Veterinarians are seeing significantly fewer cats than dogs.
What is particularly unsettling is that cat ownership has increased dramatically in recent years, with cats now ranked as the nation's No. 1 companion animal. There are about 88.3 million owned cats in the country and 74.8 million owned dogs, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey.
So shouldn't cat patients be outranking dog patients?
The same survey also found that American dog owners spend an average of $219 on veterinary visits annually, while cat owners spend only $175.Veterinarians are increasingly aware of this trend, says Jane Brunt, DVM, with the Cat Hospital at Towson in Maryland and executive director of the CATalyst Council Inc.
While Banfield's veterinary-practice reports show a decline in cat cases, the most significant figures come from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in its 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook.
"This is where, compared to prior years, we learned that cat visits had declined 11 percent from 2001 to 2006, even though the number of owned cats increased," Brunt says.
She and other veterinarians believe the discrepancy stems from simple convenience. "Cats are less accustomed to transport and travel than dogs," Brunt notes. Therefore typically it is more of a hassle to bring a cat to a veterinarian than to bring a dog.
People are accustomed to taking their dogs with them on excursions, says Roberta Lillich, DVM, at Abilene Animal Hospital in Kansas and president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
"They bring them in their cars -- so it's not as stressful an event to take the dog (to a veterinarian) as it is to take the cat in," says Lillich. "So from that perspective, it's easier for the client, when they get the reminder postcard, just to throw their dog in the car and run to the vet."
Because veterinary visits often are more difficult and traumatic for cats, owners may be less inclined to make the effort unless their cat is visibly suffering or sick -- increasing the likelihood of skipped routine check-ups, Lillich adds.
Another factor may be the perception that cats are independent, self-reliant creatures. But, ironically, it is precisely that self-reliant nature that warrants more caution on the part of cat owners, Lillich says.
"Cats ... are extremely good at hiding illness. They don't show major outward signs even when something is wrong. So for a lot of people the perception is, 'Why go through all the trouble and spend all that money when they seem fine?'" Lillich says.
But any change in a cat's activity or habits warrants attention, Brunt says. For example, in its early stages, feline chronic renal failure begins with nothing more than a subtle increase in water consumption, or a subtle increase in urination frequency.
"Both of those behaviors should be a red light to anyone," Lillich says. She also notes that diabetes -- a common but serious condition in cats -- begins with symptoms like small weight loss and changes in water consumption.
In today's recession, keeping a cat healthy actually is more cost-effective than treating a problem once it is under way, Brunt says.
To ease financial strain, she suggests clients invest in pet health insurance. Another factor that may impact cat care is the homeopathic movement. After it was discovered about 15 years ago that some cats developed injection-site sarcomas after vaccinations, many owners and some veterinarians concluded that routine vaccinations were not worth the risk of cancer.
However, while the final decision to vaccinate is up to owners, Lillich cautions against letting fear of vaccinations stand in the way of basic veterinary care. Other owners may assume that if their cat stays indoors, it is not at risk of contracting the diseases vaccinations are meant to prevent.
But even urban, indoor cats risk contracting a respiratory virus, Lillich says, warning that unvaccinated cats, "can and will be exposed to the viruses these vaccines prevent." Some respiratory viruses can cause serious health problems and even death, while sarcomas occur in less than a tenth of 1 percent in vaccinated cats, so owners must weigh the risk-benefit ratio, she says.
Cat owners should discuss their concerns with their veterinarians to make well-informed choices, Brunt advises.
Veterinarians generally recommend that cats be brought in for routine care at least once a year, but aging cats may need more frequent visits, Lillich says. Starting when they are 7 years old, she recommends annual laboratory screenings for hyperthyroidism, renal disease and diabetes.
Veterinarians agree that for now, the best antidote for the cat-care problem is to impress upon owners the importance of regular health-care visits. Brunt says the CATalyst Council is seeking more data to determine why owners seem less inclined to bring cats in for check-ups.
"Educational efforts already are under way to show owners and veterinarians how to do things in a feline-friendly manner. For example, if all kittens and cats can be conditioned to recognize the carrier as a positive activity, then the transportation challenges are minimized," Brunt says.
Lillich also is proactive in her efforts to educate clients on preventive care for cats.
"Even if they are in because of their dog, I ask them if they have cats at home. If they bring in a sick cat, I use that as an opportunity to educate them," she says.