Cat Care Advice from the Experts

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Cats are cute. The internet is all in agreement there. What it’s not so clear-cut about is the advice it gives on all sorts of topics. Cat care included. So, to take the guess work out of it, and to make sure you are getting the very best advice on how to take care of your cat, I’ve put together a handy guide for you. Every tip, every recommendation and every fact in this article comes from a reputable source with resident feline experts, including veterinarians and animal psychologists. That way, you can be sure that the advice you’re following is the right advice. I’ve covered all of the basics, from dietary requirements to dentistry, from behavior to bonding. Your cat is about to have the best-informed owner in town!

Diet

Whether you have a finicky eater or a fat cat, there are dietary requirements they all share. The first and golden rule is that cats are obligate carnivores. This means they must have meat in their diet to thrive, and cannot be vegetarian or vegan. This is because there are amino acids and vitamins in meat, in their unformed state, that cats have lost the ability to make themselves. It is a useful trick that omnivores have in their physiological arsenal, that felids (cats) simply do not. These missing building blocks include taurine, arginine, niacin, vitamin A and arachidonic acid.

A cat’s ideal diet, biologically, consists of high amounts of protein, moderate amounts of fat, and low amounts of carbohydrates. Though seemingly simple, the balance needed between these three heavy-hitters and the 41 essential nutrients that make up a cat’s daily needs can be very tricky to get right. High quality commercially manufactured food offers guarantees that all the necessities are present. If you are determined to make your own cat food, be sure to consult a veterinary nutritionist, as imbalances in nutrients can cause serious health problems in our petite feline friends.

Commercially manufactured cat food comes mostly in dry and wet varieties. Dry food, or kibble, is made up of calorie-dense biscuits. The benefit of dry food is that it can be left out for longer during the day, and is ideal for use in puzzle-feeders. Wet food, often found canned, needs to be changed more often as its nature means cats may turn up their nose quicker. It does, though, have a much higher water content than dry food, about 75% to dry’s 10%, so it is better for your cat’s hydration. Speaking of; cats don’t have much of a thirst drive, as their water intake would historically come from their juicy live prey. So to make sure your cat is getting enough to drink, always ensure you have fresh water (changed daily) nearby. Some cats prefer running water, opting to drink from a running tap over any still bowl, so a bubbler can help to increase water intake in this case.

It’s also good to be aware that not all cat foods are created equal. Some are considered ‘Complete and balanced’, which means that they contain all the vitamins and minerals necessary for your cat to thrive, and in the right proportions. On the other hand, ‘Complementary’ foods are just that: treats, and are not sufficient nutrition for a cat to live on. In fact, treats should make up no more than 10-15% of your cat’s daily calorie intake. The calorie information of all cat food products will be right there on the label, so check the feeding instructions whenever you switch brand or type. Also there on the label will be the ingredients list. What you will want to see in the first few ingredients is a named source of animal based protein, such as poultry. If it’s further down the ingredients list, it may not be in sufficient quantities. Veterinary surgeon Dr. Max Boulay BVSc (Hons), MRCVS states, “To really check if the food you are buying is worth the cost, look for the AAFCO label. It assures you that it is a complete nutritional source for your pet, and has undergone feeding trials to ensure this.”

Cats in the wild favor many small meals each day. With our busy lifestyles, it’s common for cats to be receiving one or two bigger meals daily instead. If possible, up the number of feeds while decreasing the volume each time to more accurately mimic their natural feeding patterns. This is particularly important for kittens who, like human littlies, need feeding more often. Lastly, cats have different needs at different stages of their life. Choose a cat food that is specifically formulated for kittens, adult cats, lactating queens, or older cats, depending on your animal. This will ensure they are getting the right amounts of what they need each and every day.

Physical health

There are literally thousands of areas that could be covered in this section! I’ll go with a few of the big ones. In regard to the next topic, let’s hope not too big…

Weight

Following on nicely from diet comes the issue of weight. Far too many cats are now recognized to be overweight or obese. I’m talking about around 60% of US pet cats. The fact is, it’s much easier to keep a cat from gaining excess weight than it is to help them lose it. The best thing you can do is find out exactly how much your cat should be having in the way of calories per day. Remember that spayed or neutered cats require a lot less in terms of energy intake than before. Then, you’ll want to divide that number by the number of feeds you are able to provide each day, adjusting to account for any treats. And… weigh it out. On electronic kitchen scales. Do not trust the measuring cup! The amount will probably look quite small to you but it’s really all they need. If you cat happens to be one with great self-control, then a free feeder is fine. However, this will see a cat with a more voracious appetite put on weight quickly, so proceed with caution. To know where your cat falls on the weight scale, familiarize yourself with a Body Condition Score chart. This explains, in easy-to-understand measurements, how to do a check at home.

Urinary Tract

One of the most common reasons for feline admission to a veterinary hospital is for Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD). This covers a range of urinary tract problems which can sometimes be more specifically labelled but all-too-often have unknown causes. Thought to affect around 1% of all cats, FLUTD has symptoms you can notice at home. Straining to use the litter box, blood in urine, crying out while toileting, and inappropriate urination (often occurring on smooth, cool surfaces) can be a sign that something is up, down there. Of course, the advice here is to take your cat to the vet as soon as possible, as there are a number of symptoms that can worsen and cause your cat increasing levels of distress. As told by Dr. Boulay, “Most cases of feline cystitis are sterile, rather than having a bacterial cause. Your vet will take a urine sample to check under a microscope to then prescribe the best medication for your cat.” Though in many cases it is out of your hands, there are things you can do to reduce the chances of your cat developing FLUTD through bacterial means. They’re all pretty much just ‘best practice’ tips anyway and will make for a happier and healthier cat all round! They include keeping the litter box clean; ensuring access to clean, fresh water; and boosting your cat’s levels of physical exercise. As indoor cats are more prone to this particular ailment, it may be on you to work out a workout for your cat within your four walls.

Dentistry

Now this, this may surprise you. Between 50-90% of cats over four years of age have some kind of dental disease. Two of the major culprits are gingivitis and periodontitis. Essentially gingivitis, if left untreated, will progress to become periodontitis, which can then lead to the loss of teeth. Just like people, cat teeth suffer from the build-up of plaque around and under the gum line. This plaque then hardens roughly, and becomes an absolute playground for bacteria to thrive on. Redness, swelling and bleeding of the gums are common signs of gingivitis. The good news is, there are things you can do to help prevent this from occurring. Alien as the idea of brushing a cat’s teeth may be - I mean, have you tried getting one to simply take a pill? - you can be assured that most cats can be trained to submit to a daily brushing. And daily is what is required, to keep those little vampire spikes gleaming.

There are parts of the mouth that our well-intentioned brushing can’t reach though, including underneath the gum line, where a lot of damage takes place. For this, you’ll need to book in a full dental with your vet. Ask at each annual check-up, and your vet can let you know if there’s a need or not, at that particular time.

Just keep in mind that oral disease is very painful, and cats are very good at concealing pain. This means that you’ll need to be super vigilant in checking their teeth and gums for signs that something is wrong to make sure they’re not having to grin and bear it for too long.

Preventative care

One of the biggest duties upon you as a responsible cat parent is to try and prevent them from getting sick in the first place. The number one thing you can do is create and keep a schedule. That’s it. Do that and you’re sorted. What’s on this schedule, you ask? Well…

Vaccinations

Starting from around 6-8 weeks, kittens will need a course of vaccinations to protect them against a range of prevalent feline diseases. This course will take 3-4 months to complete. Even if they are to be an indoor cat for their entire life, they should still get the five core vaccines: panleukopenia (feline distemper), feline herpesvirus, calicivirus, rabies and feline leukemia virus (FeLV). If you happen to adopt a cat without knowing its vaccination history, then you should assume they’ve had none and take them for the full course of at least those first four.The FeLV vaccine is recommended for kittens and outdoor going adult cats, but is not considered necessary for indoor adults.Once the initial round of vaccines are done, your cat will need an annual booster. “If you would rather not vaccinate annually, your vet may offer a blood titre test which measures the level of immunity still present to determine whether a booster is necessary,” says Dr. Boulay.

Worming

Next on the schedule are the worming tablets. The most common worms that cats get are roundworms and tapeworms. These both come in a variety of shapes and sizes but none of them are good. They’re exceptionally skilled at getting themselves passed on, so keeping your cat up to date with its worming treatments is crucial. They can also be passed on to humans, if you needed any further motivation to give them the boot.

From three weeks of age, they’ll need a treatment every two weeks until three months. Then monthly until six months. Then they should follow adult guidelines of quarterly treatments.

Flea and tick prevention

Now, it’s time to map out your attack on fleas and ticks. The most highly recommended products by vets are spot-on and tablet treatments. They last for longer than the powder forms and are safer for the animal than other options. You should follow the guidelines suggested on the specific brand and form of product you opt for, and stick to that routine. It’ll likely be every 1-3 months. While fleas and ticks are both parasites that feed on your pet’s blood and can be passed onto humans, they have their differences. Fleas are more likely to infest your home and surroundings and can cause dermatitis or pass on tapeworms, while a tick carries more potentially lethal diseases, such as Lyme disease. Some horrendous specimens are known as paralysis ticks, for the effect they cause on their hosts. Ticks can also tolerate a much wider range or temperatures so vigilance year-round is necessary. Fleas and ticks can be a nightmare to get rid of from your cat and your home, and it can be tricky to even know that your cat has them. This is because cat’s will often simply ingest the adults via grooming, so there may not be the obvious infestation that you’d see on a dog. So, the best bet is to follow a flea and tick treatment schedule and keep them from getting on board in the first place. If you do find evidence of a flea or tick on your cat, wash their area and bedding carefully and give them further treatment immediately. Ticks may require a medicated bath to remove. Don’t try to pick a feeding tick off yourself, as this can leave the mouthpiece attached to the skin and cause infection. And remember to never use products designed for dogs on a cat.

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The right choice, for your kitty and the earth.

Vet visits

Your cat should be seeing a vet annually for routine checkups, on top of any emergency visits. You wouldn’t declare yourself as having a clean bill of health because you went to A&E for a broken arm last week, and so it is with cats. Kittens will need more regular visits, as will geriatric cats. Starting from your first vaccination visit with your kitten, or adopted adult, you can sort out a regular visit and lock it into your diary. Come hell or high water, that appointment is sacrosanct! Pet insurance is an option to consider, so that you can be prepared for any unexpected emergencies, and say yes to the expensive but crucial treatment your cay may need, without having to think of your bank balance first. The average cost of a vet visit, just a simple physical exam with no frills attached, is $50. Add on vaccinations, medication, or tests and things will start to add up, and emergency costs can be prohibitive. Getting at least basic pet insurance cover may help you keep the costs smoother over a year, and prevent any bigger bills from knocking you down. It’s a personal choice though, and some find it worthwhile where others don’t. Here is a comparison site to get an idea of costs and see if it’s right for you.

Behavior

Cats aren’t ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ on purpose. It’s just that sometimes our view of how life should be handled doesn’t always align perfectly with theirs. Here are some explanations and suggestions for next time their actions risk a strong reaction.

Scratching

Cats gotta scratch! The fact of the matter is, this is absolutely normal behavior that is necessary for all cats, both physically and mentally. The reasons a cat scratches are twofold. First, it’s done to keep claws in good condition, allowing them to shed husks of old claws and file the new ones down to razor sharp points perfect for kneading you in the thigh when getting comfy. Second, it’s a means of communicating. It’s a marking behavior. Their paws have scent glands that leave their mark on the area they’re scratching. The discarded husks are also a bit of an ‘I was here’ message to any interlopers. Ideally, this would only take place on the posts and pads you’ve put out for the purpose, but alas. If your cat is scratching up the furniture, don’t punish it. It won’t connect the punishment with the crime and may even seek the attention. Instead, distract. Put an alternate scratching surface near whatever is under attack, and cover the usual victim with shiny plastic sheeting. This is an unappealing scratching surface so the tower or pad will be accepted more readily. Once they’re on board, you can start moving the desired scratch surface into a more feng-shui friendly position. Tower a la catnip is another option to increase the chance of a ‘take’.

Toileting

It can be frustrating when your cat snubs a seemingly perfectly sound litter box for some corner of carpet or under-bed as a restroom. Again, it’s not done deliberately to annoy you or give you something to clean up. Chances are, there’s something about the life or the litter box that is upsetting your cat. Cat’s are famously clean creatures, and they have a very powerful sense of smell. First of all, make sure their litter box is clean and has sufficient litter in it (at least 3cm deep). Then keep it that way. Remove solids daily, and change the contents entirely on a weekly basis. To begin with, this might need to be more frequent to coax them back to the box. Try to use neutral scents when cleaning as chemical smells can be overpowering to their sensitive noses. The box itself should be in a quiet area, away from thoroughfares, washing machines, the cat’s food, and their bed. Make sure you have as many litter boxes in the house as you have cats, plus one more. And if you have an outdoor cat that is soiling inside, make a litter box available as well. There will be a reason they’re not comfortable going outside; it could be other cats, or in winter frozen ground might make itself undiggable. If none of these steps are helping, head to the vet, as inappropriate toileting can be an indicator of a number of ailments, both physical and mental. If the behavior is completely out of the blue, then head vet-side first, so as not to delay potentially necessary treatment.

Spraying

Spraying is different from toileting, as it is not done by a cat as a means of relieving itself, but is another marking behavior. The cat, male or female, will back up to a vertical surface and spray urine backwards while standing upright. It is linked with marking out territory; a big fat ‘keep off my property’ sign, if you will. It’s most common in unneutered males, but all cats can spray and may do so when feeling threatened in their territory. Punishment doesn’t work here either, so the best bet is to try and reduce the source of stress that is causing this behavior. Increase playtime and physical activity to reduce boredom. Restrict views to outdoor neighbor cats, or take steps to prevent outsiders entering your garden/your cat’s territory. Introduce them to any new family members, human or otherwise, giving them time to adjust slowly.

Aggression

This is a blanket term that covers all sorts of types of aggressive behavior in cats. There are many reasons that a cat may become aggressive. They can be defensive, play/petting-based, maternal, territorial or pain-induced. If your cat has suddenly started being aggressive toward other cats or toward people, take them along to a consultation with your vet. Some of the reasons mentioned above can be linked with illness, injury or stress, and it’s better to rule these out before starting any behavioral therapy at home. Another path is to find yourself a reputable animal psychologist or veterinary behaviorist to help you and your cat get back on track. Any kind of physical correction by you is likely to make the problem worse though, so make sure you are patient, and have a plan in place for ongoing rehabilitation. The triggers and treatments are so varied, it’s best to consult a resource that is able to deal with this subject in full, like this one here.

Bonding

Recent studies have shown that cats attach to their owners in much the same way that babies attach to their caregivers. Far from being the aloof, nonchalant creatures of legend, they’re just big furry balls of love (they even like us more than food!). The bond stays stable over time, too, right through adulthood. So they do love us back, but gosh they’d be so embarrassed if they knew we knew.

Playtime

While cats may not go chasing after a stick you throw for them, they love to play. After all, the kitten with the ball of yarn is legend. It’s a great bonding exercise and has a range of other benefits too. Daily playtime increases a cat’s physical exercise, as well as their mental stimulation. This promotes a sense of well-being that can reduce stress, anxiety and aggression. Physical and mental stimulation is especially important for indoor cats, as playtime allows them to really run around and play at stalking and pouncing. Schedule in a short interval every day in which you play interactively with your cat. Having them chase something fluffy or wiggly on the end of a piece of string is perfect. Just make sure you put the toy away when playtime is over. You don’t want the novelty to wear off, or for it to get eaten! The way you play may need to be adapted for the age of your kitty, but even geriatric cats enjoy indulging in a little gentle play. There are ways to read your cat’s behavior, for when they’re up for some fun. If your cat doesn’t seem to ‘get it’ when you’re trying to play, bring in the ‘nip and see if that’ll have them acting like a kitten again.

Grooming

Cats spend an awful lot of their waking hours grooming: anywhere between 15 and 50%. It is an important way for them to keep clean, as well as distributing oils throughout their coat, keeping pests at bay and regulating their body temperature. They are pretty good at it, yes, but they do need our help and part of good cat-care is lending them a hand. Long-haired cats in particular need a daily brushing from their owners, to prevent matting and clumping. These are painful for cats to deal with, and can be dangerous if the owner then tries to remove them at home. Just as an aside, if this happens with your cat, please take them to a registered pet groomer - they know what they’re doing and it’ll avoid the chance of physical injury and mental scarring for you and your pet. Even short-haired cats benefit from a daily grooming session with their human. It removes dead hair that they would otherwise ingest and turn into the dreaded hairballs, awful to listen to and potentially quite dangerous. Grooming gives you the early heads-up if fleas are making an appearance too, and allow you to act on it before the situation gets out of hand. And you’ll be more inclined to notice any irregularities in skin condition or changes in weight or muscle tone, being up close and personal on the daily and all. All those benefits aside, it’s another great way for the two of you to bond. Kittens raised with grooming will always enjoy it, while it may take your older cat a few tries to get used to it. Tempt it with treats at first until it becomes part of your routine. Being poorly groomed can be a sign of illness or distress, so pay attention to how they’re looking before you give them a brush. And if something is wrong which means they can’t groom properly for a while (think: the cone of shame), make sure you’re pitching in as this could help their mental recovery while they recuperate.

Different strokes

Different cats have different thresholds for affection. Just like some people are introverts and need more alone time than others, so it is with cats. Let your cat dictate the love it gives and gets, and it’ll thank you for it. In the mean-time, some ways you can tell it is showing you the love are: slowly blinking at you, licking you, rubbing their cheeks on you, bunting you with their forehead, and the old classic, purring. You can show them back by returning the favor, and just taking good care of them in all the ways outlined above.

Recap

So there you have it. Your handy guide to being the best cat-parent you can be. With all of these common cat-related questions and conundrums answered, you can get on with sorting that schedule, be it for vaccinations or playtime. Remember that the professionals are always your best bet, and your veterinarian should always be your first port of call when you’re concerned about anything related to your beloved Mr. or Mrs. Whiskers. With that said, good on you for taking the time to learn more about your pet’s wants and needs, triggers and treatments. Your cat can purr all the more soundly because of it.

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