Meet cats and their owners: They're not who you think they are

Liz Bales, VMD

Dr. Liz Bales is a 2000 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine who has a special interest in the unique behavioral and wellness needs of pets. She has practiced equine, small animal and feline-only medicine. Dr. Bales is a writer, speaker and featured expert with appearances on Fox and Friends, ABC News and Cheddar. She is the founder of Doc and Phoebe's Cat Co. and inventor of the Indoor Hunting Feeder for cats. Dr. Bales sits on the Dean's Alumni Council at the University of Pennsylvania, the AAFP Cat Friendly Practice Advisory Council and the Fear Free Advisory Board.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is not one single cat owner type. In fact, cat owners today are just as varied as cats themselves.

There's the utilitarian cat owner with outdoor spaces in which cats do a job in the natural ecosystem of life. There's the stereotypical hands-off cat owner who chose a "low-needs" cat because they believe they can provide minimal care and attention and still be rewarded with companionship. Then there's the third type—my preferred relationship and the majority of cat owners: the people who are doing the best they know how for their cats because they treasure them.

Gone are the days of the "crazy cat lady." In fact, I find that term offensive. It infers that to own and care about a cat, you must be a white woman with mental health challenges. When we ridicule, we lose the opportunity to engage and educate. This stereotype is not only offensive, but also it is alienating our best customers. We, as a collective of pet professionals, are more evolved than that and we can do better. I am leading the way to rebrand the cat parent community as all-inclusive, kind, inspiring and growing in every demographic—male, female, every race, every age and every income bracket. The time has come to celebrate the cool, smart, loving person trying to do the best they can for their cat. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that movement?

Born this way

It can be difficult to grasp just how innately different cats are from people and dogs. People hold specific expectations about how pets should react when we buy them something new, and we need that reaction to feel good. Dogs do a great job at meeting this human need. Cats don't.

Here's why.

Dogs and humans are collaborative pack animals. We count on each other for survival and find comfort in the care of our trusted companions. As such, when a trusted companion offers a gift—like when we give our dog a new toy or bed—the dog is not afraid of it. Dogs and humans are programmed to trust that gift as safe. We can embrace and enjoy it immediately. When our dog shows us they love the gift, we feel good and want to give more gifts in the future. We feel this joy when a child opens the perfect present or when a Labrador retriever digs into a delicious bone.

Cats are different. Cats are solitary survivors. They hunt and eat alone. They can count only on themselves for survival. If they get into trouble, instinctively they know that no one is coming to help them. It is their job alone to make sure they are safe and, therefore, they take only the risks they know they can handle. So when cats get something new, even if it's a fun toy or delicious treat, their survival instinct says it might be deadly. Before interacting with it, cats need time to decide if it's dangerous. They're not immediately enthusiastic and this is a great disappointment to humans. We are deprived of that instantaneous moment of joy and reinforcement that we have done a good thing. As a result, we feel foolish for spending our money and trying to make our cats happy.

The cost of differences

Since people don't get immediate gratification from cats, they tend to buy fewer cat products. In turn, the retail machine devotes less shelf space to cats, and some innovative cat products don't fit into the store planogram no matter how good they are. When I invented the Indoor Hunting Feeder, retailers asked literally where it fit on the shelf. Does it go in the bowl section, the food section or the toy section? Add to this the need to educate cat owners about how to introduce a new product to their cats, and the complexity can be too much for a business to navigate.

The veterinary industry would benefit from acknowledging these barriers and supporting cat owners. Most cat owners are hungry for information, but they don't always have a trusted source other than Dr. Google. There's a saying "The internet is the dog park for the cat owner," and I think it's true; cat owners find community and share information online. We can't ask them—or anyone—to take better care of their pets if they don't understand what that is. We need to find cat owners where they are and lead with education in a way they can digest.

"There's a saying 'The internet is the dog park for the cat owner,' and I think it's true; cat owners find community and share information online."

There is a fracture in the relationship between pet parent and veterinarian, and the strain is even more profound between cat parent and veterinarian. Many cats are indoor-only. Cat parents assume that if their cat does not go outside, that they don't need to get vaccinations. Additionally, as solitary survivors, cats hide signs of pain and suffering. In fact, the most likely clinical sign an ill or painful cat will show is disappearance—literally a case of out of sight, out of mind. Add to this the misplaced but growing distrust of veterinarians. Many pet parents believe that veterinarians are "only in it for the money." The result? Cat parents do not understand the value of regular visits to the veterinarian and end up neglecting their cat's health and wellness.

Another barrier between cats and veterinary care is the carrier. Cat parents have difficult, if not traumatic experiences getting their cat into the carrier and to the veterinarian safely. It does not have to be this way. I have solved this problem with my Sleep & Go 3-in-1 Cat Carrier. While dogs look to their pack for safety and security, cats look to their physical spaces. Therefore, if used correctly, a carrier can be a cat's best friend. Veterinarians can and should do more education about carriers to facilitate cats getting to the clinic.

A study in behavior

We veterinarians face our own knowledge barriers when it comes to cats. As students, we must learn six or more species in four years. Dogs are taught as the default species. The radical differences between cats' and dogs' behavioral needs and how their environment and handling impact their health aren't always fully explained. Veterinary schools are doing the best they can, but unless veterinarians endeavor to learn specifically about cats, we miss a lot.

This is especially true for feline behavior. Only five veterinary schools in America have a board-certified behaviorist on staff, and we're not taught how to handle cats. In practice, we might not explain as much to cat owners, so they walk out of the clinic thinking, "Well, my kitten got all the vaccinations, so I guess I never need to come back." The machine hasn't caught up with cats' or their owners' needs.

A (feminine) life at the margins

Speaking of the machine, marketing and branding influence buying habits. It is no surprise that billions of dollars are spent with the intention of shaping public opinion. The pet space is no exception.

I learned from Polly Kawalek, who invented cat treats for Quaker Oats, that marketing began to affect the image of cats and dogs during World War II. When men went away to war, the media turned the family dog into a replacement father figure and showed dogs as the protectors of the home. They created the "boy and his dog" narrative, as in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Even female dogs were masculinized because of their role as the family protector. And masculine is worthy of marketing spend.

Throughout modern times and continuing to this day, cats are associated with crazy women and witches. Cat ownership is ridiculed. Cats don't serve and please humans and therefore you don't need to spend on them. This is an enormous missed opportunity. There are more cats than dogs living in the homes of men and women in America today and their needs are badly underserved.

Accepting cats: A lesson in humanity

2020 was a hard year for America. Change is happening as a result of what we endured. Companies are using this moment in our culture to expand their marketing to include people of all races.

Likewise, the time has come to stop marginalizing cats and cat parents. Instead of celebrating cats that behave like dogs, we will glorify the unique and magnificent qualities that make a cat a cat. Rather than trying to "uncat" cats, we will love and value them for what they are and provide for their innate needs.

The bigger lesson here is that difference does not have to be frightening. Not only is it kind and compassionate to understand those that are different from, but it is also profitable. Follow me. I'll show you.

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