Summer 2013 Magazine

Cat Friendly Veterinary Practices

By Nancy Marano

Taking a cat to a veterinary appointment ranks high on any discomfort scale for both cat and owner. Cats don't tolerate change well and like staying in familiar surroundings. The idea of getting in a carrier, riding in a car and then being in a noisy place that smells of dogs and medicine is unthinkable. Most cats given this choice prefer to stay home under the bed. And who can blame them.

Some of my cats have been good about getting in their carriers but still did not enjoy a routine vet visit. But Rocky would stick his legs straight out to the side and make them totally stiff. Getting him in the carrier was a challenge. By the time I got him to the vet he was exhausted and so was I.

For all these reasons and others cats see veterinarians far less often than dogs do which is detrimental to the cat's health. Here are a few statistics about cats that might surprise you and help you understand the magnitude of the problem.

  • There are 86 million owned domestic cats in the United States compared to about 76 million owned dogs. But almost twice as many of the cats as dogs have never seen a veterinarian.
  • 41% of cat owners only take their cat to the veterinarian for vaccinations.
  • 39% of cat owners say they would only take their cat to the veterinarian if the cat were sick.
  • 60% of cat owners report that their cat hates going to the veterinarian.
  • 38% of cat owners report they are stressed at the thought of taking their cat to the veterinarian.

When the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) looked at these statistics, they decided to put in place standards to make veterinary practices more cat friendly and to help the cat owner be involved in the veterinary visit. They wanted cat friendly practices to improve cats' health and quality of life

The AAFP goals were

  • To provide education to cat owners to increase their understanding of feline behavior, the value of veterinary care and the need for them to participate in their cat's individual healthcare plan
  • To minimize the stress veterinary visits place on clients and patients
  • To provide ways for a practice to address the unique needs of cats. These would include the office environment, equipment geared to felines, staff knowledge of cat needs, and feline friendly handling.

One way to find a cat friendly practice is to go to a "feline-only" veterinary office. Here you are guaranteed that everything will be done with the cat's comfort in mind. But many towns don't have a feline only clinic. Or you might be a multi-species family and you want to go to the same clinic for both your dogs and cats. Now you need to look for a regular veterinary practice that has taken the time and effort to meet the AAFP designation standards for a Cat Friendly Practice (CFP).

Recently I heard a talk given by Dawn Nolan, DVM, Medical Director at VCA Veterinary Care Animal Hospital, and sponsored by Fabulous Felines, a cat rescue group in Albuquerque. She discussed how she got her clinic certified as a CFP. Dr. Nolan has four cats of her own so she has always been cat focused. "All of us veterinarians are qualified to treat cats but I think it makes a difference how you feel about cats in your heart," she said.

Like most veterinary clinics VCA welcomes all animals for treatment. The first step she took toward CFP standards was separating the lobby assuring cats and dogs don't interact with one another. This reduces a huge cat stressor. The exam rooms are feline friendly. She does the exam and any necessary lab work right in the exam room which enables the owner to participate and keeps the cat calmer.

Next she made sure there was a feline ward in the hospital section of the clinic. Cats could now recover from surgery without worrying about other disturbances of the canine kind. She also made sure they retained the services of a dentist with expertise in the feline mouth to work on cats.

The remaining part of the conversion to a CFP was to make sure that the staff was on board with the changes. She found the staff eager to learn how to treat cats with more respect and appropriateness for their unique qualities. "I tell all the vet techs that slower is faster and less is more when it comes to cats," Dr. Nolan said.

Cats can't be rushed. The time people think they save by pulling a cat from the carrier or grabbing them to take them for lab work may work against them in the end. If you work with a cat on its time, you get much better results with less stress. AAFP guidelines stress training the veterinary staff to recognize a cat's body language and signals. Restraint should be minimal wherever possible and scruffing, the practice of suspending the cat by holding it by the back of the neck, should never be used.

"I thought it would be an uphill climb to get everyone to think like I do about cats. But the other people in the practice were eager to learn what to do to make things better for cats," Dr. Nolan said. "VCA has a specialty referral center as well for emergency surgery and diagnostic procedures. Now they are trying to change things to make their office more cat friendly. It is a whole practice culture. Everyone has to start thinking about cats."

This story illustrates how the idea of being cat friendly has filtered down to the entire staff. Dr. Nolan instituted the practice of having a cage in the cat lobby with a cat or two who were available for adoption. She was concerned when she started this that the staff wouldn't want the extra work of taking care of the lobby cats. It turned out to be the exact opposite. Everyone loved them.

Two cats had been in the lobby for a while and no one seemed interested in adopting them. "I thought they might have a better chance if they were moved to Lucky Paws, the Albuquerque Animal Welfare adoption center in the mall. They were really nice cats who needed more exposure," Dr. Nolan said. "A month went by and one by one our staff went over to Lucky Paws to see whether they had been adopted. One staffer called to tell me they still hadn't been adopted. They looked scared and were staying in the back of their cages. She asked whether they could be brought back to the clinic.

The next day I called the director of the city shelter and said, 'I know this is a weird request since I asked you to take our cats, but could we have them back?' Within 24 hours they were back at the clinic and it was as if they had never left. The staff was carrying them around and loving on them. They have become part of our family."

Every CFP has at least one Cat Advocate on staff chosen for their experience, understanding, sympathetic manner and willingness to answer any of your questions. The staff will help you to understand your cat's needs and help you care for your cat even better at home. A CFP believes that the best cat care happens when the cat owner and the CFP work together to care for your cat's behavioral and physical needs. The veterinarian/client relationship should be a true partnership for the cat's welfare.

If you want to locate a cat friendly veterinary practice in your area, the easiest way is to go to: You can put in your information and get a list of the CFP's near you.

Consider trying a cat friendly practice for your next visit to the vet. Your cat might thank you with extra purrs and you might be happier with the visit's outcome. As any cat lover knows, your cat deserves only the best.

Sources for further information on CFP and cats in general:
American Association of Feline Practitioners
Catalyst Council
International Cat Care (This is a British site that has very valuable information on cat health.)

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by two cats, Callie, a tortoiseshell, and Max, a black, panther wannabe. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America.

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