The term “cat health” is something that is far more involved than most people would realize or even care to think about. Obviously when we think of cat health, regular visits to the veterinarian for vaccines and preventive care come to mind immediately, as well as a prompt seeking of veterinary care when injury and sickness are suspected by a pet owner. To be sure, these aspects are indeed very important steps in advocating for cat health. However, the health and wellbeing of a cat goes much further than just veterinary care, and it is advisable for any current or would be cat owner to consider all facets of promoting cat health in order to truly understand their responsibility to adequately provide a good quality of life for their cats. Always remember, that a cat does not ask to be adopted nor does he get to choose who adopts him, and as such, a person who makes the decision to adopt a cat has an obligation to his well being.
This first essential element of cat health is not as straight forward as it tends to be with dogs. For many even responsible cat owners, keeping a cat primarily outdoors is both normal and acceptable. Part of this rationale is so many that have grown up in rural settings where “barn cats” were free to roam, even in more northern latitudes with harsh winters, the cats seem to fair just fine. Part of this notion that keeping an outdoor cat is okay is the abundance of roaming feral cats and feral cat colonies where cats have been abandoned or were born wild, seem to fair just fine living outdoors with no shelter. It is difficult to blame cats owners that feel this way, but perhaps it may help to understand the predominant veterinarian view on this issue. Most veterinarians are strongly of the view that controlled screened in porch or other enclosure is ideal. This prevents the cat from experiencing extremes of heat or cold, protects them from excessively strong winds and rain, protects them from wild predation and dangerous encounters with wildlife, protects them from insect bites such as mosquitos, fleas and biting ants, and removes the risk of getting infected with communicable disease or getting hit by a car on the road. And the proof is in the results, as indoor cats enjoy signficantly longer life expectancies, have significantly less veterinary visits in their lifetimes for injury and illness, and tend to have a stronger overall cat-human bond than their outdoor counter parts.
Always bear in mind that cats are indeed hardier creatures in comparison to dogs and people, but just because they can get by more effectively under harsh circumstances, does not mean they we should necessarily impose these conditions on them. Also bear in mind that within those feral cat colonies, only 3% of kittens born survive to adulthood, and the average life expectancy of a feral cat is 3 1/2 years.
The reality is that cats feel hot and cold just like we do. They feel and react to insect bites just like we do. Their hair mats and their skin festers from prolonged exposure to moisture just like ours does. If an outdoor temperature, climate, or insect burden is uncomfortable for you, YOU MUST ASSUME THAT IT IS THE SAME FOR YOUR CAT.
Cats from an evolutionary standpoint, are descended from solitary creatures that, beyond the initial rearing of mother and kittens in a litter, did not tend to form strong bonds to one another, and so many people think of cats as aloof loners that can really just take us or leave us. But we must understand that, while cats do not rely on a pack setting for survival as dogs do, our domestic cats are the product of thousands of years of co-existence with people, that has led to their thriving in a social interactive setting –
yet, they express it in ways that are very different from the immensely socially dependent dog. Many domestic cats will even experience outright anxiety and behavioral disorders when isloated or kept away from their human families for any period of time.
Just because their communication is much more subtle than that of a dog, and cats do not generally flaunt their need for attention and afffection as in your face as dogs do (although many cats beg for affection as aggressively as any dog!), does not mean that they do not want or need affection. The truth is that most cats crave the presence of, and interaction with, their human families, and can become stressed or even sick when they are denied it. As such, do not ever make the mistake of failing to recognize affection and companionship is a crucial component to cat health.
Cats like people, need regular exercise for optimal physical and mental health. Exercise prevents obesity and diabetes, while maximizing cardiac health and maintaining muscle tone to prevent diseases or injuries of these systems, respectively. From a psychological standpoint, exercise provides a release of energy that satisfies a cat’s inherent need for activity, while preventing behavioral problems. Also from a psychological standpoint, exercise naturally raises serotonin levels (serotonin is the neurotransmitter involved with feelings of contentment), while decreasing stress hormones that can cause harm to the body. For all these reasons, exercise must always be considered an important and integral component component to optimal cat health.
Many even well intentioned cat owners fail to recognize the importance of their cat getting exercise, and as a result, disease and behavioral problems can occur secondarily. Part of the problem is that cats, with few exceptions, are very different from dogs in that one cannot just throw a leash on them and get them out the door walking. However, there are ways you can encourage exercise for cats, such as purchasing a cat jungle gym for them to play and climb on (cats love to go vertical), engaging with cat toys, having them chase a laser pointer, or getting them roused up with occassional catnip.
It is no secret in people that optimal health begins first and foremost with good nutrition, and it is no different in the consideration of cat health. Nutrition provides the basic elements that provide cellular/tissue building and re-building, metabolic and physiological function. If the nutritional platform for these processes is poor, then the overall health will also be poor. Whether we are discussing skin and hair coat, urinary tract health, brain function, muscle and joint integrity, cardiovascular function, etc., the health of any of these and other systems first and foremost depend on being fed proper quality nutrients.
The single most important nutrient of all is water. Without free access to clean, fresh, water, a cat’s health suffers greatly. Make sure water bowls are kept clean and are constantly monitored so they remain full at all times, and by all means, close the toilet bowls to keep cats from drinking out of them. Toilet bowl detergents and disinfectants that we use to maintain the cleanliness of our toilets are toxic to cats, and bacteria that tend to proliferate in toilet bowls can be very harmful to cats.
Next, you must make certain that the cat is fed a good, well balanced, diet, with a good quality cat food. Feeding from the table is discouraged by most veterinary health care professionals due to resultant nutritional deficiencies (a cat’s physiological needs are different from our own) that can result, as well as this practice commonly leading to obesity and health consequences associated with that.
But purchasing just any cat food is not the answer. As a general rule, most of what is offered for sale at grocery stores or superstores are poor quality cat foods, loaded with poor nutrient sources and fillers. For example, while a good quality diet may rely on well utilized protein sources, such as animal muscle or organs for fulfilling the minimum protein requirement, a poor quality diet would instead fulfill this requirement with cheap, poorly utilized protein, such as hair, hoof, and skin. In most cases, you will need to shop at a retail pet store in order to procure a high quality diet for your cat.
This is not to say that all the brands available for purchase at pet stores are necessarily the best brands to feed your cat, which is why your veterinarian is the best source to advise you on what type of cat food to feed your cat.
Veterinary and Preventive/Wellness Care
While we certainly know that if a cat is obviously sick or injured that he needs to go to the veterinarian to get treated, what many do not realize is that regular wellness and preventive visits are a necessary component to optimal cat health. Listing the elements of a wellness veterinary visit below, one can clearly see how important they are, and that illness or injury are not the only times when a cat should be seen by his vet.
Yearly examination – One year of a cat’s life is equivalent to 5 years of a person’s life. We know a lot can go wrong with us in this period of time, so our recommendation for a yearly examination is actually quite conservative. During wellness visits, early signs of disease are often found, and with early detection, disease is most effectively dealt with and kept from getting beyond a dangerous point. From arthritis, dental and gum disease, cataracts to cardiac disease, many would be amazed how often disease is picked up on just a routine wellness physical. This is especially true for cats, as like other animals not wanting to show signs of weakness, cats can be very cryptic about showing signs of disease.
Vaccines – Rabies vaccines prevent the viral disease rabies, which is deadly to both people and animals. All states in the U.S., and most developed countries have laws in place requiring this vaccine for cats, considering rabies a major livestock, wildlife, and human health hazard. Other vaccines that we administer to cats, such as panleukopenia virus, calicivirus, herpes virus are dangerous, even potentially fatal diseases in cats. Feline leukemia virus, also a disease that cats are vaccinated for, is an invariably deadly disease with no existing effective treatment at this time.
Stool analysis – Being low to the ground and prone to sniffing around vile things (as eating vile things), cats are prone to infection with intestinal parasites. While these parasites are harmful for your cat, they also pose a human health risk for very young children, elderly, or immune compromised people that come in contact with the cat.
Flea/tick prevention – Veterinary grade pest preventives are considered an essential part of a feline wellness program. Fleas and ticks are a nuisance whose bites cause inflammation, pain, and sometimes skin infection directly, but they are also a vector for transmission of dangerous, even deadly infectious disease.
As you can see, caring for a cat and providing for its optimal health and wellbeing has many elements. In order to provide your cat the best quality of life, all of these basic elements of cat health bust incorporated into caring for your cats. If in doubt about any aspect of care, be sure to ask your veterinarian or veterinary hospital staff.