Cat Fanciers Web Site

Basic Health Care for Cats


Author

Originally written 1991 & updated through 1997 by Cindy Tittle Moore. Maintained by the Fanciers website as of July 1999.

In General

Your cat can't tell you how it's feeling so you must familiarize yourself with its normal behavior. A healthy cat maintains normal body weight, level of activity, and social behavior. A significant change in any of these is a warning sign.

Getting regular, accurate weights can detect problems early. You can weigh yourself on a bathroom scale with (holding) and without the cat and subtract. This is accurate only to about two pounds on most bathroom scales. For better accuracy, modify a kitchen scale by mounting a bigger platform on it. Train your cat to get on the platform by placing a Pounce or similar treat on it. Any sudden weight change, especially loss, probably means your cat is feeling sick.

Medicines for humans are often used for cats, both prescription and non-prescription drugs (phenobarbitol, lasix, amoxicillin, cold medications, etc.). When you hear that you should never give human medicines to cats, it means that you should not give them without first consulting your vet. Certain very common human drugs like aspirin and especially tylenol (acetominophen) are deadly to cats, so don't give them any kind of medication unless recommended by the vet (note that aspirin can be given in very small doses, but you need to check correct dosage and frequency of administration).

A final cautionary note about this section. This is not meant to be a complete treatise on these various diseases. It is intended to familiarize you with the various major diseases your cat can develop. If your cat has any of these diseases, you should be in close contact with your vet, who will provide you with all the information you need


Veterinary Care

On the net

Frequently there are postings such as: "My cat is doing , should I take it to the vet?" Or even, "I can't afford to take my cat to the vet, he is doing , what can I do?" The usual answer will be TAKE IT TO THE VET! It is an irresponsible owner who does not consult the vet, even by phone, at the first opportunity. And if you take on the responsibility of owning a cat, you must budget for the vet visits to keep it healthy.

On the other hand, if you already have a vet appointment, or have had the vet look at it and be stumped by the symptoms, rec.pets.cats can be a valuable resource of tips on what might be wrong, or reassurances that the cat is not at risk of immediate death, so do not hesitate to ask the group under these circumstances.

Home vet books

A low-cost method to ease anxieties over non-emergency kitty problems is to get a home vet book. (See Literature.) These books also help explain what sort of "deviant" behaviors are actually relatively normal for cats. However, unless you yourself are a vet, these books should never substitute for having a vet for your cat.

Pet Insurance

In the August issue of Cat Fancy, there is an article discussing health maintenance plans for cats that is set up between your vet and yourself and then administrated by this HMO company. The company is called RLI Planned Services in Peoria, Illinois.

The article included a sample plan. For $75 a year, your cat receives:

BASIC HEALTH CARE
1 physical exam, no charge
1 FVRCPC booster, no charge
1 Rabies booster, no charge
1 FeLV test, no charge
50% off FeLV series
Fecal analysis, ear flush, worming, no charge
1 Pedicure, no charge
MAJOR ELECTIVE PROCEDURES:
Spay or Neuter, 40% off
Declawing, 20% off
Dental Prophylaxis, 50% off
(anesthesia included)
HEALTH SURVEY:
Radiographs, 20% off
EKG, 20% off
Chemistry screen profile, 20% off
Complete blood count, 20% off
All other medical, surgical and hospital services (except prescriptions and diets) are 10% off.

(All of these things are included in this HMO for $75/year. OR $125 for two years.) Here's the company's address:

RLI Planned Services Inc.
Dept. CF
9025 N. Lindbergh Drive
Peoria, IL 61615
The article says to ask your vet about this program. If he/she isn't familiar with it, they should contact the company and see about setting up the HMO plan.

Vets also may be able to direct you to other pet insurance plans that they know about. You may want to consider that $100/year over an expected 15 to 20 year lifetime is $1500 to $2000. Plus whatever you have to pay for excluded costs, coverage limits, deductibles. Pet insurance will help with major medical problems such as FUS, cancer, etc, or emergency care. If your pet is basically healthy, you will pay about as much either way, for insurance or for preventative care that keeps it healthy.

Choosing a vet

Choose a vet who you are comfortable with and who will answer your questions. Check out the office: do animals seem just frightened or are they also out of control? Is it bedlam, or reasonable for the number of different animals there? Do you have local recommendations from friends? Does the vet specialize in small animals as opposed to, say, livestock? The best way to find a vet is word of mouth (from someone who takes good care of their pets, of course). If that doesn't work, here is a quick and dirty guide (written by Kay Klier, klier@cobra.uni.edu) on some ways to find a vet if you've just moved to a new town or gotten your first pet:

24 hour emergency care

A good vet will either be associated with a 24 emergency care plan or be able to give you the number of a good place in your area. Keep this number on your refrigerator and check with your vet when you visit that it's still up-to-date.

Fecal samples

Any time you bring your cat to the vet, try to bring a fresh fecal sample. Put a small, fingernail-sized sample into a plastic bag, or ask your vet for a supply of fecal samplers. The vet cannot always get a fecal sample from the cat, and this saves you extra trips to return the sample and then bring the cat in if the tests are positive. If you are afraid your cat will not cooperate and give you a fresh sample before you need to go in, within 18-12 hours before a sample can be placed in the refrigerator. Samples over 18 hours hold, however, will probably not be of use.

Cat reactions

Cats largely dislike being taken to the vet. They hate riding in the car most of all, and the smell of fear and other animals in the office often distresses them further. Get a pet carrier. A plain cardboard one will do for infrequent trips; get a stronger fiberglass one for more travel or destructive cats. Carriers keep your cat under control at the vet's and prevent accidents in the car en route. Popular suggestions to reduce your cat's anxiety during vet visits:

Further steps

From kittenhood, accustom your cat to being handled. Look into its ears (clean, white and light pink), eyes (clear, no runniness, inner eyelids may blink but should remain open), nose (clean and pink (or its normal color) and mouth (clean, light pink gums) regularly. Hold it still and look at its anus; pick up its paws and look at the pads and claws. This will have the added benefit that you will notice any changes from normal quickly and be able to call up your vet if something is wrong.

Do arrange for the kitten to meet plenty of people; this will socialize your cat and it will not hide from people when adult.

Vet bills

You should be prepared to handle routine costs from year to year incurred by yearly physical exams, occassional fecal samples (and worming medication), plus yearly vaccinations. However, accidents and major illnesses can happen. Sometimes, pet health care insurance is one way people use to control these costs. Other times you might try vet schools which may give you reduced rates for their students to have the opportunity to work with your cat, especially if the problem is rare or uncommon.

You might be able to negotiate a monthy payment toward a large bill, or a slightly reduced one in exchange for a bit of labor or other work (for example, one accountant prepared his vet's taxes in exchange for reducing the cost of surgery that his dog had had).

The humane society may know of lower-cost clinics or vets who are prepared to cut prices for people who are not particularly well off. It can't hurt to call around and ask.

But as other posters have mentioned, being a vet is a business, too, and vets tend not to have high incomes. They also have many of the same expenses as an MD (equipment, office staff) and the additional expenses of running their own pharmacy (and animal medicine is just as expensive as people medicine).


Human-Cat Disease Transmission (Zoonoses)

Some diseases can be transmitted from cats to people (zoonoses). Most cannot. For example, you absolutely cannot contract AIDS from a cat with FIV or FeLV, although the diseases are related (all are retroviruses). This misconception led to the tragic deaths of hundreds of cats as panicked owners got rid of them.

Anyone with an impaired immune system is at risk of exposure to germs and other things from cats that healthy people would not contract; this is regardless of the health of the cat.

You are more likely to contract diseases from other people than your pets. Transmission of disease generally requires close contact between susceptible people and animals or their oral, nasal, ocular or digestive excretions. Use common sense and practice good hygiene to reduce your risks.

From the Cornell Book of Cats:


Neutering

If you are not planning to breed your cat or put it to stud service, you will want to neuter it. Technically, the general term for either sex is neutering; female cats are spayed and male cats are castrated. However, general usage is that female cats are spayed or neutered and male cats are neutered.

Castration

Male cats are castrated. A local anesthetic is administered and several stitches are used to close it up. You will want to neuter the male cat after its testicles descend but before its urine odor changes. This is typically around 6 months of age. By neutering earlier, you prevent spraying (if it has started spraying, it may not stop after neutering, even though it is no longer hormonally driven). Neutering later has been thought to help reduce the chances of FUS, but many studies have shown that there is no difference in urinary tract development or predisposition to FUS between early-neutered cats (as early as 7 weeks!) and late-neutered cats. As soon as the testicles have descended is just fine. As of 1993, this is now the official position of the AVMA. If surgery must be done on an undescended testicle (sometimes a testicle will not descend and then it needs to be removed) then the cost and risk increase.

Some male cats may have undescended testicles. These must be surgically removed, as they often turn cancerous later. This is a more serious (and expensive) surgery than the usual castration, as the vet will have to use a general anesthetic and exploratory surgery to find the undescended testicle and remove it.

An intact male cat (a "tom") will spray a foul-smelling urine to mark his territory, he will roam widely, and he will be involved in more fights. Often, he will be more aggressive. He will be at higher risk for certain diseases, such as cancer; he will also be more prone to infection from the injuries in fights. A neutered male cat will lose the foul-smelling odor in his urine (but may still spray); he will not roam as widely nor fight as often. You will be able to keep him indoors if you wish. Contrary to popular opinion, he will not become more lazy or fat. Laziness and fatness depend on cat temperament and how much you feed him.

Spaying

Female cats are spayed; this is an ovario-hysterectomy (uterus and ovaries are removed). There are two methods: ventral entry which is through the stomach muscles in the belly (where a large patch of fur will be shaved to prevent later irritation of the incision), and the lateral entry which is through a small incision in the cat's side. Ventral entry is less expensive, lateral entry has a quicker recovery time. You may have to bring your cat back in after ventral entry to remove stitches; lateral entry uses internal sutures which dissolve. Ventral entry is much more commonly employed; lateral entry is relatively rare, and not all vets may know how to do it.

The cat must be put under general anesthesia. There is always an element of risk in general anesthesia and while it is rare, a few rec.pets.cats readers have had their cats die under anesthesia. The earlier the female cat is spayed, the better. Any time after four months is good, preferably before the heat cyles start. Heat cycles may begin as five months.. On occasion, a female cat will not have all of her ovaries removed. The ovaries produce the hormones that induce heat: if your cat still goes through heat after being spayed, you may have to take her in for exploratory surgery to find the missed ovary, or even piece of ovary.

An intact female cat (a "queen") will go through heat which can be as frequent as every other week, and may last eight to ten days at a time. It may even appear as though she remains in heat constantly. You must keep her confined to prevent breeding, and she will do her best to escape. During her heat, she may "spray" a strong smelling urine just as tomcats do. Many cats will meow loudly for long periods of time. She will twitch her tail to the side and display her vulva. If she becomes pregnant, she will undergo all the risks and expenses associated with pregnancy (extra visits to the vet and extra food). Male cats will try very hard to get at her; there are documented cases, for example, of male cats entering homes through the chimney.

An unbred, intact queen has a much higher risk of developing cancer of the reproductive system. Queens also risk pyometra (a life threatening infection of the uterus). Spayed cats have a much lower risk of cancer and will not contract pyometra.

Female cats may come into estrus within a few days of giving birth. If you have a queen that you want to stop from having more litters, try to get her spayed as soon as possible after the kittens are born.

Post-op recovery

You will need to watch to make sure your cat does not try to pull out its stitches. Consult your vet if your cat starts pulling at its stitches. You might, in persistent cases, need to get an elizabethan collar to prevent the cat from reaching the stitches. Puffiness, redness, or oozing around the stiches should be also reported to the vet.

Some stitches "dissolve" on their own; others require a return to the vet for removal. Some vets, especially with male cats, may use "glue" instead, which works as well in most cases and does not require later removal.

You should note that male cats will take some time to flush all testosterone and semen out of their systems. There have been recorded cases of "neutered" cats impregnating female cats shortly after their operation. Three to four weeks is sufficient time for neutered toms to become sterile.

Cost

The cost can vary widely, depending on where you get it done. There are many pet-adoption places that will offer low-cost or even free neutering services, sometimes as a condition of adoption. Local animal clinics will often offer low-cost neutering. Be aware that spaying will always cost more than castrating at any given place since spaying is a more complex operation. Vets almost always charge more than clinics, partly because of overhead, but also because they often keep the animal overnight for observation and will do free followup on any later complications (a consideration in the case of missed ovaries).

In the US, there is at least one group, "Friends of Animals" (1-800-321-7387) that will give you information on low-cost spay/neutering places, or do it themselves. They often have price-reduction certificates that your vet may accept.

Quoting actual prices may or may not give you an idea of the cost for you in your area. Costs can range from US$10 for castration at a clinic to US$100 for spaying at the vet's. This is money well spent. One pair of cats, allowed to breed, and with 2 litters a year and 2.8 surviving kittens per litter, will account for 80,000 cats in 10 years!

Early Neutering

Early neutering is increasingly an option, especually used by human societies and shelters to ensure that the cats they adopt out will not produce any more kittens. Studies have shown that there are no adverse effects to neutering kittens at 7 weeks of age. See the CFA's position on this issue.

Skin Problems

Matted fur

Matted fur is a perfect breeding ground for parasites and encourages inflammatory skin diseases. If your cat has matted fur, do not try to cut it off as you may injure the cat. Mats are difficult to comb out and may be painful. You may have to have the vet sedate and shave the cat. Do groom it regularly to prevent mats.

Bald patches

Often caused by itching and irritation of some sort. Fleas, allergies, eczema, and ringworm are all possible culprits. Sometimes it is simply stress; Vets may prescribe hormone shots or even tranquilizers to control the scratching.

If ringworm is indicated, you must take care not to get it yourself. It is a fungus just like athletes foot. Tresaderm and similar medications are used to treat this. Since ringworm spreads by spores, you can reduce transmission and spreading by cleaning everything you can with bleach (save the cat itself), and washing bedding and clothing in hot water. It may take some time (like several months) to get ringworm under control.

Scratching

If the cat is scratching its ears and you can see black grit, that's probably earmites. Consult your vet for appropriate ear drops. Ear mites stay in the ears, but can be passed from cat to cat, especially if they groom each other. The life cycle of an ear mite is entirely within the ear, so you do not have to worry about ridding your house of them the way you do fleas. Cats typically shake their heads when given the medication; unless the medication actually comes back out, that is OK. An additional step to take is to soak a cotton ball or pad in mineral oil (baby oil is fine), and clean out the outer ear (do not poke into the canal). That rids the upper ear of any ear mites lodged higher up than the canal, and makes it difficult for the ear mites to reestablish themselves.

Scratching and a discharge from the ears means a bacterial or fungal infection and the vet should be immediately consulted. Other possible causes of scratching include fleas, lice, eczema, allergies, or stud tail (in male cats).

Feline Acne

Cats can develop acne just as humans do. Usually it is only on the chin. It will appear as small black spots. The reasons for feline acne are as complex as it is for humans. Sometimes a food allergy (such as chocolate with humans or milk with cats) can cause it or sometimes the cat does not clean its chin properly.

Tips on caring for feline acne

It is important to keep food dishes clean. Acne has bacteria associated with it. The cat's chin comes in contact with the edge of the food/water bowl, leaving bacteria. The next time the cat uses the bowl, it can come in contact with this bacteria and spread it on the chin. Visit the vet if you can't get the acne to clear up within a week or two, or if the acne is severe or infected. The vet may prescribe antibiotics or other acne treatments for these cats.

Once the acne is cleared up, keep an eye out for reoccurrences. Washing the cat's chin once a week is a good preventative measure.


Dental Care

Tartar buildup

Cats, like humans, have tartar buildup on their teeth called plaque. An accumulation of plaque can lead to peridontal (gum) problems, and the eventual loss of teeth. Plaque is a whitish-yellow deposit. Cats seem to accumulate plaque primarily on the exterior face of their upper teeth. Reddened gum lines can indicate irritation from plaque.

Some cats are more prone to plaque buildup than others. Some never need dental care, others need to have their teeth cleaned at regular intervals. Many vets encourage you to bring your cat in annually for teeth cleaning, using a general anesthetic. The cost, which can be considerable, and the risk of the anesthesia itself are both good incentives for doing some cat dental care at home.

If you must have the vet clean your cat's teeth, see if your vet is willing to try a mild sedative (rather than putting the cat under entirely) first when cleaning the teeth. If your cat is an older cat (5 years or more) and it must be put under, see if the vet will use a gas anesthesia rather than an injected form.

What you can do:

Brush your cat's teeth once a week. Use little cat toothbrushes, or soft child-size toothbrushes, and edible cat toothpaste (available at most vets or pet stores). Cats often hate to have their teeth brushed, so you may have to use a bathtowel straightjacket and a helper. If you are skilled and have a compliant cat, you can clean its teeth using the same type of tool the human dentist does.

Rootwork

Cavities in cat teeth often occur just at or under the gum line. If your cat has an infected tooth, you will have to have root work done on it. It is typical to do x-rays after such a procedure to ensure that all of the roots have reabsorbed. If the roots haven't done so, then the infection can easily continue on up to the sinus and nasal passages and from there to the lungs. Such infections require long-term antibiotics.

Smelly breath

If your cat has smelly breath, there are various possible causes.

Declawing

Declawing is the surgical removal of the claw and the surrounding tissue that it retracts into. Usually the claws on the front feet only are removed, but sometimes the digits are as well. This is sometimes used as a last resort with inveterate scratchers of furniture, carpet, etc. However, if trained in kittenhood, most cats are very good about scratching only allowable items such as scratching posts (see Scratching). Britain and a few other countries have made declawing illegal. Show cats may not be shown declawed. Many vets will refuse to do this procedure.

Declawed cats often compensate with their rear claws; many can still climb well, although their ability to defend themselves is often impaired and they should not be allowed outside without supervision. Many declawed cats become biters when they find that their claws no longer work; others develop displays of growling. Scratching is one way of marking territory (there are scent glands among the paw pads), so declawed cats will still "scratch" things even though there are no claws to sharpen.

Alternatives are trimming the claws (see section on Trimming Claws) or "Soft Paws". These are soft plastic covers for the cat's claws. Generally, the vet will put them on, but cat owners can do so themselves if shown how. They will last about a month despite efforts to remove them. Check the July 1992 issue of Animal Sense. There is an informative article titled "Fake Fingernails for Felines?" by Dr. Marilyn Hayes at the Rowley Animal Hospital in Rowley, MA. They can make a useful training tool if used in conjuction with techniques to redirect clawing and scratching to approved items.


Pills, Dosing and Medication

Giving pills

Kneel on floor and put cat between knees (cat facing forwards). Cross your ankles behind so cat can't escape backwards; press your knees together so cat can't escape forwards. Make sure your cat's front legs are tucked in between your knees so it can't claw you. Put the palm of your hand on top of its head and thumb and index finger on either side of its mouth; the mouth will fall open as you tilt the head back. If it doesn't, gently push down on the cat's lower front teeth eith your middle finger of your other hand (the first two fingers are to hold the pill). You may wish to stop at this point and use a flashlight to examine the cat's mouth to see what you are doing. You want to drop the pill in on *top* of the tongue as far *back* as you can. Keep the head tilted back and stroke its throat until pill is swallowed. Then let your cat escape.

Another trick is to buy a bottle of gelatin capsules. Take the capsule apart, dump the contents, put the pill in the empty capsule (in pieces if it won't otherwise fit) and reassemble the two capsule halves. Some places, especially natural food stores, will sell empty gelatin capsules, try and get size "00". This makes the administration of small pills much easier, and can also allow you to give more than one pill at one time, if they're sufficiently small. The capsule itself just dissolves away harmlessly. Do NOT use capsules which have been filled with any other substance but plain gelatin, since the residue may not agree with your pet!

You can try babyfood as a deception: get some pureed baby food meat, dip your finger in the jar, and sort of nestle the pill in the baby food. Offer it to your cat and it may lick it up. Be warned, some cats are very good at licking up everything BUT the pill.

You can get a pill plunger from your vet. This is a syringe-like tool that takes the pill on one end and lets you "inject" the pill. You can insert the pill deep down the cat's throat this way.

Administring Liquids

To administer liquid medication if the cat will not lick it up: use the same procedure for pilling, but (using a needle-less syringe that you can obtain from your vet) squirt the medicine down its throat instead of dropping the pill. Cats do not choke on inhaled liquids like humans because they rarely breath through their mouths.

Cats can vomit easily, so keep an eye on them for a while after they've been dosed: it's not impossible that they'll run off to a corner and upchuck the medicine. Giving them a pet treat after dosage may help prevent this.

Topical Application

If your cat has an affected *area* that you must clean or swab or otherwise handle, try this strategy, especially if the cat is uncooperative:

Start with lots of handling. At first don't handle the affected area, at all or for long. Gradually increase the amount of handling of the affected area. Move closer to it day by day, spend more time near it or on it. Talk to the cat while you're handling it. At the same time you're handling the affected area, pet the cat in an area it likes to be handled. After handling the affected area, praise the cat, pet the cat, give the cat a food treat, do things the cat likes.

As long as the medical problem you're treating isn't acute, don't restrain the cat to apply treatment. Gradually working up to a tolerable if not pleasant approach is much better in the long run.

If you must restrain the cat, grab the fur on the back of the neck with one hand, holding the head down, and clean/medicate with the other hand. Have your vet show you how. Sometimes wrapping the cat in a towel helps too.


Worms

This information is condensed from Taylor. If you suspect worms in your cat, take it (and a fresh fecal sample) to the vet. Do not try over the counter products: you may not have diagnosed your cat correctly or correctly identified the worm and administer the wrong remedy. In addition, your vet can give you specific advice on how to prevent reinfestation.

General tips on preventing worm infestation: stop your cat from eating wild life; groom regularly; keep flea-free; keep bedding clean; and get regular vet examination for worms.

Note that a fecal exam may not be enough to determine if a cat has worms. In particular, tapeworms are often not visible in a fecal exam.


Fleas

Actually, you can have fleas and ticks in your home even without pets. But having pets does increase the odds you will have to deal with either or both of these pests. There is a FAQ on fleas and ticks available via ftp to rtfm.mit.edu under pub/usenet/news.answers/pets/fleas-ticks. If you do not have ftp access, send email to mail-server@rtfm.mit.edu with "send usenet/news.answers/pets/fleas-ticks" in the body of the message. Leave the subject line empty, and don't include the quotes in the send request.

Poisons (incl. plants, food & household chemicals)

The information in this section is mostly condensed from Carlson & Giffins. The list of poisons is not intended to be conclusive. Nor are the treatments intended to be sufficient: call your vet in the event of any internal poisoning.

In particular, notice that the list of problematic plants cannot be all inclusive. There are many plants with multiple names and even a botanist can't come up with a conclusive list. This is why you will almost never see identical lists put out by different organizations. When in doubt, try to go by the most regional information you can find, which is the most likely to use names current in your regions.

Treatment after ingestion

To induce vomiting in cats: Do NOT induce vomiting when the cat You will also want to coat the digestive tract and speed up elimination to help rid the cat of the substances: To delay or prevent absorption If your cat has a poisonous substance on its skin or coat, wash it off before your cat licks the substance off and poisons itself. Use soap and water or give it a complete bath in lukewarm (not cold) water.

Greenhouse plants

Plants from commercial greenhouses may be sprayed with systemics to control pests. Some are fairly nasty and long-lasting. More enlightened greenhouses use integrated pest management techniques and vastly reduce the costs of pest control, and costs to the environment.

You'll need to ask about what the sprays are, how often, etc. They should have MSDS (material safety data sheets) on hand for everything they use. Many greenhouses also buy foliage plants (esp.) from commercial growers in southern states, rather than raising their own plants, so you need to ask about that too.

Household plants

Outdoor plants

Non-Poisonous Plants

So what plants can cats nibble on with abandon?

To start with, you can assume anything with square stems (in cross-section) and opposite leaves is OK. That's the hallmark of the mint family, which includes catnip, _Nepeta_ and _Coleus_. Catnip can be grown in a bright window in the winter, but the cats may knock it off the sill. Coleus is easy, and kind of bright and cheerful with its colored leaves. Swedish Ivy, _Plectranthus_, is also in this family and incredibly easy to grow. Good hanging basket plant. Tolerates kitty-nibbles well.

Chemical substances

Food

Chocolate: theobromine, which is found in chocolate is toxic to cats. The darker and more bitter the chocolate is, the more theobromine it has. More information can be found in the Summer 1992 edition of Cat Life.

Caffeine: can cause problems for your cat. Do not feed it coffee, Coco Cola, or other foods containing caffeine.

Household medications

(From Norsworthy, 1993:)

Medications that cats should NEVER be given:

Medications that can be used in certain cats with restrictions, and ONLY on the advice of a vet

 

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