likelihood their cats will be healthy," said Bayer's Dr. von Simson. "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 to where the cat rests with soft bedding, leave the door open and occasionally place treats in the carrier.

2.Familiarize your cat with your car.  
-- Prepare your cat for the car ride to the clinic by taking her on rides in the carrier as you run normal errands. 

3. Recognize the importance of regular check-ups.  
-- Since 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 – your cat needs veterinary check-ups at least annually.

4.Realize that cats keep secrets, so you must be a cat detective.  
-- 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. 
-- Signs include: 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

Bayer HealthCare LLC, Animal Health Division

1. International Society of Feline Medicine and American Association of Feline Practitioners, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, "AAFP-AAHA Feline Life Stage Guidelines," (2010) 12, 43-54, Accessed July 15, 2013.