Many animal lovers choose to foster, adopt or otherwise bring cats into their homes. Not all of those cats, however, make it to the veterinarian for an annual checkup.
“In 2021, 81.8% of the dog population visited a vet, versus only 39.8% of cats,” Dr. Casey Locklear, a veterinarian and senior medical lead at Zoetis, told HuffPost. “The journey to the veterinarian looks a little different for every pet owner, however, there are some fundamental differences that can drive this disparity.”
The phenomenon is complex but not hopeless. HuffPost spoke to Locklear and Dr. Mondrian Contreras, veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance, about the reasons cats don’t make it to the vet as regularly as dogs do, why this is an issue and how to ensure more felines get the medical care they need.
Cats tend to hide their pain.
“Since cats are prey animals, they are more likely to hide their pain than dogs,” Locklear explained. “This means it can be difficult to detect subtle shifts in your beloved furball’s behavior.”
This feline instinct to hide pain or distress makes it difficult to know whether your cat is experiencing a medical issue, so an annual vet visit is even more essential.
“Partner with your veterinarian for regular checkups to catch pain and illness early, allowing for needed care so your pet can continue to live their best life,” Locklear said.
Owners may have a false perception of a cat’s health needs.
Many pet lovers opt to bring a cat into their home rather than a dog because they believe cat ownership will be easier. While this can generally be true, the reality varies from animal to animal. Even if your cat is low-maintenance, that doesn’t mean it will never need additional care.
“The biggest reason for the disparity between cat and dog vet visits is due to the perception of cats by their owners,” Contreras said. “Most cat owners see these pets as low maintenance, and if they don’t see anything glaringly abnormal, they feel they are healthy. These owners obviously love animals, but if they are extremely busy, then taking them for yearly checkups is just hard to fit in the busy schedule, especially if nothing seems wrong.”
There can be transportation challenges.
“While dogs oftentimes feel eager and excited to go on a fun new adventure, cat owners feel trepidation about transporting their cat to the vet, as it can be challenging to get them in a car,” Locklear noted.
If your cat is used to simply hanging around inside the house, a change in environment can be daunting. Owners may struggle to calm their cats on the way to the veterinarian and in the office.
“Pick the appropriate carrier for your cat and veterinary team to work with ― bonus points if the lid is removable,” Locklear advised. “Introduce this carrier to your cat ahead of time and often to acclimate them better.”
But missing annual veterinary visits can lead to bigger issues.
“Lack of veterinary care in cats can be problematic for many reasons, but simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Locklear said. “By not seeking annual wellness visits, there can be substantial missed opportunity to detect and intervene in disorders like chronic kidney disease, parasitism and osteoarthritis early. Early intervention can help keep your wonderful feline feeling its best.”
Contreras echoed Locklear, noting that cats suffer from many of the same preventable or treatable medical issues that dogs do, like dental disease, allergies, obesity, endocrine disease, etc.
“These can be treated successfully if able to address these conditions early before they become a bigger problem,” he explained. “For example, resorptive lesions can affect up to 50% or more of all cats, but can be easily treated, which will help prevent severe chronic pain.”
“Taking care of a cat entails more than just feeding and cleaning the litter box.”
– Dr. Mondrian Contreras, veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance
Detecting even minor changes in your cat’s weight or vitals compared to the previous year can also help you recognize a potential medical issue.
“I often hear sentiments of ‘Well, we took our pet for its annual appointment, but they didn’t find anything,’” Locklear said. “It’s essential to realize when you take your pet to the vet ― that is a big win for your pet, and in this case, no news is good news! I want to encourage cat owners to be a wellness advocate for their cat and feel good about the opportunity for care that you just provided your lovable feline.”
She recommended taking the time to discuss any needed vaccinations and parasite prevention techniques with the veterinarian.
“An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure,” Locklear emphasized.
Still, progress is possible.
Although the statistics indicate that cats are not getting annual veterinary care as consistently as dogs are, it’s not impossible to rectify this disparity.
“The first step to changing feline undermedicalization is awareness,” Locklear said. “Cat parents like myself should embrace the need for regular veterinary visits, understanding we have come a long way even in the past decade in making trips to the veterinarian with your cat an easy, rewarding and perhaps enjoyable experience.”
She touted the advancements in feline veterinary medicine and emphasized that many veterinary clinics “have made significant strides to create cat-friendly environments and visits.”
Contreras called for greater education about cat ownership and what their everyday care should entail.
“It starts with people adopting pets and informing their families that cats are able to live long lives if taken care of properly,” he said. “Taking care of a cat entails more than just feeding and cleaning the litter box.”
He encouraged owners to brush their cats’ teeth, provide proper nutrition, create an enriching environment, offer opportunities for exercise and mental stimulation, and take their pets to the vet for yearly health visits.
Understanding how important it is to have your cat evaluated by a vet “will in turn provide better short and long term care for them and achieve the ultimate goal of optimal quality of life for cats,” Contreras said.