How to Keep a Cat’s Body Healthy - A Healthy Cat - The Veterinarians' Guide to Your Cat's Symptoms - Michael S. Garvey, Anne E. Hohenhaus

The Veterinarians' Guide to Your Cat's Symptoms - Michael S. Garvey, Anne E. Hohenhaus (1999)

Part I. A Healthy Cat

How to Keep a Cat’s Body Healthy

Just as is true in human health care, the best way to assure a cat’s physical well-being is to practice common sense care and preventive medicine. Proper veterinary care, immunizations against contagious diseases, nutrition that meets a cat’s needs at each stage of his life, basic grooming and cleanliness, some kind of play or exercise, and generally good daily care all combine to form a routine that will help a cat’s body function at its maximum potential.

Choosing a Veterinarian

Before bringing a new kitten or cat home, it’s a good idea to shop for a veterinarian, because a thorough head-to-tail checkup is one of the very first steps to take in sensible preventive medicine.

Although there are low-cost clinics that will perform most routine services such as yearly immunizations and boosters and simple neutering operations, most cat owners want a veterinarian with whom they can consult if some aspect of their pet’s well-being troubles them. For this purpose a good companion animal practitioner is the best choice, especially for pet owners with both cats and dogs. As a good pediatrician does with a child and his parents, it is important that a veterinarian get to know both pet and owner in order to be effective in assessing illnesses and disorders that may arise later on in a cat’s life. There are veterinarians who limit their practices to feline medicine only, but they are not necessarily feline specialists. Cats-only veterinary practices may be more satisfactory for owners of particularly timid cats, which may not appreciate an office full of barking dogs.

Veterinarians differ greatly in ability and personality, just as human doctors do. For general, routine pet care, probably the most important aspect in selecting a veterinarian is an owner’s ability to get along with and communicate well with the doctor. In case something very complicated should come up, a general-practice veterinarian will usually refer a pet owner to a specialist in the area of concern, such as dermatology, cardiology, internal medicine, and so forth. It’s a good idea to find out ahead of time if the veterinary practice being considered has access to these types of specialists, or to a large veterinary teaching facility or hospital with specialists on staff

The best sources of information about local veterinarians are pet-owning friends and neighbors. Breeders, groomers, and even pet-supplystore owners may also know of good local veterinarians. Many veterinarians are in group practice and share facilities and staff. Barring any of these resources, call the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) toll free (for the number). They have the names of member animal hospitals in all geographical areas. They set high standards for their animal hospital members in equipment, procedures, and physical facilities.

Nowadays a great many animal hospitals are closed on Sundays, holidays, and during nighttime hours. For off-hour and holiday emergencies several practices often join to establish a centrally located emergency clinic, manned by member veterinarians and employees on a rotating basis. If this arrangement is not satisfactory it may be best to find a veterinary practice in which one of the doctors is on call all of the time.

Once a preliminary decision is made to choose a particular veterinarian and/or practice, an appointment should be made for a checkup for a new kitten or cat as soon as possible after he comes home. At that time, if an owner finds the veterinarian is not satisfactory, common sense dictates that another doctor be found. More about what to expect on the first veterinary visit later in this chapter.

Choosing a Healthy Pet

The first decision a potential kitten or cat owner has to make is, purebred or mixed breed? There are advantages to each kind of cat, and a lot depends on an owner’s lifestyle and the expected lifestyle of the pet.

If a potential owner has decided on a particular kind of cat, a purebred may be ideal. Purebred cats differ from mixed-breed cats in that they have been selectively bred to develop particular body conformations, haircoats, temperaments, and personalities. It’s important for a potential owner to be aware of the differences among breeds. Persian cats are quite different from Siamese, for instance, just as British Shorthairs are very unlike Abyssinians. A purebred kitten raised in good conditions by a reliable breeder will grow into an adult cat with a predictable haircoat, body conformation, and so on. Some cat breeds may be prone to particular physical disorders. For a list of some congenital diseases and defects common to particular breeds, see Appendix B.

For first-time cat owners who know they want a purebred cat, the best source for a kitten is a breeder. It is very unusual to find an adult purebred cat for sale. Breeders and owners of purebreds are generally very devoted to their cats and will not part with them. Unlike the American Kennel Club for dogs, there is no one, central registry of standards for purebred cats in the United States. One of the best ways to locate a breeder is to visit one or more cat shows: talk to breeders and cat owners and see the kittens and cats. For someone who wants a pet, not a show cat, breeders will often offer what they call a “pet quality” kitten with less-than-show-perfect markings for a price less than that for a showquality kitten. Purebred-cat breeders are usually very careful of their animals and take good care of them, although there are exceptions. Even the most careful breeder may not be able to prevent all disease, so it is still very important to visit a veterinarian immediately.

Breeders often travel far to attend cat shows so it may not be possible to see the parents or littermates of a kitten being considered. If a purebred kitten has been raised in a private home, on the other hand, a potential owner should be sure to see both parents to make certain a kitten actually is purebred and not the product of accidental mating, and to evaluate their health and personalities. It’s important for a kitten obtained from any source to visit a veterinarian right away, and for a new owner to obtain a binding return agreement should the kitten turn out to have a serious defect or disease.

Serious cat breeders are very unlikely to sell their pets to chain pet stores. The kittens in these stores are generally obtained from opportunistic breeders who want to cash in on the popularity of certain cat breeds and who may have little interest in proper genetics or preventive health care.

Nearly 90 percent of pet cats owned in this country are mixed breeds. Mixed-breed cats are generally healthy and hardy and make excellent pets. Mixed-breed kittens are not difficult to find, especially in the spring when the breeding season is at its height. Kittens, and grown cats, too, of all combinations of colors and haircoats can be located through Humane Societies, shelters, or even advertisements on supermarket bulletin boards. For first-time pet owners, and owners who want a special cat, the best bet is to find a kitten or cat that has been raised in a caring home in which the mother of the kittens is someone’s well-loved pet. A kitten from this kind of home will have been born into a relatively clean, disease-free environment to a mother who has been well fed and is probably parasite free.

However, little kittens are especially vulnerable to disease, and even loving pet owners may not be aware of the necessity to immunize them. Be sure to obtain a vaccination and health certificate signed by a veterinarian if you opt to adopt a kitten from a private home. Then take the new kitten or cat to the veterinarian right away to have a complete physical examination, and additional immunizations if necessary.

If there are other cats in the household, isolate the newcomer until he’s given a completely clean bill of health. A minimum of two weeks is recommended to be certain a new pet isn’t incubating an infectious disease that even a veterinarian may not be able to detect (see incubation periods, below). This means providing separate living quarters, litter pans, food and water dishes, and toys. Even if the existing resident cats have up-to-date immunizations, there may be strains of disease to which they are not immune. This is especially true in the case of very young or elderly cats, who are apt to be less resistant to disease than healthy young adults.

If a new kitten or cat is obviously unwell, or develops symptoms of illness, even stricter care is necessary to protect resident felines from exposure. An owner can become a carrier of viral diseases on clothing, shoes, and hands. Protective clothing, such as a smock and gloves and old socks and slippers, should be worn over regular clothing when taking care of a sick newcomer, and this clothing should stay in the “isolation room.” Careful hand washing after handling a sick cat is a must. If these steps seem difficult, remember, it is much easier to prevent infection than to have several sick cats to take care of.

A Veterinary Checkup

Many young kittens have roundworms. Left unchecked, roundworms can cause a kitten to have diarrhea and eventually become very sick. They can also infect humans. Roundworm eggs are shed in the feces of an infected kitten, and if they are ingested by a human can migrate to various organs, most particularly the eyes, where they will eventually cause blindness. Since most young children frequently put their unwashed hands into their mouths, this is especially important to know if there are young children in the household. Roundworm eggs are not infectious when first passed. They need time to become contagious, so frequent emptying of litter pans is very important. Because of the serious nature of roundworm infections in humans it is essential that a kitten be dewormed, even if no worms are visible in a stool sample. Treatment with proper medication should be given at least twice at twoto-four-week intervals, usually at the same time immunizations are given. The medication is safe, effective, and not expensive. Over-the-counter products are usually unsatisfactory and can be dangerous for a small kitten.

The veterinarian will check the kitten all over, from head to tail. She’ll listen to his heart and lungs, check the insides of his mouth and ears for any abnormalities or signs of ear mites, and feel his rib cage and stomach for any swelling or abnormality. She’ll check the kitten’s skin and coat. She’ll check the kitten’s genitals and determine his (her) gender. She’ll weigh the kitten in order to keep a record of growth, and take his temperature. She will also perform blood tests to be sure the kitten is free from either the feline leukemia virus (FeLV;) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV;), both of which are retroviruses and lead to serious illness.

If a kitten or cat seems to be in general good health, the next step is to establish an immunization schedule. Kittens need to be vaccinated against infectious diseases every few weeks in order to be fully protected. If a kitten is going to be an indoorsoutdoors pet, ask the veterinarian at what stage in the immunization process it will be safe to allow him outdoors. Owners should be aware, however, that indoor-only cats are much healthier than those that are allowed out, and tend to live longer.

No matter if a cat is strictly an indoor pet, he still needs protection from dangerous infectious diseases. He can be exposed to disease organisms from infectious feces brought in on peoples’ shoes, by viruses that are airborne, or carried on clothing and hands, by insect carriers, and by exposure to other pets in veterinary hospitals. Immunity to disease is not a lifetime condition for cats but must be reinforced regularly for the animal to remain protected. Adult cats need revaccinations, called booster shots, to retain immunity from disease. They are usually given every year, except rabies. For an adult cat’s booster schedule.

One piece of equipment that should be mentioned here is a sturdy carrying case for a cat. The cardboard boxes that are often given to new cat owners are not really escapeproof. A roomy, hard-sided case with a latched door is a good choice (see illustration). Soft-sided, nylon-mesh cat carriers are also popular. Most veterinarians insist that cat patients come to their offices in carrying cases.

How Do Vaccinations Work, and What Do They Prevent?

Vaccinations help a cat’s body develop antibodies, which fight off specific infectious diseases by awakening his body’s immune system to the particular bacterium or virus that causes the disease when it invades the animal’s body. An antibody is a protein that is manufactured in the cat’s body when it is exposed to the disease organism in the vaccine. Vaccines are used to prevent diseases, not treat them, and will do no good if a kitten or cat is already infected with a disease.

The infectious cat diseases for which vaccines have been developed are: feline panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, calicivirus (these three are often prevented with one vaccine); pneumonitis, also called chlamydia (which may be included in four-component vaccines); feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and rabies (killed vaccine only for cats). Veterinarians usually recommend the three-component vaccine because pneumonitis is relatively mild and uncommon in household cats. If a cat is boarded or taken to cat shows, pneumonitis vaccine is often added. Upper respiratory infections such as rhinotracheitis and calicivirus can be very serious in cats and may lead to death.

A vaccine to prevent feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is now available through veterinarians. The vaccine is different from the injectable ones mentioned above. It is given in a cat’s nose, because the nose is where the FIP virus is thought to enter the cat’s body and cause infection. The remainder of a cat’s body is warmer than the nasal passages and this increased temperature causes the virus to die so it cannot infect the entire cat. Not all veterinarians feel this vaccine is necessary or effective because kittens are usually affected with FIP shortly after birth. Indoor-only cats are not at risk for acquiring FIP because it is caught from other cats. The need for this vaccine should be discussed with a veterinarian.

One of the things for owners to remember is that various diseases have different incubation periods, or lapses of time between exposure to the disease and the actual outbreak of the disease. During the incubation period of a disease an animal will show no signs of illness; it isn’t until the disease has spread throughout a cat’s body that he will become visibly ill. This lack of symptoms is especially common with young kittens that have not been given good health care. It is very important to begin a kitten’s immunization process right away; the so-called temporary shots often given to kittens are not very effective—see below for more details about this. If a kitten is started on an immunization schedule while he is incubating a disease, it is really a matter of chance whether the disease or the antibodies will win. Sometimes seemingly healthy kittens that are in the process of being immunized can sicken and even die because of this.





There is currently a controversy about feline immunizations. A growing number of people believe cats are being vaccinated too frequently and do not need yearly boosters. Opponents are afraid that if the frequency of vaccinations is reduced, the result will be the return of many feline diseases. At the time of this writing, we still recommend following the schedules found here.

It is very rare for a vaccination to cause a cat to become ill, but beginning in 1991 several reports in veterinary medical journals associated the administration of feline vaccines with the development of skin tumors (sarcomas) at the spot where the vaccine was given. This occurred

most often when killed rabies vaccines and FeLV vaccines were given. The current thinking is that a chemical called an adjuvant, added to these two vaccines to stimulate the immune response, is responsible for the tumor development. An adjuvant is not present in other cat vaccines. The incidence of these tumors is low—approximately one in five to ten thousand vaccinations. In the future, vaccines will be produced with advanced DNA technology that may help eliminate the risk of cats developing these tumors.

Vaccinations are usually given in a series every four weeks to kittens under four months of age. See the kitten immunization chart. This is necessary because the passive immunity kittens attain during the first week of life from the colostrum in their mothers’milk is shortlived. Studies show that 95 percent of kittens have lost passive immunity by the time they are twelve weeks old; most of the remaining 5 percent lose it by the time they are fourteen weeks old. While the maternal antibodies are present they automatically inactivate a vaccine. But because we don’t know exactly when this passive immunity will be lost, a series of vaccines is given to ensure a kitten’s immunity at all times. After fourteen weeks it is almost certain a kitten no longer has any maternal antibodies and he will now be able to respond to vaccination by forming his own antibodies, or active immunity. This is why so-called temporary shots do not always provide effective protection.





After a kitten has been successfully vaccinated by the series of injections it can usually be assumed that immunity has been achieved for a period of time. But owners must realize no vaccine is 100 percent effective in all cases. Some cats have a more sluggish immune system than others, and not all respond as well to vaccines as others. It is always possible for a kitten or cat to contract a disease even when he has been properly vaccinated, although the disease will usually be less severe and of shorter duration than it would be in an unprotected animal. Booster shots are given to adult cats on a regular basis.

Spaying and Neutering

At the same time the veterinarian sets up an immunization schedule she will probably want to discuss the benefits of spaying or neutering a pet cat.

If an owner does not want to breed a pet cat, both an overiohysterectomy (OHE, “spay”) of a female cat and castration (“neutering,” “altering”) of a tomcat are desirable for a number of reasons both behavioral and physical. In both cases, of course, these operations prevent accidental breeding and the birth of unwanted litters of kittens. Although public awareness has reduced the number of unwanted kittens in recent years, a visit to any pound or shelter, especially in the spring and early summer breeding season, will attest to the continuing birth of many hundreds of unwanted kittens each year. Many of these kittens are not adopted and end up being put to sleep.

In addition to preventing the conception and birth of kittens, an OHE will also prevent recurring heat periods in female cats. During heat periods female cats will pace and yowl, or “call,” loudly all day and night. They will usually also rub continuously against both people and furniture and may roll around on the floor. Because cats normally do not ovulate unless they are bred, heat periods will continue to occur every ten to fourteen days during the entire photoperiod. When a female cat is spayed before her first heat period, the operation is thought to prevent mammary gland tumors, which are very serious in cats, and will also prevent future uterine infections and tumors of the reproductive tract.

Although an OHE is a major abdominal operation, modern medical techniques have made it relatively painless and uncomplicated when performed by a competent veterinarian. A cat will usually stay in the hospital overnight following an OHE to be certain she has come out of the anesthetic well and is comfortable. After a day or so of quiet rest at home she usually shows no signs of discomfort. Complications rarely occur, but if a cat should show signs of discomfort or the incision becomes red or irritated, the veterinarian should be consulted.

For a male cat castration usually eliminates roaming behavior, aggression toward other cats, and, probably the most important consideration for a pet owner, the spraying of foul-smelling urine to mark his territory. Once a cat forms this habit it can be very difficult to break, so castration before eight months of age is recommended. Neutering also decreases the odor of male cat urine.

The neutering operation is relatively simple and a cat is usually allowed to go home the same day. After the operation the cat needs to be kept indoors for several days to prevent infection. Shredded newspaper should be substituted for clay litter to prevent contamination of the incision. Complications are rare; the most common problem is swelling of the scrotum due to irritation or excessive licking. If this occurs the veterinarian should be consulted.

In recent years many animal shelters have begun to neuter young kittens before they are adopted in order to avoid the birth of more unwanted kittens. So far, early neutering has proved to be safe and effective. However, not enough time has elapsed since this procedure was begun to find out if there are any negative longterm health effects. If a kitten from a shelter has already been castrated or had an OHE, there is probably nothing for a prospective owner to worry about. If the procedure has not already been performed, it is best to wait for the operations until the recommended ages.

What About Weight Gain After Spaying or Neutering?

Because OHE’s and castrations are routinely performed just as cats are maturing, normal changes in sleeping habits, activity levels, metabolic rate, and food utilization are often blamed by owners on the surgery. However, some cats seem to have increased appetites after neutering. Owners need to remember that a one-year-old cat requires far fewer calories a day than a growing kitten.

Adult cats often need to be encouraged to exercise to burn off excess calories. Indoor-only cats, especially, may require incentives to exercise. More about this later in the chapter.

Providing Good Nutrition

Much has been learned about cat’s nutritional needs in the past decade. Although cat’s dietary requirements are similar to those of other mammals, it is known that they have some very specific and unique nutritional needs.

First of all, cats require more protein per day than dogs and this protein must come from an animal source in order to contain the amino acids necessary for cats. The amino acids arginine and taurine are essential for cats to have in their daily diets. Arginine helps rid adult cat’s bodies of the unusually large amount of ammonia created by their high-protein diet. Their bodies cannot make arginine, therefore it must be part of their daily food. Arginine deficiency can lead to depression, muscle tremors, lack of coordination, and eventually death. Deficiencies are not common because meat proteins contain arginine. Taurine is not sufficiently manufactured in cat’s bodies either, as it is in all other species. It is necessary that taurine be in a cat’s diet throughout his lifetime. A deficiency of taurine will lead to degeneration of the retina and eventual blindness. It will also lead to severe, potentially lifethreatening weakening of the heart muscle and stunted growth. Meat is the best source of this amino acid. Commercial pet food manufacturers are aware of cat’s taurine requirement and add it to their products in the proper amount. Cats consuming home-cooked diets or vegetarian diets may be at risk for taurine deficiency.

There are three essential fatty acids that cats need: linoleic, linolenic, and arachidonic acid. Linoleic and linolenic acid are found in vegetable oils, but arachidonic acid is contained only in animal fats. An animal source of fats is essential for cats because, unlike other animals, cats cannot convert arachidonic acid from linoleic and linolenic acids.

Other essential dietary elements for cats include vitamin A and niacin. Cats have a relatively high vitamin A requirement, but are unable to convert carotenoids (found in vegetables) into vitamin A in their own bodies and must have a meat source for it. Liver is a good source for A, but an excess of liver can lead to severe bone disease caused by too much vitamin A. A deficiency of A can lead to weight loss, scaly skin, hair loss, and retinal and reproductive problems. Another essential dietary element that cats cannot convert in their own bodies is niacin, therefore they must have it in their daily diets. A niacin deficiency can lead to weakness, weight loss, diarrhea, mouth disorders (including a susceptibility to herpes), and respiratory disease.

Given the very specific dietary needs of cats, it is obvious that the best source of proper feline nutrition is a diet that has been formulated to meet these daily requirements. It is very difficult to meet these needs with a diet consisting only of home-cooked foods. Some owners opt to use a commercial cat food as a basic diet, adding home-cooked treats from time to time. Care must be taken, however, because some cats cannot digest even the blandest “people food,” and will develop diarrhea. See also “Foods to Avoid”.

To avoid upsets a new kitten or cat should be fed whatever type of food he has been used to eating. Breeders often send home a “care package” with several days’ supply of food to start a kitten off on the right paw. If it becomes necessary or desirable to change diets, it’s best to do so gradually, mixing a small amount of new food with the old. If a cat accepts the mix well, without any intestinal upset, increase the new food gradually each day until he is eating the diet exclusively.

Kinds of Cat Food

Commercial cat foods come in three basic forms: dry, semi-moist, and canned. The most obvious difference in these types of food is moisture content, which also affects their ability to stay fresh when exposed to air. Many owners feed their cats more than one type of food each day. It is a good idea to accustom a cat to eating several types and flavors of food early in life to avoid firmly established food preferences—see “Finicky Eaters,” below. The most important thing about choosing cat food is that the label says “complete and balanced.” Then any form of food is fine for a cat. Many owners feed a combination of dry and canned foods.

Vegetarian diets will not provide a cat with enough usable protein, taurine, essential fatty acids, and minerals to maintain health. Cats often like vegetables, and some vegetable matter is contained in almost all commercial cat foods. Cats are able to utilize carbohydrates and fats for energy, but they have an obligatory need for energy from protein sources even when they are fed enough other calories.

Semi-moist foods, once popular, are falling out of favor. While some cats loved them, the chemical odor was not appreciated by others. Many semi-moist foods are preserved with a high sugar content and many contained propylene glycol, which can damage cat’s red blood cells. We do not recommend semi-moist diets, although an occasional semi-moist treat is all right.

Special-formula (prescription) diets are designed to meet the specific needs of cats with medical conditions such as food-related allergies, feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD;), heart condition, kidney failure, and so on. Their formulas are precise and they can be obtained only by prescription through veterinarians. Most are available in both dry and canned forms.

Finicky Eaters

Some cats are more particular about their food than others. In general there are several kinds of finicky eating. The most common type is when a cat develops a preference for one particular type or flavor of food, usually some sort of fish or chicken. If fish is preferred, it won’t hurt a cat as long as the food is properly formulated and balanced. Problems can arise if a cat develops a preference for plain, unsupplemented fish intended for humans. Some fish contain an enzyme that breaks down thiamine, an essential vitamin. Another problem with all-fish diets is steatitis, a serious disease causing inflammation of body fat. This won’t hurt a cat as long as the fish is properly supplemented and balanced (see chart).

Cats with chronic nasal congestion or those with a diminished sense of smell, which can occur in older animals, can also become problem eaters; as we mentioned in Chapter 1, cat’s appetites are governed by their sense of smell. Upper respiratory infections can become chronic and prevent a cat from smelling his food and, therefore, from eating. Chronic nasal congestion can be treated by a veterinarian.

A cat may also reject food if he is upset for some reason. A move, a new pet or person in the household, a favorite animal or person going away—all of these events may cause a cat to lose his appetite. Other, more subtle changes may upset a cat, especially if he has a nervous temperament. Visitors in the household, sudden loud noises from outside such as building or street construction, a new feeding dish—anything can trigger a sensitive cat to lose his appetite. An owner will have to become a detective in this case to ascertain what may be upsetting a cat.

Sometimes there is no apparent cause for a sudden loss of appetite. If a cat is acting normal in other ways it is safe to wait a day or two, offer the cat’s favorite food, and see what happens. Generally, a cat will begin to eat well again in a few days. If not, a veterinarian should be consulted right away.

How Much/How Often to Feed

Cats do not do well on one meal a day. Many owners leave dry food out all day for snacking and give one or two “meals” of canned food to their adult cats. Others do not like leaving food out and simply provide two larger meals a day If food is left out all day some cats will overeat and become obese. See “Eating Behavior” in Chapter 3, for more about this.

Avoiding Excessive Weight Gain

It is unusual for active indoor-outdoor cats to become overweight, but housebound pets may become obese because of inactivity. It is important for an obese cat to lose weight because excess weight puts a strain on a cat’s body and will shorten his life. Obesity predisposes a cat to diabetes mellitus and will exacerbate respiratory conditions and arthritis.

A veterinarian is the best source of advice as to how to help a fat cat lose weight. A fat cat needs to have a lower caloric intake and usually can’t be allowed to snack freely. Usually a veterinarian will prescribe a low-calorie cat food. The cat should be weighed regularly to be sure he is losing weight; otherwise his rations must be further reduced. Rapid weight loss in cats should be avoided, however. Some cats develop a poorly understood disease called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) from rapid weight loss.

The fatter a cat becomes, the less he is apt to move around. An owner can help a fat cat reduce his weight by encouraging him to play. A dangling object may entice him to play, or a small moving toy such as a ball (Ping-Pong balls are excellent) or a windup mouse may cause him to give chase. Don’t expect a sedentary cat to suddenly jump up and play for any length of time. Give him a chance to get used to moving around again in short play sessions.


There are foods available on the market designed to meet kittens’ special nutritional needs. Up until four months kittens should be fed four times a day; after that, at least twice a day. In general, kittens should be allowed to eat as much as they want at each feeding. Supplementation is not recommended as long as a kitten is fed a high-quality complete and balanced diet specifically for kittens.


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.






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 indoor-outdoor 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.


Other Exercise/Play

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.

Tooth Care

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.

Litter Trays

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.