Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cats deserve care Keeping pet indoors doesn't guarantee good health

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It was the year of the cat. No, it's not a reference to Al Stewart's catchy '70s song but the motto for a joint national effort to improve cat awareness in 2011.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association reported that Care for Cats successfully launched its campaign, called The Year of the Cat. It was meant to "increase the value of owned, homeless and feral cats in Canada," reported the CVMA. Care for Cats is comprised of nationwide experts involved in the animal industry, such as veterinarians, humane societies, feral cat foundations and pet stores. And in 2011, the organization met its goal of registering 10,000 cats.

But homeless and feral cats aren't its only focus. Health care is also a main concern.

The organization's website has a few statistics that explain the importance of focusing on cat care. With 8.5 million cats in our country, 54 per cent aren't spayed or neutered. Fewer than half of Canadian felines were examined by a veterinarian in the last year and 41 per cent haven't been vaccinated in the last four years, or ever. The above statistics are worrisome. Care for Cats suggests that the overall health for Canadian cats is declining.

Dr. Liz O'Brien practises in Hamilton and is a representative for Care for Cats. She attributes this lack of preventative health care to the myth of the indoor cat. This myth suggests that owners pass on the yearly checkup because they assume their cats are exempt from the risks faced by outdoor cats. They believe an indoor cat is a healthy cat because they are not exposed to predators or speeding cars. Nor do they come into contact with infectious diseases from other felines. The thinking follows then that they don't need the same amount of care as outdoor pets.

There might be some truth to that argument but that doesn't mean cats should avoid the vet. Instead, they should be treated the same way we treat dogs, who are scheduled for a yearly checkup and regular vaccinations.

Research from a Manitoba veterinarian and noted dietary expert, Dr. Lea Stogdale, seems to support O'Brien's opinion. Stogdale has previously explained that as carnivores, the perfect feline diet is 10 mice a day. But many indoor cats survive on a dry food diet with very little exercise. Such a lifestyle can lead to diabetes in felines.

While I'm not attempting to tell cat-lovers to break a city bylaw and encourage their cats to scale fences to chase butterflies, the above example should prove that this one disease is made more prevalent by the indoor cat trend. Simple factors like age, weight and lack of exercise can increase a cat's chance of contracting other diseases. With regular health care, many diseases can either be prevented or at least treated early.

According to O'Brien, one reason why owners avoid the yearly checkup is the visit itself. "Fifty-eight per cent of people who know their cat's needs for professional care still do not bring the cat to the vet because of difficulty getting the cat there and once there, they may have a poor experience," she said.

I've experienced this first hand. Years ago, I left a vet visit looking as if I'd been in a bar fight. I was drenched in sweat, slightly dishevelled with scratches up and down my arms. I didn't mind. My cat, Palimino, was worried the Great Dane beside her was about to make a nice, light lunch-time snack of her. By the time she met the vet, she had left half of her fur in the waiting room and scared little dogs away with sounds better suited to a Hollywood horror film set.

But a lot has changed since the 1990s. Cat carriers are readily available, inexpensive, easy to use and quite attractive.

O'Brien notes that veterinarians now adopt the idea that "cats are not small dogs."

It's something I've noticed, too. Many veterinarians offer options. When I found a homeless cat in Dauphin, the veterinarian suggested an appointment for the end of the day so that no dogs would be present. And a feline-specific clinic exists in Winnipeg. For cats that don't like to be placed in a carrier or have a fear of the car, there's even a specialized mobile veterinarian who'll come to your home to offer pet care. To be clear, many clinics offer home care, they just don't advertise it.

One truth seems to be evident: owners should no longer excuse their cats from vet visits simply because the cat doesn't like it.

Hopefully, this campaign will encourage cat lovers to do more to improve feline health. If they do, every year will be the year of the cat.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2012 C5

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