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October 15, 2021

Cats and the power of the human-animal bond

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Felis catus is at long last getting the respect it deserves, says Steve Dale, certified animal behavior consultant.

A growing body of research into feline health and behavior increasingly challenges the stereotypical image of the aloof, antisocial cat. The result is that, now more than ever, cat owners have available to them an array of feline-specific products and veterinary services that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

“Things are changing for cats in a very good way,” said Dale in a session titled “Cats Really Are Man’s (and Woman’s) Best Friends: But Is the Bond as Real as It Is With Dogs?” He was one of several presenters featured as part of the Explorations of the Human-Animal Bond sessions at AVMA Virtual Convention 2021.

Cat looking out of a backpack carrier next to a traveling bag.
The stereotypical image of the antisocial cat is in decline thanks to a growing body of research into feline health and behavior as well as millennials who think of their pets as children.

According to Dale, millennials, the generation typically defined as being born between 1981 and 1996, are largely behind this shift. “Millennials—and I can’t say this enough—care about the emotional well-being of their pets more than any other group that came before them,” he said.

Data show veterinary visits by cat-owning millennials are on the rise, as are their purchases of flea and tick products, dental care, vaccinations, and heartworm preventives.

Dale cited a survey showing 55% of cat-owning millennials consider their felines not only as family members but also as children. Approximately 74% of millennials said they are more likely to visit their veterinarian if the veterinarian discusses the health benefits of the human-animal bond.

In a separate convention session, Steven Feldman, president of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, said bond-focused practices will distinguish themselves within the competitive market for veterinary services.

“Millennials and younger pet owners, they really want to have these meaningful relationships and conversations with you, so if you acknowledge the science (of the human-animal bond) in the exam room, you’re going to create a preference in the marketplace for that brand of veterinary medicine,” Feldman explained.

As ambassadors for the human-animal bond, veterinarians should be familiar with the science showing the health benefits of pet ownership, such as reducing the harms of social isolation. “Everyone has feelings about the bond,” Feldman said, “but make sure that your discussions are grounded in the scientific research.”

Dale noted in his presentation that although Americans own more cats than dogs, cats are far less likely than dogs to receive routine veterinary checkups. Reasons include sticker shock over the cost of veterinary services and the belief that cats are self-sufficient and don’t need veterinary care.

Then there is the ordeal of bringing a cat to the clinic. “Lots of people say they don’t love going to the veterinarian,” Dale said, “but people who have cats, more than a third say they (veterinary visits) are really stressful, and about 60% say my pet hates—hate, that’s a pretty strong word—hates going to the veterinarian.”

In addition, more cats are surrendered each year to animal shelters than dogs, Dale continued, with the most common reasons cited for relinquishment being behavioral problems, such as house soiling, and allergies to cat dander.

Clients may be embarrassed to tell the veterinarian that their cat is urinating outside the litter box or exhibiting some other negative behavior. They might not know the veterinarian can help. Dale had a message for veterinarians: “On day one, when a client comes to you with a kitten or adopted cat, you say that, ‘If there’s ever a behavior problem, I can help you. And if I can’t help you myself, I can offer a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.’”

To combat the serious problem of human allergies to cats, Dale noted the release in early 2020 of Purina Pro Plan LiveClear, a cat food formulated to reduce the major cat allergen called Fel d 1 in cat hair and dander by nearly half.

The result of all of these factors is what Dale described as a rebranding of cats. “It’s happened, and it’s happening,” he said, “and that is a very good thing.”