National Take Your Cat to the Vet Day was Aug. 22, but it's always time to raise awareness about the importance of taking your cat for regular wellness exams.
That's because not enough cats go to the vet regularly. In 2016, only about 54% of cat-owning households visited the vet at least once, compared to about 83% of dog-owning households, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Skipping annual wellness exams can lead to bigger problems down the line, so it’s important to stay on top of your cat’s health.
Why Don’t Cats Visit the Vet as Often as They Should?
There are several reasons cat owners don’t take their cats to the vet. Cats have a reputation of being independent and largely self-sufficient. Domestic cats are notorious for disliking travel and other activities that take place outside the home. They’re also very good at masking pain, so owners might not know when there are medical issues present.
“They’ll hide disease until they just can’t anymore,” Natalie Marks, DVM, says. “There are subtle signs of disease and subtle signs of pain that cat owners often are not aware of and so we often only see these cats in advanced stages of disease when they come in to us.”
Why Is It Important To Regularly Visit the Vet?
While it might not seem like a cat needs medical attention, it is important that they receive regular physical exams and preventative care to avoid issues in the future. Delaying visits until something is visibly wrong can lead to more serious issues and more expensive treatment.
“If we can identify disease in the very early stages, often our prognosis is better, often the treatment [is] less involved, less intensive, less frequent, and of course, the survival rates and prognosis tend to be much better,” Marks says.
For example, obesity in cats is a major health concern in veterinary medicine, with anywhere from 11.5 to 63% of domestic cats in developed countries either obese or overweight. When cats regularly visit, vets can monitor their weight, identify unhealthy weight-gain, and provide owners with feeding and exercise guidance. This will allow owners to get the weight under control before it progresses to something worse, like diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease.
In addition to weight monitoring, a vet will check for signs of other diseases by examining the cat’s coat, feeling his abdomen for organ abnormalities, and checking his teeth. For senior cats, veterinarians often do blood and urine screening as well.
Vaccinations and other preventative care are another important element of regular vet visits. This includes prescribing flea, tick, and mosquito protection because parasites can be an issue even for indoor cats, especially those living with dogs or other animals.
“With concerns about access to care and rising veterinary costs, preventative care is almost always ... a way of saving money on your cat’s care throughout its life,” Marks says. “We can significantly decrease the risk of a lot of diseases that can certainly create a lot of financial investment, time investment, and emotional investment.”
How Often Should You Take Your Cat to the Vet?
Frequency of visits depends on the life stage and health condition of the cat. Kittens need to go more frequently to receive vaccine boosters and parasite control. Senior cats and cats with chronic conditions also often need more frequent monitoring from vets.
That being said, most adult cats can receive the care they need with an annual wellness exam.
How Can I Prepare My Cat for an Exam?
Going to the vet can be a stressful experience for cats, especially indoor cats who rarely leave home. It is important to make the experience as stress-free as possible.
“If a cat has a scary experience, a fearful experience either around the cat carrier or in the car or going to the veterinary hospital, unfortunately that will be imprinted in their amygdala, that little part of the brain that keeps all of our memories, and it will be triggered the next time that experience happens again,” Marks says.
A stress-free experience begins with carrier training. Marks advises new cat owners to start carrier training as soon as possible by leaving the open cat carrier in cats' homes and letting them explore it on their own terms. You can help the cat form positive experiences with the carrier by feeding them inside of it and filling it with comfortable bedding.
The day of a vet visit, having the carrier open and accessible long before it is time to leave gives the cat time to acclimate. When transporting the cat in the carrier, holding it from the bottom, rather than by the handle, can help ease motion sickness.
In the car, placing the carrier on the floor can reduce nausea as well. Pheromone sprays can help ease anxiety during the drive, as well as playing soft music. Marks recommends classical or reggae.
Once you get to the vet, many practices' procedures help cats feel comfortable, such as limiting contact with other animals and completing check-in and check-out over the phone from the car.
Vets may prescribe medication for cats with anxiety to make the experience less stressful.
Some people may avoid going to the vet because of financial reasons. Marks recommends looking into affordable vet care offered by your local shelter or animal rescue, many of which are affiliated with a clinic.
Pet health insurance and wellness plans can be another source of financial aid to help cover the costs of routine and emergency visits.
In the end, preventative care is almost always cheaper than reactive care.