The Veterinarians’ Guide to Your Cat’s Symptoms: How to Keep a Cat’s Body Healthy
There is a common belief that cats don’t require much drinking water because they can often obtain enough water from their food and seemingly drink very little. But, just like all living creatures, cats require water to replace fluids lost from waste, respiration, grooming, and evaporation. It is needed to flush out the body, to remove excess minerals and other waste materials, and to transport nutrients throughout a cat’s body. If a cat loses body moisture due to a fever, diarrhea, or vomiting, he will need more water than usual.
A cat’s water bowl should be kept clean and replenished daily. A bad- smelling water bowl or one with day-old film on top of the water will prevent a cat from drinking. Some cats prefer to drink water from a dripping faucet, shower stall floor, or even a toilet bowl. If a cat prefers water from fixtures, be sure to rinse off any cleansng materials. Other cats drink from standing water in plant saucers. This should be discouraged because chemicals may leach out into the water from soil and clay containers. If milk agrees with a cat and doesn’t give him diarrhea, a small amount of milk each day is fine in addition to free- choice water. Special “milk” made for cats, which is more digestible than cows’milk, is available.
FOODS TO AVOID
Unlike dogs, cats usually won’t eat potentially toxic “people food” such as chocolate. But a glance at the charts, above, shows that an excess of certain foods without proper supplementation—in other words, foods not designed specifically to meet cat’s nutritional needs—can eventually lead to illness. The “bad” foods most commonly fed to cats in excess are unsupplemented fish (red tuna especially), raw liver or other meat, uncooked eggs, raw fish, dog food, and dairy products. Many cats cannot tolerate dairy products at all; milk in particular often gives adult cats diarrhea.
Indoors Only, or Outdoors-Indoors?
Although many suburban and country cats fare well going in and out of the house at will, unsupervised outdoor activity is very likely to shorten a cat’s normal life span of fourteen to twenty years.
Even neutered cats are apt to stray from the safety of their yards and are susceptible to accidents and injuries. Fights with other cats can lead to cat-bite abscesses and exposure to infectious diseases such as feline leukemia virus and so forth. Cars, strange dogs, wildlife, unkind or thoughtless humans, and environmental dangers such as poisons used to kill weeds, insects, and rodents may also pose a danger to free-roaming cats. Cats that are allowed outdoors should always be called in at least twice a day for meals and to be sure they’re all right. Many owners prefer to keep their indooroutdoor cats inside at night for safety reasons.
Cats that go outdoors, even if they rarely leave their yards, should always wear a collar and identification tag in case of a problem. An implantable microchip to identify a cat is another option. There are “breakaway” collars on the market that assure a cat can’t become stuck or hung up on a branch—this used to be the reason many owners didn’t put collars on their cats.
A cat owner who lives in a house or apartment with a balcony or terrace can provide a pet with the best of both worlds by securely screening an area where the cat can safely see the outdoors. A wide windowsill next to a screened window, or shelf attached to a windowsill (available from many mail-order catalogs) is another alternative. An indoor cat can spend time very happily watching birds and squirrels from a windowsill perch. But the window must be screened; contrary to popular belief, a cat can easily fall or jump from a dangerous height, which will cause serious injury or death.
Some owners opt to teach a harnessed cat to walk on a leash. There are special figure-eight harnesses made for cats that allow them to move around safely and comfortably. The best time to teach a cat to wear a harness is when he is young. Starting off gradually indoors, a cat can become accustomed to the feel of the harness and eventually to the leash. Practice in the safety of a backyard or other quiet place will help a cat feel secure on a leash. He can then be taken for excursions on a regular basis. No matter how well a cat walks on a leash, it’s a good idea to avoid noisy, busy streets or areas where there are apt to be a number of other cats or loose dogs. Never leave a cat tied up alone in a yard where he cannot escape from a dog or wild animal.
We mentioned some games to play with cats in “Avoiding Excess Weight Gain,” above. There are a number of different kinds of cat furniture on the market designed to encourage indoor activity—pet stores and pet supply catalogs are full of examples in all colors and styles. Although much of it is very attractive, it is also quite expensive and, unfortunately, doesn’t necessarily appeal to all cats. Many owners prefer to make their own play furniture or provide a cat with recycled toys—a sturdy cardboard carton, an empty brown paper bag, a paper towel roll, or crinkled-up cellophane or tissue paper can provide a lot of fun for a cat. Never give a cat string, ribbon, or thread to play with. Cats can easily swallow these items, which can make them very sick and may even be fatal. String items when swallowed are called linear foreign bodies and cause intestinal obstruction.
All cats with front claws, whether indooroutdoor or strictly indoor, should have a suitable scratching device, not only to prevent damage to furniture and carpets but to provide good exercise and stretching for the cat. It may take an owner several tries to find just the right type of scratching post for a cat, but it’s well worth the effort and expense.
Scratching devices come with various coverings—carpet, sisal, or other sturdy fabric. Some cats prefer to scratch horizontally, others vertically; still others do both as long as the devices are covered with a favorite material. Be sure whatever scratching post is chosen is sturdy and heavy enough to be topple resistant, and long or tall enough for the cat to stretch out full length. Once the cat and scratching device have been matched, it is usually not too difficult to teach a cat to use the device for sharpening his claws, rather than the furniture. See Chapter 3 for more about this.
One of the most important reasons for regular brushing and combing is to remove loose hair. Because cats groom and lick themselves constantly, ungroomed cats swallow an enormous amount of hair, which will lead to the formation of hair balls.
Regular grooming not only keeps a cat clean and free from snarls and mats, but it also does a great deal to keep his skin and coat healthy. A grooming session is an excellent time to look the animal over for wounds, sores, lumps, rashes, and parasites. A cat’s ears should also be examined. Excess wax or dirt can be gently removed with a cotton swab, but be careful not to insert the swab any deeper than into the visible portion of the outer ear. A foul smell, black discharge, blood or pus are usually signs of an ear infection or infestation with ear mites. A veterinarian should be consulted if there seems to be an ear problem.
Most cats learn to enjoy being groomed as long as they have become accustomed to it gradually. The best time to introduce gentle grooming is when a kitten is young. If a cat is skittish and afraid of grooming he may have had a bad experience. One way to help him get over his fear is to purchase a pair of grooming gloves, which are available in most petsupply catalogs.
These cotton gloves have small, soft bumps on the palms that act as a very gentle brush and remove some loose hair as the cat is stroked. Once a cat is used to being stroked with the gloves, a soft brush can be introduced.
Most owners find it convenient to assemble grooming tools in a bag, box, or drawer near the usual grooming location. Grooming is easiest to perform on a table or countertop. Shorthaired cats can be brushed to remove loose hair and then combed. If the air is very dry, a damp cloth rubbed over the surface of a shorthaired cat’s coat after grooming will help collect any flying fur. Longhaired cats are easier to comb. If a longhaired cat is combed daily, most mats can be avoided. If mats do develop in a longhaired cat’s undercoat, they should be pulled out gently, or cut out very carefully. It is very easy to cut a cat’s skin when attempting to cut out mats—the best method is to cut a little bit into the center of the mat and then work it out gently. If a cat develops a lot of mats or the mats are very difficult to get out, he will have to be professionally shaved or clipped. Mats cannot be allowed to remain in a longhaired cat’s fur; eventually they will cause sores, skin problems, or in severe cases, they can cut off circulation to a limb.
Cat’s claws grow continuously and even outdoor cats who often scratch on rough bark or other material need to have their nails clipped regularly. Regular nail clipping prevents accidental scratching of people or other animals and damage to furniture or rugs. Overlong claws can also catch on things, break, bleed, and may cause a cat to twist his leg or shoulder if a claw becomes caught in something.
Most cats learn to accept nail clipping calmly. Many owners prefer to sit with the cat on their lap, backside against their body. With one hand, grasp the cat’s front paw. Press gently on the bottom of the cat’s footpad to extend a claw and clip off the sharp, curved point with a claw clipper, being careful to avoid the nerve and blood vessel (“quick”), which are visible inside the claw at the thick base. If a cat is uncooperative and refuses to allow his feet to be held, it may be necessary to engage the help of another person to hold the cat. Some cats may become extremely upset and frightened when they have to be held as tightly as is necessary for claw clipping. Be careful that both people protect their arms and hands from scratches and/or bites, which can result in serious infection.
If an indoors-only cat is particularly intractable about allowing his claws to be clipped, or is especially destructive, a declawing operation is preferable to giving the cat away. Declawing is also often advised for households in which there are small children or disabled individuals, to prevent accidental scratching. Only the front claws are routinely removed, except in extreme cases. Although the operation is fairly routine nowadays, it is definitely not pleasant for the cat, and is best performed at a young age, often at the same time as a spaying or neutering operation.
An alternative to declawing is to surgically cut the tendons controlling the claws. This prevents a cat from extending his claws and damaging rugs, people, and furniture. The claws are not removed and must still be clipped on a routine basis. However, this procedure makes it easier for a cat to catch his claws in fabric. There is also a nonsurgical alternative using commercially available vinyl nail covers, or caps, which are glued over a cat’s front nails to prevent scratching. Owners can learn to attach these covers themselves. These are an acceptable alternative to declawing for some, but the nails continue to grow and the caps often fall off.
Bathing a Cat
Although cats are usually not bathed, they can be bathed if needed. Sometimes circumstances such as a severe flea infestation, an encounter with a skunk, a bad bout of diarrhea, or contamination of the cat’s fur by something poisonous makes it necessary to bathe a cat.
If an owner opts to bathe a cat herself, it is highly recommended that she have a helper hold the cat while she bathes him. Care must be taken not to chill a cat, and the room in which the bath is given should be warm and draft free. The best place to bathe a cat is in a waist-high tub or kitchen sink—a double sink is ideal, one for washing and the other for rinsing. Cats are often frightened by the sound of running water so it is best to fill both sinks with warm water ahead of time. Ample towels, shampoo diluted in warm water, and a washcloth to sponge the cat with should be nearby.
Before beginning the bath, protect the cat’s eyes with a drop of mineral oil in each, or use an eye lubricant provided by a veterinarian. Lamb’s wool, which doesn’t absorb water, can be placed in his ears to protect them. If this is not available, cotton balls will do.
Very little shampoo is needed; too much will be hard to rinse out. It is very important to rinse all of the shampoo out to prevent skin irritation. Wrap the cat in a towel, pat him dry, and comb through his fur gently. Keep the cat in a warm, draft-free room until he is thoroughly dry. If this process seems too difficult, or there is no helper available, most dog-grooming establishments, and some veterinarians, will bathe cats.
Fleas and Ticks
Ticks rarely become attached to cats because cats groom themselves so assiduously. But they may become attached to the edges of a cat’s eyelids and other ungroomed areas. However, cats are especially susceptible to fleas, which can often be detected when grooming a cat, especially if a flea comb is used. Fleas can usually be found on cats in the thick fur on the back of their necks, on the spine at the base of the tail, and in the warm armpits and between the hind legs.
Sometimes the fleas themselves can be seen. They are tiny, dark brown insects that jump very high and fast. Usually what owners see is flea “dirt,” in the form of tiny, comma-shaped black specks.
If a cat is badly infested with fleas it may be necessary to give him a bath (see above) or to use flea powder, spray, or foam designed especially for cats. The veterinarian will be able to advise an owner about what kind of flea product to use and how to use it. If a flea infestation is not heavy, combing the cat thoroughly with a flea comb several times a day will trap fleas and flea eggs in the comb’s teeth and remove them.
There are now excellent products on the market that are taken internally, or placed on a cat’s fur, once a month during flea season (all year long in warm climates). They either repel or kill fleas or interfere with their reproductive cycle.
However, it isn’t enough to repel fleas or kill the fleas on a cat because these parasites do not live on cats, but simply feed on them. Therefore, environmental control is extremely important. Even an indoor cat in an indoor environment can become infested—dogs that go outside, for instance, can bring in fleas. In order to control a flea population it is necessary to rid the entire environment, outside and in, of fleas. There are a number of different ways to do this. A veterinarian, groomer, or other professional will be able to help determine the best method to use in a particular climate or environment.
Veterinarians recommend regular tooth care for all cats to prevent tooth and gum problems when they get older. Without proper care a cat’s teeth will develop tartar and invisible plaque, which inevitably will lead to inflammation of the gums (gingivitis), and tooth loss.
There are toothbrushes and toothpaste made especially for cats available from veterinarians and pet specialty stores. Human toothpaste shouldn’t be used. Cats do not like the foaming or the taste, and it can cause stomach irritation. If cat toothpaste is not available, use a mixture of baking soda and salt, slightly moistened with water. A small, soft, child’s toothbrush can be used instead of one made for cats. A finger “brush” made of soft rubber with small bumps projecting from the surface also works well.
Before undergoing a tooth-cleaning routine, an adult cat who has never had proper tooth care should have his teeth cleaned by a veterinarian to remove tartar that has built up over the years. Just as with all grooming routines, the earlier a kitten becomes used to having his teeth cleaned, the easier it will be. Begin by using a rough cloth wrapped around a finger and rub the teeth from gum to tip. Work up to a rougher cloth and then a toothbrush. This should be done approximately once a week unless the veterinarian recommends more frequent cleaning.
If there are signs of gingivitis (inflamed gums that bleed easily), broken teeth, or any swelling or redness inside a cat’s mouth, he should be checked by a veterinarian.
Even if a cat is allowed outdoors, at least one litter tray should be available to him in case of an emergency or very bad weather.
If there is more than one cat in a household, more than one litter tray is desirable. For two indoor cats, for instance, most owners keep two litter trays in different locations. (Note: Behaviorists often suggest that, to prevent problems, owners provide one more litter tray than the number of cats—for example, three litter trays for two cats.) Many cats won’t use a litter tray that has been used by another animal, or one that isn’t clean. Cats that are not well, or older cats, should have readily accessible litter trays. The location of a litter tray is important. Most cats like a little privacy when they use a litter tray. Once a suitable location has been found for the litter tray, it should not be moved if possible. If it has to be moved for some reason, be sure the cat knows where it is or he may be forced to use an inappropriate spot.
There are several different types of cat litter on the market. The principal kinds are clay and sandlike clumping litter. Cats often have definite preferences as to the type of litter they like. If possible it is best to stick to whatever type and brand of litter a cat is used to because cats are very conscious of texture and may reject a different kind. Clumping litter is very convenient and easy to clean but it is easily tracked around the house and has recently been reported to cause intestinal problems if it is ingested.
Litter trays, too, differ in style. Some cats prefer a covered litter tray while others are afraid to go in them. An owner will quickly find out if this is the case.
Solid waste should be removed from litter trays every day, and all of the litter should be changed on a regular basis. How often this is needed depends on the number of cats in a household, and the degree of fastidiousness of the cats. If plastic liners are used, the tray itself usually needs little, if any, cleaning. If they are not, the tray should be washed thoroughly. If disinfectant is used, care must be taken to rinse it off completely because any residual odor will offend a cat and force him to find alternative spots.
When an owner is observant of a cat’s litter-tray preferences, many house-training problems can be avoided. See also “Elimination Behavior” in the following chapter.