Fall 2008 Newsletter

Cat Chat

Are Cats Second Class Pet Citizens?

By Nancy Marano

How can I even ask such a question when the numbers tell us cats are the most popular companion animal in the United States?

The 2007-2008 National Pet Ownership Survey compiled by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), says there are 88 million cats in American homes as compared to 75 million dogs. In fact, these same statistics show New Mexico is one of the top 10 states in the growth of cat ownership.

No doubt those of you who are reading this love cats and can't imagine your life without at least one cat purring in your lap. However, the study also reveals sad and startling facts about the current status of cats.

There may be more cats as pets but they rank far behind dogs in the areas that keep them healthy and happy. Cats see a veterinarian less often than dogs, cats are neglected more than dogs, cats are relinquished to animal shelters at a higher rate than dogs and fewer are redeemed from animal shelters if they are lost. Cats are adopted from shelters at lower rates than dogs meaning more cats are euthanized at shelters than dogs. A serious consequence of these trends is that less medical research is done on feline health issues than on canine health issues. This vicious cycle needs correcting.

Why aren't cats treated the same way as dogs? Possibly the answer lies in the way people perceive them.

Over the last decade we've seen great strides in the spaying and neutering of animals. Some shelters actually have a shortage of dogs for adoption and import them from other shelters. But this doesn't hold true for cats. Shelters are overrun with cats waiting for homes. One reason is that owners don't look for lost cats as diligently as dog owners do. According to Humane Society of the United States statistics, 30% of lost dogs are reclaimed from shelters while only 2%-5% of cats are.

The public's perception is that cats are aloof, independent, "not owned." While a person searches out a specific breed of dog, and often buys a dog from a breeder for an average cost of $331, many people believe cats "chose" them. Those who buy cats spend about one tenth as much for them as dog owners. Most get their cat free from friends or the cat just shows up at their door. This sense of being "chosen" may lead to a deep bond between owner and cat but it can also lead to a feeling that the cat is just visiting. Then the cat is not viewed as a member of the family, the way dogs are. If he's visiting, he doesn't need to receive any ID or see the veterinarian and, if he wanders off again, well, that's just what cats do, isn't it?

These attitudes mean cats see veterinarians at a lower rate than dogs do. Cat veterinary visits have decreased 11% since 2001. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 36% of cats did not see the veterinarian in 2006, compared to only 17% of dogs. Even in homes with dogs and cats, the dog often goes to the veterinarian but the cat might not. When a veterinarian doesn't see a cat, he can't diagnose illnesses or treat for pain or provide preventive care.

This translates into an even larger problem. Since veterinarians don't see cats as often, they don't consider them when planning research projects aimed at more effective medications, surgery techniques or methods of pain control. The Morris Animal Foundation and others groups who fund pet and wildlife health studies, award more grants for the study of canine health than they do for feline health because those are the applications they see. Research follows the money. Since less money is spent overall on cats' needs, felines are considered less worthy of research costs or efforts.

Dr. Jane Brunt, past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, looked at all this information and realized something needed to be done.

Dr. Brunt, along with leaders from the veterinary, shelter and pet product industries, organized the first CATalyst Summit this year. The purpose of the meeting was to focus on what could be done to improve health care for felines, increase responsible pet ownership, enhance the stature of cats and enrich their lives.

Participants realized cats need a PR makeover for the public to look at them in a new light. We all know advertising affects us or companies wouldn't spend millions of dollars advertising during the Olympics. In movies and cartoons cats often are portrayed as sneaky, fat, lazy, conniving or unpredictable while dogs are always loyal, heroic and trustworthy. Even phrases people use such as, "not enough room to swing a cat," portray cats in an inferior light.

Another conference held in Denver discussed how to improve the image and status of cats. It spawned a program called "Re-branding Felix." A local advertising agency developed a campaign to make the community more proactive toward cats. To do this, they focused on the feline's mysterious appeal. Centering on the use of archetypes, which describe images and ideas common to and recognizable by all cultures, they saw the cat's archetypes as the Jester, a representation of the cat's playfulness, the Explorer, expressing his daring nature and the Sage, implying mysterious feline wisdom. Then they used the tagline, "Be An Advocat," as a way of helping the community focus on the cat.

The public is about to learn more about cats through the work of the CATalyst group and projects like "Re-branding Felix." But we need to re-consider how we view cats in our own communities, how that viewpoint impacts their treatment and ways we can transmit our love and respect for cats to our neighbors. How can we advocate for cats and get local shelters to spotlight cats? Cats must be elevated to the first-class pet citizens they deserve to be. Nothing less is acceptable.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning author who is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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