Feline decline

Feline decline

CATalyst Summit identifies ways to improve public perception of cats, educate owners
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Mar 01, 2008

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — The creation of cat-care guidelines for veterinarians and pet owners is the first in a series of steps aimed to reverse the trend of decreasing feline veterinary visits at a time of increasing cat ownership.

Developed through the CATalyst Summit — the first meeting of its kind focused solely on cats — several points of action were identified by veterinary leaders in industry, public and private practice and academia.

Market data, most recently the American Veterinary Medical Association's U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook and Attitudes of Pet Owners, report sharply declining levels of veterinary care for cats.

"Cats are the most-owned household mammal in the United States. However, the number of visits to the veterinarian is down," says Jim Flanigan, AVMA marketing director and meeting presenter.

Some 40 summit attendees were challenged to improve feline health care, increase responsible pet ownership and generally enhance the stature of cats in society.

The two-day February meeting, organized by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and Pfizer Animal Health, identified key areas for improving owners' knowledge of feline medical needs, increasing veterinary visits and compliance and improving the public perception of cats.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and AAFP announced they will jointly seek board approval to begin the writing of DVM-focused feline-care guidelines to support consistency and agreement throughout the profession on the level of care felines should receive.

"We need authoritative guidelines, hopefully with data to support these guidelines. It has to be consistent, believable and veterinarians have to agree that they think these are the best things for cats," says Dr. John Albers, AAHA executive director.

There will be a second set of guidelines for owners, with recommendations for responsible medical care.

Steve Dale, syndicated pet columnist and radio show host; Amy Shojai, founder and past president of the Cat Writers Association; Hill's Pet Nutrition and the Winn Feline Foundation will partner to create the owner guidelines.

"Owners are willing to do what is best for their cats, but they need to be trained what to do for their cats," says Flanigan, relaying an idea developed through group brainstorming. Both guideline sets are slated for completion by early 2009.

Summit attendees also identified two other key actions they believe are needed:

  • Create a cat-friendly practice. The comfort of both the feline patient and its owner is essential to ensuring veterinary visits are scheduled and kept. This begins with enhancing the education of veterinarians and staff members on how to handle cats and making them well-versed in feline behaviors. Separate waiting rooms for dog and cat patients, exam rooms that are comforting to cats (such as those with soft surfaces) and providing toys or treats during an exam were among suggestions offered.

Helping owners avoid the negative aspects of a veterinary visit was suggested. A positive experience, attendees were told, starts with the carrier and the car ride and extends throughout the visit to a veterinary hospital. It can include offering special hours, separate entrances to keep dogs and cats segregated and customized exam rooms for feline patients.

"We need to look at the veterinary visit from the cat's perspective. What are the barriers to cat owners bringing them in?" Flanigan asks.

  • Brand the cat. "We need to make the cat cool. How do we increase the cool factor for cats?" asks Sue Brown, product manager for Destron Fearing.

Overcoming common myths, negative public perception because of the large stray and feral cat populations and simple misunderstandings of feline behavior were identified as target areas for improving the public stature and acceptance of cats.

"We need to certainly combat the message that cats are self-sufficient. They do need care," Brown says.

Key ideas to drive a more positive feline brand included the creation of a celebrity-endorsed public-service announcement and efforts to enhance the feel of "community" among cat owners.

Dog owners can visit dog parks, attend doggy day-care or sign up for obedience training, but cat owners do not have similar avenues for developing that sense of community, Albers says.

Organizers plan to establish a steering committee that will focus on the evaluation of these areas and determination of the next steps, including identification of the target audience for action, vehicles for delivering a message, funding and timelines.