Cats can be a contented bunch, cared for and pampered by devoted owners who have their pets’ best interests at heart. Yet sometimes, our good intentions don't align with the health needs of our cats. We love a little too much in the form of overfeeding, for example, or miss subtle signs of serious illness.
What can you do to keep your cat in fine fettle? Become aware of the most common stumbling blocks for cat owners and be sure you know how to avoid them.
Mistake 1: Not Getting Preventive Care
The most common health mistake owners make is not getting their cat preventive care, say the pros. Oregon veterinarian Marla J. McGeorge, DVM, says preventive care is vital to catching health problems in their early stages.
Although regular vaccinations are an important part of preventive care for cats, they're not the whole picture. A comprehensive annual exam goes much further and can include:
- An evaluation of a cat's eyes, ears, coat, and skin
- Blood work
- An oral exam
- Parasite control
- Advice about nutrition, exercise, and enrichment
Canine Health Institute associate medical director Adrianne Brode, DVM, says, "Cats generally get less healthcare than dogs." Brode speculates that one reason may be that cats are more expert at hiding their pain -- something these small prey animals do instinctively.
"Some older house cats are pretty inactive and sleep a lot, so owners often just don’t notice problems," Brode says. Although you might not see signs of arthritis, tooth loss, or malnutrition in your cat, your vet will.
Mistake 2: Not Spaying or Neutering
Kittens are precious -- there's no doubt about it. Yet every kitten has the potential to grow into a healthy, reproducing cat. If left unchecked, one female cat and her kittens can produce as many as 420,000 cats in seven years.
"There is a huge cat overpopulation problem in the U.S.," McGeorge says. Nationwide, shelters receive up to 7 million unwanted pets each year, and more than half of them are euthanized.
That's why it's important to have cats spayed or neutered before they are old enough to reproduce, McGeorge says. Because a cat can become pregnant at 4 to 6 months of age, it should be spayed or neutered promptly. Kittens can be spayed as early as 8 weeks old.
Spaying or neutering costs less than raising a litter of kittens for a year, according to the ASPCA. Many nonprofit groups offer low-cost spay/neuter options with fees as low as $20. Talk to your vet or a local animal shelter. They may be able to recommend a low-cost spay option near you.
Mistake 3: Delaying Care
McGeorge says another important mistake pet owners make is waiting to see if a health problem gets better on its own before taking their cat to the vet.
The flaw in a wait-and-see attitude is cats’ adeptness at hiding illness to protect themselves from predators. So although you may think a health problem has resolved, you could find a week later that it's progressed to a full-blown emergency.
If you clearly see there's a problem -- your cat is limping, for example, or has her head cocked at an angle -- always call your vet.
Other signs that your feline friend may be ill include:
- Vomiting or diarrhea, both of which can quickly lead to life-threatening dehydration
- Changes in grooming
- Sleeping much more than usual
- Weight loss
- Changes in urination or defecation
- Refusing food or water
Mistake 4: Skipping Parasite Control
Fleas are the bane of cats worldwide and by far the most common external parasite they face. And they’re more than just an itchy irritation. For cats with flea allergies, an infestation can lead to inflammation, severe itching, and hair loss. Kittens can die of anemia if severely infested with fleas. To double the annoyance, it takes just one swallowed flea to lead to tapeworms.
Tapeworms are the most common internal parasite in cats but not the only one. Though heartworms are often thought of as an issue for dogs, they can also plague cats. There is no treatment for heartworm infection in cats, so prevention is key.
Keeping a lid on problem parasites isn't just for your cat. McGeorge says, "Some intestinal parasites can be transmitted to people." Children and immune-compromised adults are at increased risk.
Along with fleas and tapeworms, ear mites, hookworms, roundworms, whipworms, and ticks also can trouble cats. Talk with your vet to decide the most effective treatment to control the problem parasites in your area.
Mistake 5: Not Microchipping
Cats can be real homebodies, soaking up the sun on a windowsill or snoozing the day away in the garden. Yet they are still among the 10 million pets lost in the United States every year.
Of the millions of cats that end up in shelters, less than 2% are returned to owners, according to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy. Most cats that are reunited with their human families are able to be because they have identifying tags, tattoos, or microchips.
It's important to realize that even indoor cats can escape or be inadvertently let out of the house, McGeorge says. Cats are also much more prone than dogs to losing collars with ID, so microchipping is a better bet for getting your cat back home if she is lost.
About the size of a grain of rice, microchips take seconds to insert under the skin between your pet's shoulder blades and last forever because they don’t use a battery. The chip is activated only when a scanner is passed over it, transmitting its ID number to the scanner.
A microchip is only useful, however, if you keep your contact information up to date with the microchip registry of the company that made the chip. Your vet will give you all the information you need to keep your pet's registration current.
Mistake 6: Neglecting Dental Care
You brush your teeth every day, so why not your cat's teeth too? Dental care is often overlooked in cats, Brode says. This can easily lead to painful, infected teeth. Gum disease can damage a cat's teeth just as it can yours, leading to decay and inflammation as well as bone and tooth loss -- with pain you may not notice until the problem is advanced.
The solution is regular oral exams, teeth cleanings, and daily brushings -- yes, it can be done -- as well as high-quality food and chew toys. The toys not only satisfy kitty's desire to chew but also massage the gums and remove soft tartar.