Sure, cats require a lot less maintenance than dogs. There’s no need to perform regular walks or to don snow boots over your pajamas at 11 p.m. so your trusty companion can make a deposit in a grassy patch amid the snowbanks.
But that doesn’t mean your feline friend couldn’t use some attention as well. After all, cats need buddies too.
Dr. Jim Paine at the Russell Animal Hospital in Concord has some tips for keeping your cat happy and healthy. It starts with regular physical examinations and staying up to date on vaccinations.
“From my point of view, I would have to say that there are certainly preventative health care measures you can take both for disease prevention and parasite management,” Paine said.
For starters, make sure you take your cat to the vet for annual physical examinations. Don’t forget that cats age more quickly than people. Figure a cat ages seven or eight cat years during the course of a 365-day year, “so a lot happens in a body in that time,” Paine said. “It’s common that we recognize things in the physical exams that owners might not be aware of.” That could be weight change, mental diseases, or lumps and bumps. At a minimum, bring your cat in for a check-up once a year, Paine said.
Cats also need vaccines, particularly a rabies vaccine since it’s required by law. Rabies is common in New Hampshire, with bats the primary hosts that most often infect cats and people. Paine said cats catch bats all the time. And bats are outside and inside,
particularly around older structures, so don’t assume you can skip out on a rabies vaccine just because your cat is an indoor-only cat.
Cats also are commonly vaccinated for distemper in combination with vaccines for respiratory diseases, Paine said.
“That’s all standard and every cat should be kept current on that,” Paine said.
A third vaccine is for feline leukemia virus, which is generally used for cats that are at risk for exposure from other cats, which for practical purposes refers to cats that go outside. It’s usually not administered to cats that remain inside.
Cats are at risk for parasites, such as fleas or round worms. People could potentially pick up some of the worms as well, if they’re accidentally ingested, particularly in the case of children. The result can be a serious medical situation. Vets offer routine administration of medications to control parasites. Typically, it’s a simple process to administer them and they’re effective, Paine said.
Some say cats should always be kept inside, but Paine said some cats don’t give you much of a choice.
“Despite your best intentions, they have every intention of getting themselves outside,” Paine said. “A family with kids or busy doors, some you just can’t keep them indoors.”
And letting cats outside can be OK, but outside cats are at greater risk of diseases transmitted by other animals, injuries from other animals, and car collisions, Paine said.
“All those things are very real,” Paine said. “I refer to that as the price you pay for that freedom. Very few cats get run over on the couch.”
Day to day, cats need enrichment — that’s the buzzword these days in the cat world. It refers to activity and time spent with the cat to entertain it, to exercise it, to give it something to do besides just sitting on the couch. But getting your feline friend moving could be as simple as stretching out on the couch yourself and letting your kitty chase around the red dot of a laser pen while you watch television, Paine said.
“Just something to make it move,” Paine said. “There are consequences to not having an exercised mind and spent energy and emotion that we understand about cats today better than we did historically.”
Cats, like dogs, are typically best behaved and at their healthiest when they have exercise and mental activity — and when they’re physically tired.
“They get into less trouble,” Paine said.
Some advise against milk for cats. Paine said milk isn’t necessarily bad for cats but it should be a treat rather than a primary part of the animal’s nutrition. So let your kitty lick your cereal bowl when you’re done, but not if there’s a pint of milk in the bowl. Keep in mind that, just like people, some cats can be lactose-intolerant, Paine said.
In terms of diet, in general, people are safe if they choose a commercial cat food that is a name brand they recognize, such as Purina or Science Diet. Those are the big name brands, but those companies also do the most nutritional research. In fact, those two do more nutritional research than all the other manufacturers combined, Paine said.
“People often don’t understand or appreciate the quality of those products,” Paine said.
Also, make sure your cat has access to fresh water.
It’s uncommon that vets see cats come in with toxicity issues from drinking stuff underneath the kitchen or bathroom counter, as cats tend to be fairly discriminating about what they eat or drink. Some household plants can carry risks for cats, though that’s not common. Cats can be interested in chewing on household plants and that behavior should be discouraged, Paine said.
A bigger issue is cats’ getting into trouble with toys and strings that they’re left alone to play with. Cats, particularly in the case of string, sometimes swallow what they play with. Cats have barbs on their tongues that point backward down their throat, so once a cat gets a string in its mouth, it sort of commits to swallowing it, Paine said. If a cat swallows a string, that can become a serious, and sometimes fatal, problem if it lodges itself in a cat’s stomach and intestines. Cats should not have unrestricted access to toys like that, Paine said.
That’s not to say you can’t tie a fake mouse to the end of a string and let your cat chase after it. But once you’re done playing, take the toy away; don’t leave it out for the cat to keep playing with on its own.
Cats sometimes take peculiar interest in elastic hair bands. Like string, these can create obstructions in cats’ digestive tracts and can require surgery to fix. So put them in a drawer, Paine said.
“Probably one of the most commonly overlooked parts of regular health care for cats is potentially dental disease,” Paine said, adding vets look at cats’ dental health during physical exams. “Dentistry has come a long way…. It’s actually uncommon that owners are actually aware of their cats’ teeth. … It’s important to recognize and realize that dental health is important to cats in terms of their health and comfort.”
In a perfect world, people would brush their cats’ teeth once a day. That might not be realistic for everyone. And so there are tartar control diets that are effective, made by major pet food manufacturers. The food is abrasive to the tooth surface and helps to disrupt the plaque. There are also mouthwashes and additives that might be appropriate in one situation or the other, Paine said. There are also dental treats — some that work and some that don’t.
Paine said he’s a huge fan of the diets. Vets conduct teeth cleaning procedures on cats, which is no small job, as it requires general anesthesia. Most cats, even if owners are brushing the cat’s teeth once a day, will need a teeth cleaning once in their lifetime. But by choosing a tartar-control diet, cat owners might be able to reduce the number of times a cat will need a cleaning, Paine said.
“The fewer times the better,” Paine said. “I think we can all agree to that.”