Rebranding the Cat

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2020 wasn’t the best year for us mere humans, but for cats their time has come. Finally, the species that I somewhat famously dubbed “the Rodney Dangerfield of pets” (because they get no respect) is changing course in a big way.

And it’s millennials who are leading that charge. Adoption and foster numbers are up. Old myths about cats are being busted. They’re in the process of what a marketing person might describe as a “rebranding.”

It’s a Dog’s World

In 2008, I was invited to dinner by Dan Kramer, then a product manager for Pfizer Animal Health (now Zoetis), and publicist Lea-Ann Germinder. Dan noted that the new American Veterinary Medical Association Sourcebook and other data he discovered indicated that cats were under-medicalized, seeing veterinarians far less often compared with dogs, and cat owners were less willing to fork over as much money for care compared to dog owners. Cats were more likely given up to shelters and, if lost, less likely to be found compared to dogs. The percent of cats microchipped was minis­cule. In fact, if a cat got out, some people didn’t bother searching. After all, the prevailing notion among too many was, “It’s just a cat.” We were pretty much a dog society.

In truth, for several decades, cats have been enjoying the title as man’s best friend if you just go by the numbers of the most populous pet. Dan wasn’t aware that there were then (and it’s still the case today) more pet cats than dogs in the United States. Yet, despite being most pop­ular, cats had an image issue. Cats were often disrespected, misunderstood and generally didn’t seem to share the same intense bond we have with dogs.

Dan asked me what I would do about the problem. I said, “We need everyone to get on the same page to elevate the status of cats. This includes academia, feline specialty veteri­narians, general practice veterinarians, national animal welfare organizations, animal shelter professionals, nonprofit funders of cat health studies (Winn Feline Foundation, Morris Animal Foundation), veterinary behaviorists (because cat behaviors were so misunderstood), as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Feline Practitioners and American Animal Hospital Association. Alone, none of these groups can achieve what we might do together.”

Making a Change

About a week later, Dan phoned me and said, “I’m putting my money where your mouth is.” And so he did. A who’s who of the cat world attended a summit in California — and as an outcome of that meeting was born the nonprofit CATalyst Council (catalystcouncil.org).

Indeed, that group was a catalyst for change. Meanwhile, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) was rolling out Cat Friendly veterinary practices. So many veterinarians were taught primarily about dogs in vet school; cats were marginalized. AAFP said “No more.” The Cat Friendly Practice program helped to train veterinary teams to focus on cat care. And by now, feline specialty veterinarians weren’t any longer a novelty. Today, there are over 1,200 Cat Friendly Practices; 98% of practices are satisfied with the program, with 90% indicating cat care has improved. And 78% have received positive feedback from cat parents. (2019 Survey Results Cat Friendly Practice at catvets.com)

In 2016, Fear Free was launched (fearfreepets.com), an initiative to address emotional health of pets in homes and at veterinary clinics. While many species benefit from this transformative program, an argument can be made that cats have gained the most by the program minimizing the real trauma of cats seeing a veterinarian. Individual veterinarians and technicians can be certified as Fear Free, and so are entire practices. And when that happens, 91% of those practices believe their image is more positive, and 98% have noted a benefit to patient care.

Millennials that Care

Both Cat Friendly Practices and Fear Free focus on emotional well-being, and it turns out millennials do as well. Millennials (the generation born between 1981 and 1996) care about the emotional health of cats more than any generation prior.

According to a 2016 study from Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI; habri.org):

  • 77% of millennials have a more favorable view of their veterinarian if they discuss the health benefits of the human-animal bond.
  • 74% of millennials are more likely to visit their veterinarian if they discuss the health benefits of the human-animal bond.
  • 25% of millennials talk to their veterinarians about the health benefits of pet ownership.

It’s true, millennials love their cats. Want proof? They love their cats even more than their electronic devices. And they use those very devices to post images and videos of cats. As a result, cats rule the worldwide web.

On Instagram, some very cool cats have up to millions of followers. The Instagram cats, some-times referred to as “influencers,” may make personal appearances and some even sell swag. Most of these cool cats can thank millennial pet parents for launching their online careers and millennial fans for all those follows that secure their star status.

Nothing says millennials and cats like cat cafes. According to Meowaround.com, there are nearly 120 cat cafes, with most major cities having more than one. Back in 2008, there were zero in the United States.

Most cats at U.S. cafes are available for adoption. Speaking of which, even before adoptions soared as a result of the pandemic, cat adoptions have been increasing, and the corresponding number of cats in shelters declining. According to the ASPCA, approximately 3.2 million shelter animals are adopted each year, and it’s an even split — 1.6 million dogs and 1.6 million cats.

Better Care for Cats

Millennial interest in cats goes beyond fanciful cat yoga and cat movie events presented at cat cafes. They’re serious about redirecting myths, leading the charge against declaw. Many agree that following the 2019 New York’s state-wide ban on declaw that other states would have already followed if it wasn’t for the legislative distraction of the pandemic.

In an effort to better understand cat behavior, books like Decoding Your Cat, authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, are selling well, not only because millennials seek the cat truth but also that the authors are trusted sources.

Allowing cats to be cats is a craze that millennials first embraced, so the number of available food puzzles and games for cats for purchase at pet stores and online is exponentially greater than only a few years ago.

With more cats indoors than ever (about 75%), enriching environments is now a focus; TV personality Jackson Galaxy has even given it a name — catification. Even indoor cats increasingly have their own safe outdoor environments called catios.

Back when I trained a cat to play the piano, people joked “Why would you?” Now cat parents routinely train cats to walk on a leash and harness, or take cats for rides in strollers. Today, cat parents want to socialize kittens and even train them. YouTube is filled with videos of cats playing musical instruments and showing off stupid pet tricks. Except it’s not so stupid, of course, or any more stupid than dogs doing tricks. The days of cats being thought of as boring, aloof and lazy Garfield types has ended.

Despite all of this, cats refuse to lay all their cards on the table — as some feline mystery and mystique remain.

2 thoughts on “Rebranding the Cat”

  1. It breaks my heart when I read and hear of the horror stories surrounding cats. They are truly loving and sensitive creatures and extremely intelligent. I get a little annoyed when I walk though my neighborhood and see pet cats outside strolling across yards. These are not strays or feral cats as I know the homes in which they live. They are in a very vulnerable situation being left outdoors. They will always hunt and kill. It can’t be trained or bred out of them. Pet cats are just as much a hunter as a feral. What I think should be done, is, there should be the same laws for cats as for dogs. Cats should never be allowed to run at large and be licensed and have proper vet care. Just like dogs. I can’t even imagine dogs running in a pack in a suburban neighborhood. First of all, the owners would be put on notice. Cats need the same care and respect. Also, it would keep the cats safe and a lot of these issues would be solved. I know some people think cats ‘need’ to be outside but that’s why leash/ harness training is a must and if it fits in the budget, a catio is purrrfect.

  2. Interesting article. I’m glad many cats are receiving better care. While the perception of cats may have changed in some ways, outside cats still are thought of as ruthless killers.
    Cats are hard wired to hunt because they are obligate carnivores, i.e. they must eat meat.
    Unfortunately there’s a strong drive to blame cats for an ongoing loss of songbirds and other small animals. Inflated numbers are quoted from unreliable sources, and cruel and harsh measures are taken against cats. See the recent shootings of cats in a managed (fed and TNR’d) colony in California. The local officials thought they were “protecting” animals
    by shooting the cats. There’s still a long way to go before all cats are properly respected and cared for.

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