Felis catus is finally getting the respect it deserves, says Steve Dale, certified animal behavior consultant.
A growing body of research into cat health and behavior is increasingly challenging the stereotypical image of the distant, antisocial cat. The result is that more than ever, cat owners now have access to a range of cat-specific products and veterinary services that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.
“Things are changing in very good ways for cats,” Dale said in a session titled “Cats really are man (and woman) best friends: but is the bond as real as it is with dogs?” He was one of several moderators for the Explorations of the Human-Animal Bond sessions at the AVMA Virtual Convention 2021.
The stereotypical image of the antisocial cat is declining thanks to a growing body of research into cat health and behavior, as well as millennials viewing their pets as children.
According to Dale, millennials, the generation typically born between 1981 and 1996, are largely responsible for this change. “Millennials – and I can’t say this enough – care more about the emotional well-being of their pets than any other group that came before them,” he said.
Data shows vet visits by cat-owning millennials are increasing, as is the purchase of flea and tick products, dental care, vaccinations, and heartworm prevention.
Dale cited a survey that found that 55% of cat-owning millennials consider their cats not just family members, but children as well. About 74% of Millennials said they were more likely to see their vet when the vet talks about the health benefits of human-animal bonding.
In a separate conference session, Steven Feldman, president of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, said bond-focused practices will excel in the competitive veterinary services market.
“Millennials and younger pet owners really want to have these meaningful relationships and conversations with you. So if you embrace the science (the human-animal bond) in the exam room, you will create a preference in the market for this brand of veterinary medicine, ”Feldman said.
As ambassadors of the human-animal relationship, veterinarians should be familiar with the science that shows the health benefits of keeping pets, such as reducing the harms of social isolation. “Everyone has feelings for the connection,” Feldman said, “but make sure your discussions are based on scientific research.”
Dale noted in his presentation that while Americans own more cats than dogs, cats are far less likely to receive routine veterinary exams than dogs. Reasons for this include the sticker shock about the cost of veterinary services and the belief that cats are self-sufficient and do not need veterinary care.
Then there is the ordeal of bringing a cat to the clinic. “A lot of people say they don’t like going to the vet,” said Dale, “but people who have cats over a third say they are really stressful (vet visits) and about 60% say my pet hates – hate, that’s a pretty strong word – hates going to the vet. “
In addition, more cats than dogs are given to shelters each year, Dale continued, with the most common reasons for donation being behavioral issues such as house pollution and allergies to cat dander.
Customers can be embarrassed to tell the vet that their cat is urinating outside the litter box or displaying other negative behavior. You may not know the vet can help. Dale had a message for veterinarians: “If a client comes to you on the first day with a kitten or adopted cat, say, ‘If there’s ever a behavior problem, I can help you. And if I can’t help you myself, I can offer you a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. ‘”
To tackle the serious problem of human allergies to cats, Dale noted the release in early 2020 of Purina Pro Plan LiveClear, a cat food formulated to cut the major cat allergen called Fel d 1 in cat hair and dander by almost half to reduce.
The result of all of these factors is what Dale described as cat rebranding. “It happened and it happened,” he said, “and that’s a very good thing.”