How to care for your cats

Cats are known for their ability to fend for themselves in the wild, but household pets, dependent on human beings for care and feeding, require considerable attention.

Educational materials on the care of cats and responsible cat ownership are available through bookstores and local humane societies.

General care

Although cats have a reputation for being relatively independent, domestic cats require love and attention from their owners. A balanced daily diet, such as that provided by high-quality commercial cat food, is essential for health and longevity, as is a regular supply of freshwater.

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Regular cleaning of litter pans is necessary to prevent disease; some cats will refuse to use a badly soiled litter pan. Cats’ claws should be trimmed frequently. To prevent damage to furniture, cats that live indoors should be provided with a scratching post, preferably covered with rough material such as sisal rope.

Cats use their tongues to clean their coats, and they normally swallow any loose hair. All cats, including shorthairs, should be brushed weekly to remove loose hair; this will help prevent hairballs from forming in their stomachs.

A few longhaired breeds, such as the Persian and the Himalayan, require daily combing to prevent their long, soft fur from matting.

Neutering or Spaying

Every year hundreds of thousands of unwanted domestic cats and kittens are destroyed because homes cannot be found for them.

To avoid contributing to this problem, a cat should be altered (surgically treated to make it incapable of reproducing) unless it is a registered, pedigreed member of a responsible breeding program.

A female cat is spayed (altered by removing the uterus and ovaries); a male cat is neutered (altered by removing the testicles). Cats that have been altered are healthier and easier to live with.

Unaltered females may be susceptible to uterine infections and ovarian cysts; unaltered cats of both sexes may mark their territory by spraying urine.

Some veterinarians recommend altering cats as young as 12 weeks of age, while others recommend waiting until the animal reaches sexual maturity (at six to ten months of age).

Current veterinary research indicates that early altering has a little negative effect on a cat’s health; a low-quality diet, however, can cause serious urinary tract problems.

“For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat. For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.”

Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771)
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Indoor and Outdoor

Some domestic cat owners choose to keep their cats indoors; others permit their cats to go outdoors some or all of the time. The decision of whether to allow a cat outdoors is a personal one; cats that have been declawed, however, and those that have not been altered, should not be allowed outdoors unless confined to a covered enclosure.

Cats that are allowed outside have some degree of freedom and independence, and may enjoy hunting small animals and interacting with other cats; they get plenty of exercises and are unlikely to become bored or lonely.

The outdoors, however, poses many hazards to cats, even in rural areas. An outdoor cat may be struck by a car, poisoned by common pesticides, or injured by other animals (other cats, dogs, and, in some areas, wild animals such as coyotes). Also, the cat may be exposed to the fatal feline diseases that are endemic in the stray cat population.

According to some authorities, a cat that is permitted outdoors has an average life expectancy of 3 to 5 years; conversely, the average life expectancy of an indoor cat is about 15 years.

Although an indoor cat does not enjoy the same freedom as an outdoor cat, many indoor cats live happy and complete lives. It is easier to keep a cat indoors if it has not become accustomed to going out. Indoor cats need exercise just as outdoor cats do. Some cats can be trained to use a harness leash.

Often, the easiest way to provide an indoor cat with exercise and stimulation is to provide a feline companion.

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Cat Diseases

Domestic cats are susceptible to a variety of viral and bacterial diseases. Fortunately, many common feline diseases can be controlled by a regular system of inoculation.

Cats may also suffer from external parasites such as fleas and mites, and intestinal parasites (worms). Cats can contract rabies from infected prey or other infected animals, but such instances are rare.

Upper respiratory infections are a common feline illness and can sometimes be fatal, especially in young kittens.

Vaccines provide some protection against the following upper respiratory diseases: feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), feline calicivirus (FCV), and chlamydia (feline pneumonitis).

Panleukopenia (feline infectious enteritis) is a highly contagious, often fatal disease characterized by a sudden onset and severe gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Vaccination is the only effective way to control the disease.

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a fatal, contagious disease that is spread by direct contact. A cat with feline leukemia may have a variety of symptoms, including general malaise, weight loss, anemia, and fever. An infected cat may transmit the disease to other cats before it develops clinical symptoms itself. A blood test can detect whether a cat has been infected.

Although a vaccine is available, the most reliable way to prevent a cat from contracting feline leukemia is to keep it from coming into contact with FeLV-positive cats.

Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is an inflammation of the peritoneum (lining of the abdomen). Although FIP is contagious, some cats appear to develop a natural immunity to it. An infected cat may be a symptomless carrier. Once a cat develops symptoms, the disease is invariably fatal. There is no reliable blood test for FIP, but a vaccine is now available.

Inoculation (vaccination)

Cats can be successfully inoculated against many serious feline diseases. Kittens should be inoculated against rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, panleukopenia, and, optionally, chlamydia.

Most veterinarians recommend a series of two or three inoculations, given every 3 weeks starting at 6 weeks of age. After 12 weeks of age, a kitten may also be inoculated against rabies, feline leukemia, and feline infectious peritonitis. Inoculations should be repeated annually to maintain immunity.

Allergies to cats

Allergies to cats are among the most common allergic reactions in humans. A protein in the cat’s skin and saliva causes the reaction, leading to itching, sneezing, and other allergy symptoms in people sensitive to the protein.

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For allergic people who wish to have a cat, allergists recommend keeping the cat out of the bedroom; bathing the cat, if the cat tolerates washing; using air purifiers to remove allergens; and, in some cases, receiving injections to desensitize the body against the allergen.

In 2006 researchers at Allerca, a biotechnology company in San Diego, California, announced that they had produced a hypoallergenic (nonallergy producing) cat.

The researchers found that some cats had a mutant gene that produced a protein far less likely to cause an allergic reaction. They bred these cats to create hypoallergenic kittens.

Source: “Cat.” Redmond, WA: 2008.

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