Vetting My Veterinarian

August 29, 2010

Yesterday we took our cat to the vet for a check up. She’d been off her food for a few days which is what prompted us to take her in, but she’d recovered and had gone back to her usual healthy appetite. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get our little, furry chum checked out.

We could only get a nine AM appointment which was earlier than I would have liked and neither me or my wife’s brain was operating at full power. Carrying a howling cat carrier on public transport didn’t help either.

So we turned up at the vet’s a little frazzled and keen to get home.

Every time we go to this vet’s office we get a different vet. This time we got the most extraordinary vet I’ve ever encountered. He literally spoke like the wedding planner in Father of the Bride (here’s a clip). In tribute, I’m going to call him Fronk.

Our cat is called Poppy and as usual we got props for her excellent condition and the fact she’s the ideal weight (about 90% of cats are obese).

He asked us what we feed Poppy (probably looking for a hot tip on how we keep our cat so healthy). Wifey told him it was Iams. He looked very worried and then said “Ah-aaams iz naht verwy guuud. Wah wakamand zi-ance daah-t.” Ah, Science Diet – vets always recommend Science Diet. Well we felt a bit guilty what with Poppy’s recent stomach upset and so we bought a great big bag of Science Diet. He then recommended a bag of TD which is a feed to prevent tartar build up and said we should give her five or six kibbles of it per day.

And then we got to the next issue. Apparently our cat is mental. Now, I kind of assume that all cat’s are mental in that same way that all dogs are a bit stupid and goldfish are a bit forgetful. Well our cat is over grooming and so her tummy is a bit bald – this is apparently the equivalent of teenagers cutting themselves.

Great, our cat’s an emo.

Fronk said “We sull a daffooza thot waal-eesez farra-moons thot well colm ah dahhhn.” In other words they sell a diffuser that sprays pheromones that will calm her down.

Pheromones is a word I don’t like very much. They certainly exist but they get attached to so much bullshit that it sets my spider senses tingling. We clearly didn’t look keen on the £30 device and so he gave us a leaflet about the diffuser and we left it there.

In the end Fronk had sold us £35 in cat food and was also keen to sell us a £30 pheromone device. That’s a big wad of cash.

So here’s a question: was Fronk (unwittingly or otherwise) bullshitting us?

Let’s see.

Are Pheromones Effective?

Let’s do this one first. The device we were offered was the Feliway.

Here’s their description of their product:

Feliway® is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure.

By mimicking the cat’s natural facial pheromones, Feliway® creates a state of familiarity and security in the cat’s local environment.

As a result, Feliway® can be used to help comfort and reassure cats, while they cope with a challenging situation and/or help prevent or reduce the stress caused to a cat during a change in their environment.

Now I’m immediately struck by something in relation to my cat. My cat is an emo, she licks her fur off; she doesn’t piss in my slippers. Is this product really appropriate? I’m not convinced it is. This product is about reassuring a cat that the territory is their own so I can understand it being useful for cats that have moved home or are constantly weeing everywhere. My cat hasn’t moved home in six years, has never pissed anywhere other than her litter tray and, other than over-grooming, is a perfectly happy cat.

But let’s put my suspicions to one side. Is it effective?

If you start Googling this stuff you will find many happy users of Feliway and similar products. But that’s not good enough: there are many people who will happily recommend homeopathy for pets too and that’s clearly bullshit.

So where’s the evidence?

The only useful thing I could find was on a blog called SkepVet in an article titled Pheromone Therapy for Dogs and Cats–What’s the Evidence?. They refer to a systematic review of existing trials. It’s worth reading but I’ll summarise: the trials are of poor quality but out of seven cat trials none of them provided any evidence of a benefit. That’s the best evidence we have to go on and that’s good enough for me.

Was Fronk right to recommend the Feliway?

No. There’s no evidence that the device was an appropriate treatment even of it worked. And there appears to be no scientific evidence that it works for it’s intended purpose either.

The Science Diet: Better than Iams?

Looking around the web, this is clearly an emotive subject. One person says they feed their cat Iams and someone else will surely pipe up “that’s like feeding your children on Doritos every day!” Won’t someone think of the cat children?!?! Of course, nevermind that cat’s diets are not comparable to human diets or that cats now live longer than ever.

Is Iams the very best quality food possible? Probably not. I’m sure my cat would be delighted to be fed cooked chicken every day, but that aint gonna happen. I’m convinced that Iams is decent quality – after all, my cat has been eating nothing else for ten years and she’s fitter than you are, you slob.

There’s also the question of animal cruelty in relation to Iams testing practices. I haven’t looked into this although maybe I should in future.

But here’s the thing: we were told specifically that Science Diet is a better cat food than Iams.

Is that true?

I don’t think it is. I’ve now compared the ingredients of both products and I think it’s notable that Science Diet’s top ingredient is cereals, while Iams top ingredient is chicken. The nutritional values look broadly the same with Iams having the edge.

Seriously, next time you’re looking at dry cat food in a supermarket have a look at the ingredients list and you’ll see they’re all pretty much the same: most have corn or cereals as the top ingredient; a couple like Iams and Purina have meat at the top. Science Diet is basically the same as all of those supermarket ones, the only difference is it’s sold in pet stores and vets offices.

Am I saying that Science Diet is bad? Not at all, but I don’t see any reason to change from Iams as SD is clearly no better. My cat likes Iams, so why change?

Finally, here’s an article about the Science Diet from a dog care website in the US: The Science Diet Scam. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, I think Fronk has got it wrong again. Ho-hum.

In conclusion

I think vets are very good at cutting open your pet and and putting it back together again, I’m just not convinced they know jack shit when it comes to other stuff like nutrition and behavioural problems.

At the very least I have learnt the following:

  • Don’t buy anything from your vet that you can’t buy yourself elsewhere.
  • Do your research and don’t let yourself be guilt tripped into buying quick and easy solutions
  • If your vet makes an assertion then question it rather than accepting it at face value
  • Don’t let your cat listen to Fall Out Boy
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