What does it really mean to be a Cat Friendly Veterinary Professional?

11 March 2024

International Cat Care’s Cat Friendly Principles for Veterinary Professionals Part 1. Cat-focused principles

Dr Ellen Marcinkiewicz (BVSc. MRCVS), Communications Manager at International Cat Care

The cat friendly ethos is now widely adopted by the veterinary profession, revolutionising everything from our approach to feline medicine to our understanding of the unique experiences of cats within the clinic environment – but what defines the art of being a cat friendly veterinary professional? And how do we keep evolving to do the best for our feline patients and for cats as a species?

Pioneering cat welfare charity International Cat Care (iCatCare) and its veterinary division, the International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM), have developed the ‘Cat Friendly Principles’ a series of thoughts and behaviours that underpin the charity’s work and the foundations of its groundbreaking Cat Friendly Clinic programme, which aim to guide and inspire all those working to improve the lives of cats everywhere. There are seven principles in total – three dedicated to the cat, and four to the people working with cats to champion their welfare.

This article will explore the first three ‘cat-focused’ Cat Friendly Principles and their significance for veterinary professionals. Part two will then focus on the remaining four ‘people-focused’ principles. The seven principles are of equal importance and should all be embraced by veterinary professionals in order to be truly ‘cat friendly’.

  1. Respect cats – Respect the diversity of the species and understand the individual cat

The first principle focuses on understanding the unique physiology and nature of cats as a species, as well as their individual diversity in terms of temperament and behaviour. It’s essential that veterinary professionals adapt their approach, in small but meaningful ways, to each individual cat as it presents in the clinic.

Beyond the common needs shared by all cats (access to food and water, safe places to sleep and rest, a place to toilet, opportunities to communicate through scratching and facial rubbing, and opportunities to play and express predatory behaviours), an individual cat’s needs may vary significantly depending on:

  • Genetics (parents and breed lineage)
  • The queen’s physical health and mental wellbeing during pregnancy
  • The cat’s experience, especially during the first two months of life
  • Lifestage
  • Health
  • Reproductive status
  • Stress

Considering the cat’s lifestyle on a spectrum – whether they are capable of living happily as a pet, or a feral cat adapted to free-roaming, can also help provide a better understanding and tailor veterinary care to the individual’s needs.

International Cat Care lifestyle spectrum

Strategies veterinary professionals can adopt to respect cats in their daily practice include:

  • Adopting a tailored approach when working with cats in the clinic based on the cat’s background, presenting behaviours and body language (allowing deductions to be made about the cat’s emotional state), and any previous significant medical or behavioural history.
  • Recognising and reducing negative (protective) emotions, such as fear-anxiety, pain, and frustration. This is essential to be able to intervene to improve the mental wellbeing of your feline patients, and will also reduce injuries both to cats and team members (eg, recording on an anxious patient’s hospital chart that they require minimal handling).
  • Recording the cat’s behaviour, individual preferences and how they responded to any Cat Friendly interventions in your medical history to help reduce stress at future visits.
  • Respecting the cat’s individual tolerance for physical interaction with people can influence how to best interact with that cat. While many cats will have a high tolerance for handling by people, many will not and will require a minimal handling approach.
  • Ensuring staff have the knowledge and skills to carry out safe and minimal handling for cats (including knowing when not to handle). Essential tools such as towels, restraint cages (for feral cats), and methods for sedation and anaesthesia must be available in the clinic at all times.
  • Creating opportunities for cats to express positive (engaging) behaviours where possible and appropriate (eg, by offering a treat or providing an opportunity to play).

Respecting cats is not only essential to protecting their mental wellbeing, but is also likely to facilitate your clinical examination, improve the accuracy of diagnostics performed1 and allow your team to provide the best possible patient care, which leads on to principle two:

  1. Keep Cats Well – Give equal consideration to the cat’s physical health and mental wellbeing

Veterinary medicine has traditionally focused on our patient’s physical health from treating illness to preventative healthcare. But often overlooked is the influence of mental wellbeing and the impact behavioural biology, environment, and human interaction can have on a cat’s overall health status.

Physical health and mental wellbeing directly influence each other, and are both affected when cats experience pain, discomfort, injury, illness, or distress (acute or chronic). Understanding this relationship means veterinary professionals can develop a more holistic approach to treatment to improve patient health and welfare.

Considerations for veterinary professionals when keeping cats well include:

  • Identifying and addressing the underlying causes of behavioural issues that may lead to physical injury or illness (eg, conflict in a multi-cat household).
  • Recognising the role stress may play in clinical diseases, such as feline idiopathic cystitis, and the considerations this may have for an effective treatment plan (eg, good litter tray management).
  • Incorporating strategies to improve mental wellbeing throughout all lifestages (eg, environmental adaptations for cats with reduced mobility to access resources, such as ramps or stairs to reach resting places).
  • Understanding the impact a treatment plan could have on compliance and the human-animal bond. Frequent appointments, medication administration and confinement after a surgical procedure can all impact a successful outcome, as well as a caregiver’s confidence in the veterinary team. Consider if the long-term benefit to the cat’s physical health outweighs the short-term negative impact to their mental wellbeing and relationship with their caregiver. Can you adapt the plan to their individual needs (eg, considering an alternative route for medication or teaching an owner to measure blood pressure at home)?
  • Practicing co-operative care to help cats feel more comfortable in the clinic. Cats can be taught to accept being touched as part of a physical examination, or to voluntarily co-operate for procedures using positive reinforcement and cat friendly interactions.

The relationship between physical health and mental wellbeing must also be taken into consideration when working to prevent poor welfare, which leads us to principle three:

  1. Do Cats No Harm – Ensure cats are never worse off as a result of people or their activities

All veterinary professionals are familiar with the oath ‘first do no harm’ and are dedicated to upholding this for our patients. To carry this out to the best of our ability, we must consider all forms of harm and their potential impact on cat welfare. Harm can affect both physical health and mental wellbeing (in the short or long term) and can arise from too much of something considered positive (eg, food) or negative (eg, forceful handling).

Ways veterinary professionals can commit to preventing harm in cats include:

  • Avoiding inappropriate handling (eg, scruffing) and educating caregivers on how to handle and interact with cats at home (eg, educating owners to be cat-led in their interactions with owners by following the CAT guidelines)
  • Working to prevent the irresponsible breeding of cats this includes recognition of inherited traits that compromise cat health and welfare (eg, osteochondrodysplasia in Scottish Folds), encouraging screening for inherited health conditions as part of responsible breeding, and the role of neutering (preferably at four months of age) in preventing unwanted litters.
  • Recognising and intervening for both physical health issues and negative emotional states (eg, problem behaviours) and educating cat owners on cat behaviour and how to identify signs of distress. This also includes the ability to assess poor quality of life and intervene appropriately (eg, palliative care or euthanasia).
  • Performing interventions such as surgery or dental procedures only with the appropriate equipment, clinical care facilities and access to adequate analgesic/anxiolytic medications.
  • Adopting Cat Friendly principles to avoid distress at veterinary appointments.
  • Working with unowned cats as part of rehoming organisations or trap–neuter return programmes. Recognising that interventions suitable for owned pet cats (such as hospitalisation for medical treatment) may be completely inappropriate for a feral or street cat, where the negative impact of confinement or medication on mental wellbeing may far outweigh any positive impact on physical health.

For more information on putting the Cat Friendly Principles into practice, please refer to:

JFMS Cat Friendly Special Issue

2022 AAFP/ISFM Cat Friendly Veterinary Interaction Guidelines: Approach and Handling Techniques

2022 ISFM/AAFP Cat Friendly Veterinary Environment Guidelines

References:

  1. St Denis K, et al. Cat Friendly Practice Improves feline visits, resulting in increased laboratory testing and increased diagnosis of certain common feline conditions. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2023;25(11). doi:1177/1098612X231204199