Cats Are Not Small Dogs

Updated: May 19, 2011
Published: December 06, 2010
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"Thanks for stating the obvious," you might be muttering, but believe it or not, a poor understanding of the differences between cats and dogs has harmed many a feline.

I find that pet owners often focus on the differences rather than the similarities between species of animals. Many times I’ve heard clients marvel at how veterinarians must have minds like steel traps to keep track of how to treat cats, dogs, iguanas, sugar gliders, and anything else that might make its way through the clinic doors.

Of course vets’ brains are no more trap-like than anyone else’s. I don’t know what I’d do without my reference books, computer and colleagues, and I suspect I’m not alone in this regard. The truth is, veterinarians in general practice do sometimes have trouble remembering what is unique to each species, and finding the time to keep up to date on the rapid advances in their care.

Cats getting the short end of the stick may have something to do with the typical veterinary education. Dogs take center stage. We are taught their anatomy, physiology, etc., and then learn what is different about other species by comparing them to dogs. Another reason could be that most small animal veterinarians treat more dogs than cats (more on this in my next post). So information about dogs gets reinforced more often.

Nutrition is a great example. Cats are pure carnivores while dogs fall into the omnivore category. Cats require up to twice as much protein in their diets in comparison to a dog of similar size. They also lack certain enzyme systems that allow dogs to convert some nutrients into others. Therefore, cats need higher levels of taurine, arginine, niacin, arachidonic acid, and vitamin A in their diets. This all means that cats can quickly develop serious health problems when they stop eating or are fed the wrong food.

How does this impact veterinary care? If one of my canine patients stops eating, I don’t panic. He’ll do fine for a few days. Hopefully by that time I’ll have the primary problem under control and his appetite will return. But a cat is a different story. If she stops eating, nutritional support needs to start sooner rather than later.

Of course, the unique needs of cats don’t end with nutrition. They have their own diseases and even if they share a particular condition with dogs, the feline version may have a very different presentation, prognosis, and treatment protocol. Also, some drugs that are perfectly appropriate for use in dogs can have severe and even fatal side effects in cats.

And knowledge about cats isn’t enough. Treating them well requires special paraphernalia:  everything from cages that offer a quiet place to hide (no barking dogs next door, please!) to the tiniest of blood pressure cuffs.

What’s my point? You need to find a veterinarian who actually wants to take care of cats (many would rather face a snarling Rottweiler than a frisky feline any day) and is well-equipped to do so. Talk to other cat owners and see if they’ve found someone who is especially good with cats or look for a veterinarian who is a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). No one vet can be all things to all pets, don’t you think?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Pic of the day: "Smart cat and lovely dog" by hoangnam_nguyen