Veterinary medicine’s a-changing: the feline side

My last thoughts were about the changes I’ve noted in dog ownership over my lifetime.  This post is about changes in cat ownership.  As a child, I never sat and read about purebred cats – my parents were dog lovers, so we didn’t have those books on our shelves.  As a pre-vet student, I became interested in the history of cat breeds and found myself fascinated by this world of purebred cats.

As a practicing veterinarian, the great majority of cats I care for are Domestic Short-haired or Domestic Long-haired cats (translation:  mutt cats.)  But as I learned in my pre-vet days, there is a world of cat shows and cat breeders, just as in the canine world.  It was just not “cool” to love cats in the circles in which I’ve run – the U.S. military, in general, and my family of origin, in particular.  Somehow, cats were considered like females:  unpredictable, unreliable and therefore, of less value.

During the shelter movement I wrote about in my last post, public education about cat ownership improved.  Keeping cats indoors became more popular.  In vet school, I learned that a cat kept entirely indoors has twice the life expectancy of a cat allowed to roam outdoors part of the time.

The American Bird Conservancy has a “Cats Indoors” campaign which I’ve loosely supported for ten years.  They are motivated to protect wildlife birds, but they provide a lot of great information about how to keep cats indoors without causing them stress.  I find it humorous that indoor cats become stressed – they live in a climate controlled environment with food and water readily available and don’t have to work for a living – but that is not natural for them, so it produces stress.

A cat naturally is a hunter.  Unlike the dog, they are true carnivores and predators; physiologically made to catch prey, eat it in its entirety, vomit up the feathers, bones and other potentially noxious components and then bury their waste.  In their natural environment, they have areas which are used as “litter boxes” and areas where they hunt, eat and relax – but the two are not in proximity.

In our homes, we provide them litter boxes and take advantage of their instinct to use them.  But unlike nature, we provide them TINY, covered spaces, in locations WE like, and we haven’t spent a lot of time learning what our cats’ preferences might actually be.  We also don’t like it when they vomit and we have to clean it up.  We keep multiple cats in one household, and they don’t usually like to share territory (especially litter boxes) with other cats.

And so…  the majority of problems with cats in veterinary practice involve either (1) cats not using the litter box like we want them to, or (2) cats vomiting in our homes.  We spend a LOT of time in veterinary medicine determining what exactly the causes are for these two problems.  Sometimes, they are medical.  Sometimes, they are normal – related to the consumption of their own hair when grooming.  Many times, we find they are “behavioral” – meaning they are caused by physiologic stress in our cats’ lives – stress that results in medical problems.

In other words, it is something WE are doing to them.   Can you imagine how happy owners are when we tell them that?  Cat owners really don’t want to hear that litter boxes should be large, uncovered, in an open area where the cat does not feel cornered while eliminating.  Or that they need to be cleaned every time the cat comes out.  Or that we should offer as many litter boxes as we have cats – plus one extra – as a minimum.

We didn’t intend for our lives to be consumed by the cats’ requirements!  And so we let our cats outdoors.  And they are happier.  And we may be breaking a city ordinance by doing so.  And our neighbors who watch birds HATE seeing our cats kill them at their bird feeders.  And they REALLY hate finding our cats’ “litter boxes” when gardening in their own landscaped areas.  Or watching their dogs find those spots…

The changes I’ve seen in cat ownership over my lifetime are all related to the advancements we’ve made in learning about cats and their needs.  Twenty years ago, I was told to keep them strictly indoors – to protect them, to honor city ordinances, to be considerate of my neighbors.  Now, veterinary literature is ripe with information suggesting that this is not a final answer.  Keeping them indoors may still be the best option, but we need to find better ways to do so – from the cat’s perspective.

Veterinarinas now spend time educating owners about environmental enrichment, taking lessons from zoo veterinarians who have dealt with wellness issues in confinement situations for years as they work to save endangered species.  We continue to learn and get better.  It’s what I love about veterinary medicine most:  learning about our fellow beings and how best to care for them as part of our commission in life – a spiritual commission given by a divine decree, I believe1.

When I ruminate on these thoughts, I always come back to this:  how is it that I can justify spending my life making things better for dogs and cats, when there are so many people in the world who need help?  What about the marginalized populations?  The elderly, the poor, those who differ in sexual orientation?  What should I be doing to help make things better in their lives?  Just because they are not bred for a specific purpose or form – aren’t they worth the rescue efforts we animal lovers put into our dog breeds and our cat owner education?

I don’t want to reach the end of my life and wish I’d spent it differently.  I am praying about these questions, trying to vote with these thoughts in mind, wanting to make a difference for “the least of these” before my time here is over2.  I hope you’ll join me in the effort!

1Genesis 1:26 and Gensis 9:3-5

2Matthew 25:34-40


About lmfdvm

Wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, writer, veterinarian, owner of Daniel Island Animal Hospital and child of God
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