Although people in the United States keep more cats than dogs as pets -- 82 million vs. 72 million -- cats see a veterinarian only about half as frequently as their canine counterparts do.
Why is that?
"I think people sometimes don't go [to the vet] because they think their cat's shots aren't due. But cats should be seen at least once a year," says veterinarian Brian Collins, DVM, lecturer at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine's Companion Animal Hospital. "I like to check them every six months if possible."
What happens during a well-cat visit? Probably the most important thing is the "nose to tail" physical exam, says Collins. During the appointment, which can last from 15 to 30 minutes, your veterinarian will check all over your cat's body, looking for signs of disease or anything unusual. For example, he will examine the cat's ears for parasites, such as ear mites. He'll look at the eyes for general retinal health, peer inside your cat's mouth to look for signs of tartar or gum disease, listen to the cat's heart and lungs, and survey the skin for any lesions or bumps. "Basically, we're just looking to see if everything is normal," explains Collins.
The vet will also weigh the cat and assign a body conditioning number from 1 to 9 (or 1 to 5 depending on the scale your vet uses). "The higher the number, the fatter the cat," Collins says. Ideally, you want your cat to score in the middle range, or a 5 on the 1 to 9 scale, which means the cat is at the appropriate weight. "The problems we tend to see most with cats are obesity and dental disease," explains Collins, who notes that obesity is usually more of a problem with older, indoor cats.
Will your cat get vaccinations during the visit? That depends partly on age, Collins says. Kittens usually receive a series of vaccinations for distemper, upper respiratory disease, and rabies. But cats are not necessarily routinely vaccinated for other infectious diseases, such as feline leukemia. "It sort of depends on the lifestyle of the cat," Collins says. Even cats that go outdoors are not necessarily at greater risk for the disease. "They have to have pretty much direct prolonged contact with other cats to get leukemia," explains Collins.
Note, however, that outdoor cats are at a higher risk of disease in general, including viral and parasitic infections, and indoor cats that occasionally get outdoors are often unprotected from infectious diseases as well.
Vaccines for other diseases can vary from annually to every three years, depending on the type of vaccine and your vet's philosophy, says Collins. "When we're trying to determine what vaccinations a cat gets, we always look at each one as an individual rather than as one recommendation for all cats."
Vet Visit Tips
Are there ways to make the well-cat visit less stressful for your pet? "The best thing is starting early," says Collins. Ideally, it's best to take your cat for car rides as a kitten and get the cat accustomed to a carrier. Buy a carrier that's comfortable for your cat. Take it out of storage a few days before the visit and make it a safe, fun place, filled with treats or toys, to help make the trip to the vet less stressful. Once at the office, putting a blanket or towel over the carrier may keep the cat calm.
The best part of a well-cat visit? "It's so important to have a relationship [with your veterinarian]," says Collins. "We really focus on preventive care," which can help keep your pet healthy for years to come. "It's not uncommon to see cats approaching 20. Many live into their late teens," particularly with good care.