Sunday, December 6, 2015

Interview with Dr. Tony Buffington, Champion of Environmental Enrichment for Cats – Part One


Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN is Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. That sounds like a handful, doesn’t it? Perhaps I should simply tell you what his business card says: “Effective Environmental Enrichment Evangelist” – because that’s what encompasses what Dr. Buffington’s work has been all about for the last three decades: improving the lives of cats.

I had the honor of meeting Dr. Buffington at the Better with Pets Summit in Brooklyn, NY last month, and to me, it was like meeting a rock star. There aren’t many veterinarians who have made as much of a difference in cats’ lives as Dr. Buffington, so is it any wonder he’s one of my personal heroes? I’m always surprised to realize that the average cat guardian has not heard of Dr. Buffington, and I want to introduce you to this amazing champion of cats. I’m delighted that he agreed to take the time to answer questions – in fact, he answered the in such depth that this will be a two-part interview.


Dr. Marty Becker, Ragen McGowen., Heather Lewis, Dr. Tony Buffington

Dr. Buffington was one of the panelists on the Stress, Our Pets and Us discussion at the summit, moderated by Dr. Marty Becker. The panel also featured Ragen McGowen, a Purina Behaviorist, and Heather Lewis from Animal Arts Architects, a firm that focuses on building veterinary hospitals that reduce stress for pets and their guardians.

Dr. Buffington founded the Indoor Cat Initiative in 2002. Its goal is to help cat guardians and their cats to have the best life together that they possibly can.

What made you realize there was a need for this initiative?

We realized the need to help clients provide an enriched environment for their cats as a consequence of our studies of “feline interstitial cystitis (FIC)” as a naturally occurring model of interstitial cystitis in human beings with the support from the NIH. From 1993-2013, we studied cats with such severe FIC that owners decided to euthanize them. We obtained these cats by offering veterinarians the option of asking clients who had brought their cats for euthanasia if they might be willing to donate the cat to our research project. Over the years we were offered around 600 cats, of which some 200 were eventually donated (I tried to treat the rest remotely by telephone, which was the basis for our publication “Clinical evaluation of multi-modal environmental modification in the management of cats with lower urinary tract signs” in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 2006; 8:261-268.

Just acquiring these cats taught us many things. For example, we learned that most of cats had other health problems in addition to FIC, some of which we subsequently identified as “sickness behaviors,” which were directly related to environmental stressors. We also saw that the cat’s lower urinary tract signs, and their other health issues, improved once they were housed in the colony.

Experiences like these convinced us that environmental threat was a major contributor to their ill health, and that enrichment could be a major contributor to their recovery. We also recognized that papers in the scientific literature would take too long to get this news to the public, and that an educational website might be more direct.

How has veterinarians’ and cat guardians’ perception with regards to environmental enrichment changed over the last decade?

With regard to how perceptions have changed, I don’t know – I’m not conversant with that literature. What I can say is that I hope that their perceptions have changed from perceiving the cat as aloof, disdainful of human contact, and untrainable to being an animal (like all animals) that can only thrive in confinement when their species-specific needs are understood and met.

For example, I perceive cats (living in enriched environments so they don’t feel threatened – which can easily be confused with aloof) to welcome contact if it is on their terms (just like most people I know), and to be easily trainable, as long as they aren’t subjected to force. As you know, cats have a different social structure than humans do, and perceive force not as “correction” (if it is), but as a mortal threat.

With regard to veterinarians, I hope the recent realization that the profession is not meeting the health needs of cats due to our care of them will motivate veterinarians and their care teams to embrace more modern approaches to caring for cats such as Fear Free™ veterinary visits and low stress handling.

Coming next Monday: Part Two of my interview with Dr. Buffington

Dr. Buffington talks about how a landmark study conducted at OSU changed how veterinarians view and treat urinary tract disease, and shares some personal information about how he became a champion of cats.


Dr. Buffington recently released both an iTunes U course and a companion digital book entitled Cat Mastery. This beautifully designed course and book explores the history of cats, and the challenges they face living indoors through interactive images and diagrams, videos. I highly recommend the book and course – even experienced cat guardians will learn something new from it.

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