Anti-Bengal Bias in Veterinary Medicine

Given my usual literary preoccupations, which include equity within medical care, the title of this essay may seem like a spoof of my own writings. But it’s not. To me, the topic is deadly serious, as my husband Mark and I are the proud parents of Kuma, a bold, beautiful, loyal, 10-year-old Bengal cat.

Anti-Bengal bias is present, and prevalent, among vets. Bengals are the Borderline Personality Disorder patients of veterinary medicine, immediately stereotyped as “difficult.” It’s true that Bengal cats bear some savage DNA, an atavistic wildness, due to an Asian leopard cat ancestor, generations back. They don’t like to be prodded by strangers and may hiss and fight to get away from a physical exam. But Bengal cats are, in many ways, more domesticated than most domestic cats. Kuma waits for Mark by the door when he goes out, a feline Hachiko. He happily walks on a leash. He is gentle, if cautious, with strangers who want to pet him, including the many children who flock to him during our strolls.

Yet a vet we tried out took one look at Kuma and said, “Oh, I suspect he’ll be a little Bengal-ish,” which, apart from being tautological, was an alarming statement. What it meant was “I expect he’ll be a problem.” But the real problem is that a cat knows when you don’t like him, and returns the favor. In the context of a medical check-up, this negative feedback loop can be dangerous.

Since moving to Vancouver Island four years ago, Mark and I have struggled to find a caring, competent vet who didn’t assume from the get-go that Kuma would be unmanageable or unpleasant. After three failed attempts with vets who barely touched him during check-ups, we finally found one at the Fernwood Vet Clinic, near our home. On Kuma’s first visit to this clinic, the vet spotted a resorptive lesion. A common issue in cats, it can only be diagnosed by looking inside a cat’s mouth—and for several years, no vet had made the effort to look inside Kuma’s mouth. The upshot is that he may have been in pain, while eating, for much longer than he needed to be. It might have been caught earlier, and treated, had vets not labeled Kuma a difficult patient at first glance.

My concerns for Kuma aside, I’ve been writing about systemic biases in human medicine for a book, and to see the problem mirrored in veterinary medicine pains me. Human medicine has a long history of bias, racism, and xenophobia, such as doctors assuming that Black patients can tolerate more pain than whites or that all Indigenous peoples suffer from alcoholism. It strikes me that when such biases hurt cats, they are still a strictly human shortcoming.

But we can overcome our shortcomings with awareness. To all vets out there, please know that Kuma deserves care as much as a more placid cat. Please give him, and any other Bengal, what he deserves.