All adult cats should be seen by their veterinarian at least once or twice a year for a general wellness exam. Our cats have much shorter life expectancies than people do, so that same time period for a human would be about three to five years. The purpose of this exam is to make sure that no changes have occurred that might impact your cat’s health. Early detection of medical problems is always helpful for successful treatment!
True emergencies can happen when your cat refuses to eat, has difficulty breathing or cannot urinate normally, or if your cat has suffered any kind of physical injury. Most common reasons for veterinary visits include urinary tract problems, vomiting, kidney disease, diabetes, diarrhea, dental disease, ear and eye infections, allergic skin problems and overactive thyroid conditions.
Cats are extremely good at hiding any signs of illness, and it can be a challenge to recognize that something is wrong. Generally, if your cat is losing or gaining significant amounts of weight, or fails to eat, drink or interact as he would normally, there may be a medical problem. Cats get the same sorts of illnesses that we do, and heart disease and organ-related problems, including cancer, are not unusual. As your cat’s owner, you are in the best position to tell your veterinarian when something doesn’t seem right with your cat, which can help your veterinarian make the necessary diagnosis sooner.
For many of us, getting our cat into the carrier is a test of strength and ingenuity, and the cat frequently comes out the victor! It can be helpful to start early and show your cat that the carrier isn’t an evil and scary device. This means frequent small time intervals where your cat is inside the carrier doing something he finds pleasant—like eating a yummy treat. It can also be useful to put some catnip inside the carrier. A favorite blanket with familiar smells can make the experience less stressful. Ideally you want your cat to walk right into the carrier. In an urgent situation, though, if you’ve not had time for pre-conditioning, try placing the open end of the carrier upright and then lower your cat backwards (holding his rear legs together) inside it.
Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that infects many animals—including cats and people. If your cat becomes infected, which can occur if they eat an infected mouse, there is a short period of time that your cat is potentially infectious to you. This happens only one time in your cat’s entire life, and only for about 10 days. The parasite is present in your cat’s feces during this time frame, and through cleaning the litter box or disposing of feces, you could inadvertently ingest an organism. If you are pregnant, the parasite can significantly injure your unborn child. So, the general rule is don’t let your cats eat mice, have someone else clean the litterbox, or you clean the litterbox daily using protective gloves (parasites are only infectious in feces that are at least 36 hours old), and don’t give your cat away! Most people become infected through ingesting toxoplasmosis organisms while gardening or eating undercooked beef. If you already have been exposed to toxoplasmosis (your doctor can tell by doing a simple blood test), there is no danger at all to your unborn baby.
Your cat can get exposed to a wide variety of parasites, including intestinal worms, from material that we can carry in on our shoes and from eating common insects, like flies and beetles. One parasitic problem we are especially concerned with is heartworm disease, which is much more common in cats than we realized. In fact, more heartworm disease has been diagnosed in indoor cats (by autopsy) than in cats who live outside. This deadly parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes, which can easily get indoors. Because we lack the ability to easily identify infected cats and do not have the drugs necessary to treat them, this particular disease can be fatal. We also see flea problems in housecats, which can occur if we track fleas indoors, when a dog with fleas visits or if you move into a home where there were pets with flea infestations.
Most adult cats are nervous about going to the doctor—so are most humans! It is natural for them to feel apprehensive about the physical exam. They simply don’t understand what is going on and the clinic (and car) is strange and feels threatening. When cats speak their own language, a hiss means “back off!” We humans don’t always do that, so things can sometimes escalate. Other cats, who are just as nervous, will simply freeze during stressful situations. It can be upsetting to see your friendly and gentle kitty change so dramatically, but try to remember that he is simply trying to defend himself against what he thinks is a threat.
We really have no idea where the purr originated from and why cats do it. We know that cats purr when they are content and also when they are terribly sick. It is probably a means of making themselves feel more secure, but as we humans know, purring also can make us feel relaxed and calm. It is interesting to note that while all pets can produce a soothing effect on people, cats are able to lower human’s blood pressure more effectively than any other pet—perhaps a side effect of the purr?
Cats are carnivores and lack the digestive enzymes that are needed to break down fibers and other compounds that are more common in vegetarian diets. High-carbohydrate dry foods are not designed with a cat’s digestive system in mind, and were originally derived from dog foods. So, the best possible food for your cat would be a canned or wet food that contains high-quality proteins and was made by a reputable manufacturer. Avoiding additives and preservatives is easier to do with canned foods as well, so finding a more natural or organic food can be simpler. We also particularly like canned foods for older cats, because increasing their water intake is important for organ health and they get an extra helping of water with each mouthful of a canned diet.
Dieting any cat is hard work. Most cats, like us humans, enjoy eating. And cat foods today are designed to be calorie dense and very tasty. Unfortunately, your typical cat doesn’t know when to stop eating. So, leaving a big bowl of food out all day might be ideal from your cat’s perspective, but the long-term effect on his waist will not be pretty. What makes things even more complicated is that most cats do not burn calories through exercise. This means that calorie control is crucial, and the only way to lose weight is to take in fewer calories during the course of a day. Canned food can be the dieting cat’s best friend. It contains a mere fraction of the calories found in dry food, and seems to be just as filling. If your cat is a dry food addict, though, sometimes portion control or cutting calories by switching to a “lite” food can help.
The best litter is the one your cat prefers to use. Generally speaking, most cats have a marked preference for unscented, scoopable litters. These are the ones that look like beach sand and convert urine into clumped balls. All kittens develop a favorite litter substrate based on their mother’s use so preferences can vary among cats. Litter use begins to occur at three weeks of age. Most cats are not fans of alternative litters such as crystals or shredded newspaper so your “go to” litter should be a scoopable one.
The rule of thumb is one box per cat plus one for good measure. These boxes should be located in different parts of the house because this will prevent a dominant cat from stopping other cats from gaining access to the boxes. Boxes should be cleaned daily, and open boxes are generally preferred over boxes with covers. Just think about the port-o-potty effect and you can understand why most cats don’t like going inside the covered ones!
This is a very common problem and there are many different reasons for a cat not to use his box. First off, be sure your cat gets a complete medical exam from your veterinarian, because physical problems can trigger changes in behavior. We commonly see bladder problems resulting in cats urinating outside the litterbox, and a number of other medical conditions can result in changes in normal box behavior. Other reasons for cats not using their boxes include problems with the box or the litter—it might be the wrong litter for your cat or the box might not be in the best location or large enough. Some cats are very meticulous and dislike using boxes that haven’t been scrupulously cleaned. We also have cats who use their urine as a marking tool. This might seem odd, but cats actually like the smell of their urine. So, urinating in areas of the house outside the box will make them feel more confident and in control. There are treatments and programs that can help cats learn to love their litterboxes again. The key point is to act early, because it can be difficult to reverse this problem if your cat becomes acclimated to preferentially using another location or substrate as a substitute litterbox.
Cats are wonderful for emotional support and the benefits of having a cat far outweigh any potential health risks. It is important, though, that you utilize parasite control measures to keep any contagious problems controlled and that your cat is kept current on immunizations. There are monthly parasite preventives that are easy to use and will minimize the risks of these diseases. It would also be ideal if your cat stayed indoors, because many potentially contagious diseases can be avoided that way, and make sure that your cat’s health is carefully monitored through frequent physical exams. Healthy pets pose no risks to people!
Vaccines are designed to protect your cat against common viruses that he might become exposed to through enhancing his immune system’s natural defense mechanism. All cats have individual risk assessments which might alter which vaccines he receives and how frequently he needs to have his vaccines repeated. In general, for an otherwise healthy housecat, we recommend that he be protected against distemper, which is actually a combination vaccine consisting of the respiratory viruses and the actual distemper virus, which is a very dangerous intestinal illness. In most instances, an adult cat will need this vaccine every three years. These particular viruses are transmitted through exposure to virus particles in the air and through contact with infected cats. Obviously there is air exchange within homes, and some of our housecats have screen door relationships with outdoor kitty friends. Rabies is another deadly threat that housecats need to be vaccinated against. Rabies is a significant risk here in Rhode Island. The most common means of transmission for inside cats is from bats gaining access to houses. Because rabies is 100% fatal when there is no treatment or vaccine protection, and because people can get this virus from infected animals, the state mandates that all pets be kept vaccinated against this disease. In fact, if an unvaccinated pet bites a person, that pet automatically needs to be quarantined away from his home.
Scratching objects is normal territorial marking behavior for cats. All cats like to claim their turf, but some are particularly good at it, and can make short work of upholstered furniture and wallpaper. Some cats are much easier to convert to scratching posts than others, or tolerate nail clippings or vinyl nail covers. We reserve declawing surgeries for cats who stay indoors because they lose essential elements of defense when their claws are removed. The surgery itself is done with particular attention to reliving discomfort during the procedure and the healing process, and will not impact your cat’s emotional and physical health. Declawing should be reserved for cats who mark excessively. It is not an effective treatment for cats who scratch and bite people.
The key is to make the scratching post absolutely the cat’s meow. It should be in a central location, because most cats like to make a statement. If your cat likes to stretch his paws up, make a vertical post. If he likes to pull up on carpeting, build a platform. Pay particular attention to the materials your cat is most attracted to: cardboard, sisal rug, regular carpet. Sometimes lacing the post with catnip will make it even more attractive. At the same time, make sure that the furniture your cat is currently scratching is made less appealing. You can temporarily cover it with double-sided sticky tape or tin foil until your cat is redirected to the scratching post.
Generally speaking, the younger your new addition is, the more readily he will be accepted by your own adult cats. Kittens are not usually perceived to be a threat by adult cats. Another adult cat, though, will be considered to be an invader and it will take time before the cats learn to acclimate to one another. It’s very important not to rush the process. Ideally, if you have a room with a glass door so the cats can be physically separated but still see each other, this will allow for some familiarity to develop without actual danger. Doing pleasurable things where the two cats can see one another, like feeding and petting, will also help. All cats have different personalities, and some are much more accepting of other cats. Even if your cats don’t ultimately become best buddies, it is very unusual for cats to be completely incompatible, and much more likely that they will curl up together and groom each other. Be patient, though, as this “getting to know you” time can take weeks to months.