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By all accounts, Americans have a love affair with cats. They have, indeed, become "man's best friend." According to the newly published American Veterinary Medical Association U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, they now outnumber dogs: 82-million cats vs. 71-million dogs. However, the whole picture is not so rosy.

Cats are the Rodney Dangerfield of pets; they get no respect. There's no scientific study to substantiate the following statement, but after nearly 15 years of writing this column, I firmly believe Americans love dogs more. Unless you've personally experienced a negative encounter with a dog - even if you've never owned one - odds are, you still like dogs. When it comes to cats, however, I believe people either love 'em or hate 'em.

Startling data demonstrate that we just don't feel the same way about cats as we do about dogs. Cats don't visit veterinarians as often as dogs. According to the AVMA survey, the average dog sees a vet 1.5 times a year. Cat vet visits have fallen to less than one trip per year. There's no question that without seeing the patient, vets can't detect illness. Making matters worse, cats hide sickness, so millions often don't see a vet until they're already profoundly ill. Bottom line: A significant number of cats suffer prolonged disease or even die before they need to because they're denied routine veterinary care. Owners are also unwilling to spend as much on cat care as they will for dogs.

Most local and regional shelter groups agree that more cats land in shelters than dogs. Bad behavior is the principal reason pets are given up. According to a survey conducted by the National Council on Pet Population & Study of pets relinquished to shelters for behavior issues, 27 percent were dogs, and 35 percent were cats (the remaining percent not specified).

Of course, cats are no more poorly behaved than dogs. So why do they land in shelters for behavior problems more often than dogs? Are cat behavior problems more challenging to deal with than dog issues? Is there more available help for bad dogs compared to poorly behaved kitties? Or are cats simply less valued? No one really knows the answers, but it's clear that cats don't share the same status as canines.

Here's yet another example of the disparity: Of the lost or stolen animals entering shelters, 15 to 30 percent of dogs are reclaimed by their owners, according to the Humane Society of the United States. However, a meager five percent of cats are ever reclaimed. Is this because people tend not to microchip or use ID tags for cats, or because cats aren't "worth" claiming?

Rarely are dogs dumped outside to fend for themselves. However, cats are given the boot frequently. As a result, stray and feral cats are a challenging problem. Of course, the quality of life for strays and ferals isn't great. Unaltered cats have been multiplying the problem for generations. Strays and ferals are a public health risk.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and Pfizer Animal Health co-sponsored the CATalyst summit to examine why cats are second-class citizens.

I spoke at the summit and will report the progress on this issue throughout the year. Clearly, millions of people adore cats, but many despise them. For the sake of all cats, we need to rectify this problem - because cats don't really have eight other lives to live.

Send questions to Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207 or e-mail