We have four cats in our family. They are all domestic short haired moggies, and their personalities are as complex and wonderful as the other members of our family! So I feel a deep personal investment in advocating for the well-being of cats. And there are trends identified in surveys here in Australia and also in America which lead me to worry about how we can continue to actively promote the health of our feline friends as veterinarians and veterinary hospitals.
So on average, cats are going to their veterinarian less, for a multitude of reasons. This is paradoxical as cat ownership in Australia is actually increasing! I know that we have a short drive from home to the Sugarloaf Animal Hospital, and it is distressing to listen to the cats vocalise in their carry cages – they are clearly very upset by the trip. For anyone who has a longer trip, and less relaxed cats than ours a trip to the veterinary hospital is almost torture! And that “meooowwww” they reserve for the trip to the veterinarian cuts right through to your bones! And a lovely cat that is wound up by the trip and then exposed to a barking dog in the waiting room, as well as the odours that remind him of previous unpleasant experiences, will enter the consult room very discomforted. And after that preparation it is often the case that they might not behave as friendly to their veterinarian as they would at home.
Clients who are considering taking their cat to a veterinary hospital weigh the NEED to attend the veterinary hospital against the stress of the trip, and increasingly the perception is that the benefit to the cat is not worth cost. They find it difficult to articulate the VALUE of veterinary attention, particularly for wellness and health monitoring. The prudent evolution from annual vaccination to triennial (or even less frequent) vaccination as more understanding of feline immunity has only worsened the problem as clients saw vaccination as an important reason to tolerate the negatives of a veterinary visit.
Cats are one of the most popular pets in Australia and in fact the world! Their dominance of the internet testifies to our fascination with our feline friends. There are 3.3 million pet cats in Australia, and 29% of Australian households have cats as pets! But one of the many paradoxes of cat and humans is that we absolutely love our feline companions, but do not, on the whole, understand them! There can be a strong argument that we anthropomorphise them more than any other species. What cats are trying to say when we “interpet” for them is very rarely what they are really trying to say!!
So the foundation of understanding cats is that they are, in their heart, territorial, solitary, predatory hunters with very complex behaviour and subtle forms of communication that may not be at all apparent to humans. We take them from their natural habitat, selectively breed them, invite them into our homes and their natural urges and behaviours are filtered through those changes. Territoriality is at the forefront of factors determining feline behaviour. Territoriality means that cats have a “home”, and familiarity with that home is a source of immense security to cats. That security is amplified dramatically by stability. For domestic cats happiness is a home with NO SURPRISES! Routine and absence of dramatic change is the second storey in the building of feline happiness.
The fact that the wild ancestors of domestic cats were solitary animals has had two important consequence: the first is that the most powerful and effective communication between cats is usually across a considerable distance and may even be across a considerable time! It is, by its nature, unseen by humans, and it is not always precise or accurate. It can not be modified once “sent” (so is sometimes thought of as feline email!) which leads to a particular uncertainty and can amplify anxiety associated with the message (just like email – this is anthropomorphising cat communication, not cats!). This type of communication leads, in domestic cats, to even spacing of cats of different social groups and helps avoid confrontation.
So the social structure of domestic cats is a relatively recent phenomenon, and can be best summarised as a loose group of females, with isolated males at the periphery of the territory. The development of this social structure is characterised by an absence of hierarchy, which in turn means in cats there is no sense of taking turns or co-operation, and no social submissive signals. Most communication between cats within a social group is tactile and often a little awkward, but if acceptable, close physical contact helps build affiliations. Between cats of different social groups olfactory communication is most important, and scent messages can be sent by rubbing oil glands of the chin or between the pads on suitable surfaces, scratching things to create an increased surface area to diffuse scents, or marking or spraying urine on vertical surfaces.
Visual communication serves is a medium range modality of communication in cats, and allows for more rapid changes in the information delivered, but almost always leads to an increase in distance between cats of different social groups. Aspect of body posture give first impression, which is subsequently fine tuned by subtle facial expression. Visual signals usually communicate an emotional state, and interestingly, are not always honest!!
Taking these subtleties of feline behaviour and communication on board has allowed us to be much more sensitive to the needs of cats in the Sugarloaf Animal Hospital:
- We have specific times that are devoted to cat appointments, to lessen the chances of acrimonious interactions with dogs.
- We have a completely separate cat ward in the hospital, which is away from the noise and movement of the main treatment area – it is a calmer place, where we go and sit to observe a cat’s recovery from illness.
- The hospital cages have cardboard boxes for the cats to hide in and feel protected.
- If there is a rug or toy from home (especially if it has been gently rubbed about the cat’s face and chin) we will place it in their hospital cage to help make them feel “at home”.
- We take our time – I always think we have been good at this as a Veterinary Hospital because it allows a good history to be taken, and at the same time the cat has a chance to become oriented in a strange space.
- With more time we can take a minimalist approach to restraint for medical procedures on cats – we are gentle, and take things in little steps, and use EMLA® (local anaesthetic cream for skin) if we are having injections, AND we have lots of treats where ever it is medically appropriate!
- We use HEAPS of Feliway® – the calming Feline Facial Pheromone. We have used it in the consultation rooms ever since it was released, but now we have a diffuser in the cat ward, and we use MUCH MUCH more in carry cages, in the consultation room, on my jacket, on the treatment table, in fact everywhere that cats might be!!!
The commitment of the entire staff to improving the veterinary experience for our feline patients has culminated in our veterinary hospital being awarded the highest level of accreditation as a “Cat Friendly Clinic” by the International Society of Feline Medicine, the veterinary division of International Cat Care.