Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
Cat visits to the veterinarian have taken a free fall, plummeting about 30 percent over the past decade, according to studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association and its U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. Though cats outnumber dogs in America, veterinarians see more dogs than cats. That picture isn’t right. And as a result, preventable diseases and illnesses have increased.
While numerous reasons explain the decline in feline veterinary visits, veterinarians themselves have taken responsibility and, most importantly, have done something about it. Based on an idea first launched in the U.K., the American Association of Feline Practitioners kicked off its Cat-Friendly Practice Program in 2012.
“We have to own the fact that veterinarians have been a part of the problem,” conceded Dr. Susan Little, AAFP president. “But there’s no excuse for that anymore. The AAFP has the cat-friendly practices now giving veterinarians all the tools to make their practices more cat friendly.”
Each veterinary practice must demonstrate certain things to certify as cat friendly.
“The goal is to make the experience less stressful for cats and their people,” said Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, a past AAFP president.
Certified practices may have a separate waiting room for cats or usher cats into the exam room quickly, so they’re not exposed to a room of barking dogs. Staff is taught to move slowly and speak quietly in the exam room. Additional tips for veterinarians include dousing themselves with or using the plug-in version of Feliway (an analog of a comforting pheromone) and learning cat-handling techniques.
While there are differences in vets, practice to practice, all cat-friendly practices have the following in common:
1. Training staff to “think cat”
Cats are not small dogs, and they should be treated using skills specific to cats.
2. Minimizing fear in cats
Aggressive handling, for example, only intensifies fear.
3. Paying attention to needs specific to cat owners
If people bringing cats to veterinarians are anxious — for whatever reason — the cat will probably pick up on that anxiety. Vets can help ease human anxiety.
“We rolled out the program without public fanfare because we wanted to enlist enough practices so people might … find a cat-friendly practice; now we’re about there,” Colleran said.
She predicted that by the end of 2015, more than 2,000 veterinary practices will have that distinction, with many more waiting to be approved.
AAFP has begun to study the most important question: Are practices designated as cat friendly truly friendlier to cats? And have cat owners and the cats themselves responded positively?
“Oh yes,” cheered Colleran, who some call the Queen of Cat Friendly, as she has been a passionate cheerleader of certification within the veterinary profession. “While we’re only now compiling data, I can tell you many cat-friendly practices report seeing more cats.”
Veterinarians can’t help pets they don’t see. The Cat-Friendly Practice Program — even for practices without the designation — has forced the veterinary profession to think differently about cats. Cats shouldn’t be an afterthought; they merit all the respect afforded to their canine cousins.
About the author: Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant. He is a national newspaper columnist (Tribune Content Agency); heard on WGN Radio, Chicago; host of the nationally syn- dicated Steve Dale’s Pet World and author of the e-book Good Cat, among others. He’s a founder of the CATalyst Council, and serves on the boards of the Winn Feline Foundation and Tree House Humane Society, Chicago. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.