AAFP speaker advocates a new view of cats

Pet journalist asks for more consideration for people's feline friends
Published on February 01, 2006
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People should treat cats with the same respect as they treat dogs—especially to promote feline health.

That was the basic message from Steve Dale, a syndicated writer and radio host who reports about pets, when he spoke at the Barbara Stein Memorial Lecture during the American Association of Feline Practitioners' 2005 Fall Conference.Steve Dale and friends

Hill's Pet Nutrition sponsored the lecture, which honors the late Dr. Barbara Stein of Chicago as a founder of the AAFP. Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, Hill's director of professional affairs, described Dale in her introductory remarks as a pet journalist but also as a cat fancier.

"He is probing but fair, curious and broadly interested but very focused, and a friend of the veterinary profession but unafraid to challenge and pursue the hard issues that we face," Dr. Leininger said. "Yet as Steve is attentive to our profession and passionate about pets, he is an absolute fanatic about cats."

Dale started his talk by saying that the media and the public perceive cats differently than dogs, and not in a good way. Still, he said, statistics show Americans have more pet cats than pet dogs.

"So you would figure that cats would be man's best friend," Dale said. "There are more cats than any other pet out there." 

Feline health 

Yet cats visit the veterinarian less frequently than dogs, according to the AVMA's U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. Dale wants to reduce such disparities, decrease abandonment and abuse of cats, and increase medical research for feline health.

First, like the AAFP, he is promoting semiannual visits to the veterinarian for cats as a way to save lives through early detection of medical problems.

"One thing that you can point out to your clients is that it truly will save them money," Dale said.

Clients don't take cats to the veterinarian as often as dogs for a variety of reasons, he said. Some people think cats are too independent to see a veterinarian. Other people adopt shelter cats and don't go the veterinarian again afterward. Many clients grow weary of chasing the cat around to put it in a carrier before every visit to the clinic.

Dale advocated clients seeking out a "kitty kindergarten" at a veterinarian's office to desensitize cats to carriers and clinical surroundings.

He said another way to promote feline health is to advise clients to pay attention to the behavior of cats.

Clients don't realize that bad behavior can be a sign of illness—or a difficulty that veterinarians can help handle. Dale said most of the letters he receives concern behavior, and he thinks solving behavioral problems would reduce abuse and abandonment of cats.

Behavior is one of the subjects at many kitty kindergartens, too.

"People who have had cats their whole lives stay and ask questions—and ask more questions," he said.

Cat tales 

Dale said people can have very special relationships with cats, just as they can with dogs. His special relationship was with a Devon Rex by the name of Ricky.

"He was everything a cat could be," Dale said.

Dale told stories about going to the bank with Ricky on his shoulder, surprising a security guard who thought the cat was a toy, and Ricky playing piano on the radio, then knocking the show off the air by jumping on a console.

After Ricky died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Dale created a fund for HCM research at the Winn Feline Foundation. His next cat died of feline infectious peritonitis. Finally, he found his current cat—which he said is healthy but spoiled.

Dale said his philosophy is that cats should live indoors, but people should provide enrichment and socialization. He showed photos of a cat on a leash at the beach and of his parents walking a cat in a special stroller with a cage. He showed other photos of his cat interacting with the family's dogs and lizard.

Then Dale told stories about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He has taken up the cause of creating pet evacuation plans, and he thinks veterinarians need to be part of the process.

Dale closed with one last story about his cat Ricky. Ricky was once rehearsing "improvisational jazz" in front of Dale's condominium, and a little boy stopped to watch. The little boy, Billy, started to laugh. His mom started to cry.

Then Billy sat down to talk to the cat, and the mother told Dale that her little boy hadn't laughed and barely had talked since his dad had died.

"You all know that cats can do and cats can mean every bit as much as dogs can," Dale said.