Cats Can Improve the Mental and Physical Health of Kids

Cats have always possessed a coolness factor. Uber-hip jazz artists were called “hep cats.” Felines grace billboards, conveying a sexy chic. Over the years, however, this coolness has somehow become confused with danger, perhaps because movie villains seem to favor felines, and Halloween evokes the old “bad luck” stereotype. It’s time that cats shed this dangerous reputation, because the truth is cats are good for us -- especially for kids.

If you don’t have a cat yet, you might reconsider adopting one. If you do already share your digs with a cat, the latest research should reinforce your fondness for your feline pal.

Cats Safeguard Against Respiratory Illness
In recent research published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland, studied 397 children from their birth onward. A diary was kept for each child, mentioning the frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections, together with info about dog and cat contacts during the first year of life.

Kids that were in contact with dogs and cats had fewer instances of infection and, as a result, required fewer antibiotic treatments. (Antibiotics can, of course, come in handy, but they do sometimes have undesired side effects, such as nausea and rashes.) Children even had a lower risk of dying from infection, with the decrease associated with time spent with pets. As Bergroth and her team wrote, “both the weekly amount of contact with dogs and cats and the average yearly amount of contact were associated with decreased respiratory infectious disease morbidity.” They added: “Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood.”

The researchers speculate that “animal contacts could help to mature the immunologic system.” It’s therefore possible that early exposure to pets stimulates growing human bodies to jumpstart the immune system, which can then better kick into action to ward off illnesses with a health boost that could extend into adulthood. Some individuals are allergic to pet dander; for these people, the problems probably would outweigh the benefits, but the majority of people are not allergic to cats.

Cats May Help Prevent Cancer
Tied to the “cats are dangerous” stereotype is a misrepresentation of feline research over the years. Over the past several months, for example, tabloid-like headlines have falsely linked cats to cancer and even craziness. Marion Vittecoq of the Tour du Valat research center actually worked on the cancer-related research, and even she and her colleagues conclude that cats should not be blamed for human cancer. In fact, studies show just the opposite.

Vittecoq says that “studies that have focused on the link between cancer and cat ownership so far have found either no association at all or a reduced risk of cancer in cat owners.” Vittecoq and colleague Frederic Thomas mention a National Institutes of Health Study by G.J. Tranah and colleagues. It found that dog and cat owners have a reduced risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The longer the duration of pet ownership was, the less chance the individual would suffer from this type of cancer.

Cats Promote Good Mental Health Too
So far, we’ve been addressing how cats can benefit our physical health. Studies also show that felines are good for our mental health too. For example, psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted multiple experiments to see how pet ownership affects people. Almost 400 individuals -- with pets and without -- participated.

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell of Miami University in Ohio. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

We haven’t even mentioned the other positive aspects of pet ownership, such as comfort, companionship and a pleasant, vibrant life force to share one’s days with. The fact that felines may also improve our mental and physical health is merely sweetening, so to speak, the already sweet kitty.

Cats have always possessed a coolness factor. Uber-hip jazz artists were called “hep cats.” Felines grace billboards, conveying a sexy chic. Over the years, however, this coolness has somehow become confused with danger, perhaps because movie villains seem to favor felines, and Halloween evokes the old “bad luck” stereotype. It’s time that cats shed this dangerous reputation, because the truth is cats are good for us -- especially for kids.

If you don’t have a cat yet, you might reconsider adopting one. If you do already share your digs with a cat, the latest research should reinforce your fondness for your feline pal.

Credit: Infographe_Elle    

Allergic to Cats? New Vaccine Could Help

Did you know that 8 to 10 percent of the population is allergic to cats? If you’re one of those individuals, then the itching, watering eyes and sneezing associated with cats are all too familiar.

Now, a new vaccine holds promise of not just diminishing cat-allergy symptoms, but of curing the problem altogether. An added perk is that, unlike drugs that come with a laundry list of scary side effects, this vaccine has next to none, according to its creator Mark Larche and his team. Here, Larche, a professor at McMaster University’s School of Medicine, explains how the cutting-edge new vaccine could help you or your cat-allergic friends and relatives.

Cat Allergy Cause and Effect
It is a common myth that cat fur itself causes all of the sneezing and wheezing in those who suffer from pet allergies. What’s on the fur, however, turns out to be more important. “Allergies to cats are caused by proteins that are secreted by the cat and spread onto its fur by grooming,” says Larche. “Our vaccine is composed of synthetic fragments of one (the most important one) of these proteins.”

To identify the protein and to learn more about it, he and his team analyzed blood samples from 100 patient volunteers who are allergic to cats. Doing this allowed the scientists to see which components of the protein activate T-cells in certain people. T-cells are helper cells that fight infection in the immune system.

“Allergies are a form of hypersensitivity,” explains Larche. “We all make immune responses to allergens that we encounter in the environment, but most people make a tolerant response that results in no inflammation. However, for reasons that are incompletely understood, some people make the wrong kind of response -- an allergic response.” By providing low doses of the allergen -- tweaked so they don’t contain the parts that may stimulate the immune system -- the researchers came up with the new vaccine.

How Patients Receive Treatments

The vaccine is still only available in drug trials, but it appears that four to eight doses may be required in the first year, with possibly none required for subsequent years. Larche thinks a needle-less injection system could be used to administer the needed doses in the future.

Stephen Durham, head of the Allergy and Clinical Immunology department at Imperial College London, says the data about the new vaccine is very encouraging. “A significant proportion of cat owners develop allergy to their cats, which varies from bothersome eye and nasal symptoms through to moderate-severe disease or even life-threatening asthma attacks,” says Durham. “Avoidance strategies may be impossible or refused.”

Durham mentions that traditional allergy shots pose a risk of serious side effects, “particularly in asthmatics.” This new vaccine promises to provide “good symptom-control and disease remission, while avoiding the risk of side effects,” he adds. Cat-allergy sufferers both with and without asthma have participated in the trials, and so far so good.

Other Ways of Curbing Cat Allergies
Until the new vaccine becomes widely available, the Humane Society of the United States suggests that you try these five steps if your household includes one or more cat-allergy sufferers:

1. Clean your house often to remove dust and cat dander. Vacuum or wash curtains, furniture covers, pet beds and other items.

2. Bathe your pet often. Consult with your veterinarian to make sure that you are doing this correctly and using products that will not deplete your cat’s skin and fur of necessary oils.

3. Set up an allergy-free area. Close this area, such as the bedroom, off to your cat.

4. Consider purchasing a HEPA air cleaner, perhaps just for the allergic individual’s bedroom. Central heating and cooling systems can also be outfitted with stronger filtration systems to help clean the air.

5. Make sure it’s a cat allergy. Many things in the home can cause allergic reactions. Even people who are allergic to cats can be allergic to other things, so be sure the individual receives a thorough checkup from an appropriate specialist.

Some very good news is that the same research know-how that resulted in the new cat-allergy vaccine is being applied to allergies caused by dust mites, ragweed, grass, birch tree and moulds. In the future, most allergies may therefore figuratively bite the dust.

Improve Cat Veterinary Office Visits

For many cat owners, taking kitty to the veterinarian is so fraught with struggle and discomfort that they avoid visits altogether. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats outnumber dogs as pets in this country, but dog owners take their pets to the veterinarian twice as often as cat owners do.

Your cat’s good health is dependent on regular examinations. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to make the veterinary experience a better one for both you and your pet.

Cat Veterinary Office Tips

  • Make the cat carrier a home. Familiarize your cat with its carrier. The key is for the carrier to become a part of your cat’s everyday life. “Make it a comfortable resting, feeding or play location,” advises Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council, which works to raise the level of care cats receive.

Marilyn Krieger, a Redwood City, Calif., certified cat behavior consultant, recommends using a hard carrier. Begin by taking the top off and leaving the bottom out for your cat. Place a soft, familiar blanket or treats in the carrier. Play with your kitty around the carrier. Eventually, you can add the top, but leave the door off. “Put the door on after your cat goes in and out on its own,” says Krieger. When you’re ready to travel with the carrier, try a spritz of Feliway, a calming pheromone spray. Bring another towel to cover the carrier, which can provide some security.

  • Be relaxed. Your cat knows when you’re upset. “If you’re anxious, your cat will be anxious,” says Dr. Deb Givin, a Portland, Maine, veterinarian. Try to schedule visits when you aren’t stressed or on a tight schedule.
  • Train your cat to travel. Mix in outings to other locations and try a “social” visit to your veterinarian’s office, where your cat is rewarded with a treat or two. Start by placing your cat in its carrier in the vehicle, then turn on the motor briefly before returning your kitty to the house. Add short trips around the block, then to the veterinarian’s parking lot, and finally to the reception area before scheduling a formal visit.
  • Make your cat feel safe. Allow your kitty to stay in its carrier in the waiting area, facing away from other animals. If your veterinarian doesn’t have a separate entrance or waiting area for cats, ask to be placed in an exam room as soon as possible, says Dr. Annie Harvilicz, founder and chief medical officer for Santa Monica, Calif.-based Animal Wellness Centers.
  • Provide comfort in the exam room. Remove the lid to your latching carrier and let your veterinarian examine your cat while it is still sitting in the bottom of the carrier. If you need to place your kitty on an exam table, lay that extra towel on the table to make a more comfortable surface.

What Your Veterinarian Can Do
Veterinarians can also work to make each visit a better experience. They should consider:

  • Office noise Their offices should be neither libraries nor stadiums, with no whispering, which mimics hissing, or loud noises.
  • Proper greetings “It’s a good idea to formally greet the cat and let the cat get to know you,” says Krieger. That might mean letting a cat sniff your fingers as the animal health care expert averts his or her gaze.
  • Careful handling Gentle, respectful handling is important to a cat’s sense of security. “Have several techniques for getting cats out of their carriers so you can accommodate any carrier style and cat temperament,” says Givin.
  • Bribery Tasty treats, catnip and play may help distract or reward a cat.

If both you and your veterinarian work to control the experience, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised.

Pet Identification: The Best Care for Your Cat

Out of the estimated six million to eight million dogs and cats entering animal shelters each year, 30 percent of dogs are reclaimed by owners compared to less than 5 percent of cats, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The big difference? Cats tend not to carry identification.

"Cat owners are so averse to using ID tags, collars or other identification," says John Snyder, HSUS vice president of the companion animal section. "Many cat owners say, 'I never let them out,' but anytime you open the door, you run the risk that your cat will get loose."

Here are the pros and cons of some of the most popular identification methods and the potential health impacts.

Cat Identification No. 1: Microchips
A microchip, usually embedded between your cat’s shoulders, emits a code that a special scanner activates with radio signals. The scanner displays a unique ID that can be used to access ownership information from a database.

  • Pros: Microchipping is one of the favored forms of pet identification by veterinarians. It's relatively inexpensive, ranging from $30 to $40. "For all practical purposes, it's permanent," explains Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinarian and past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) who now teaches at Texas A&M University.
  • Cons: The information is not visible to a neighbor or other person who finds your cat. Identification can only be made with a scanner.

  • Risks: Endorsed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2007, no conclusive health risks have been associated with microchipping, says Beaver. The AVMA says studies of four million chipped pets found less than 400 adverse reactions, the most common of which was that the chip moved from its original site. Studies suggesting a link between microchips and cancer in rats and mice have largely been discounted by the AVMA, given the differences in chip sizes and species.

Cat Identification No. 2: Collars and Tags
Getting your cat to wear a collar with a small tag featuring your name and phone number or information from a pet registry, is one of the best and cheapest forms of cat identification. Tags need to be updated if you move or change phone numbers. Some municipalities require tags to prove a cat is vaccinated against rabies.

  • Pros: "We think external collars and tags save more lives and prompt more returns than anything else," says Snyder. "Anyone who finds a cat with a collar or tag can affect a return by calling the number on the tag."
  • Cons: Collars can be removed, either deliberately or by accident. Tags can also get detached.
  • Risks: Collars can get caught on branches or brush outdoors, and on furnishings indoors. This can lead to strangulation or other injuries. Beaver recommends a breakaway collar, which is designed to break or open if pulled with a little force.

Cat Identification No. 3: Tattoo
One of the oldest methods of cat identification, tattooing is used more rarely to ID cats these days. Tattoos are usually applied inside the ear. Some countries use a standard tattoo symbol to indicate a cat has been neutered.

  • Pros: This is another permanent method of ID. It's seen easily, without a scanner.
  • Cons: People aren't accustomed to look for tattoo IDs. If they find one, says Beaver, they may not know what the number stands for or where it was issued.
  • Risks: Applying a tattoo can be painful, and it's usually done under anesthesia. Short-term bleeding or scabbing may occur.

Cat Identification No. 4: Ear Notching
Ear notching -- or ear "tipping" -- involves the physical removal of a small portion of one of a cat's ears. This is most often used by feral cat management programs to ID cats after neutering, says Beaver.

  • Pros: Ear notching provides a visual way for animal control to determine which cats have been neutered so they don't have to round them up.
  • Cons: This is not a good ID method to trace a pet's ownership, because it doesn’t list the owners’ information.
  • Risks: The procedure can cause temporary pain and blood loss.

Prevention, however, is the best method to prevent a lost kitty. Beaver concludes, "Generally speaking, we recommend you keep cats indoors.”

Go Green for Your Cat's Health

What do Easter lilies and antifreeze have in common? These, and many other substances, are all poisonous to felines. “Cats have a very low threshold for toxicity,” explains Dr. Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists. This uber-sensitivity in cats results from their body producing little of the enzyme that other mammals rely on to break down chemicals, leaving cats generally more vulnerable to toxins.

Jumping on the green-tech bandwagon, a handful of pet care companies are now hocking organic cat wares to save Fluffy from the evils of plastics and perfumes. Below, Dr. Joyce weighs in on what to try and when to proceed with caution.

Plastic has received bad press in the last few years as worried parents keep their children away from the chemical BPA and legions of water drinkers refrain from refilling their plastic bottle empties. But is plastic potentially bad news for your cat too? Yes, but for different reasons than for humans.

“A cat’s life span isn’t long enough that carcinogens impact them the same way as humans,” she explains. Still, Dr. Joyce emphasizes that ceramic and metal dishes are not only better for the environment in general but also for your cat’s skin. Plastic dishes retain bacteria and can cause chin acne, an uncomfortable condition for your pet.

Veterinary Verdict: Choosing ceramic or metal over plastic is good for the environment and kitty’s complexion.

Flea Remedies
The slew of chemicals in traditional flea and tick products may seem like reason to stay away from them, especially when “natural” flea remedies tout compounds that won’t pollute your pet’s bloodstream and your family’s home. However, buyers beware. “I’m not a fan of any over-the-counter flea preparation,” Dr. Joyce says. “You can get away with it for a dog, but cats are more sensitive and can have bad reactions. Sometimes, chemicals can be good.”

Veterinary Verdict: Ask your veterinarian to prescribe a flea and tick medication. If you must try a natural product, use one that’s approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Check with your pet’s doctor before applying.

Kitty Litter
Without a doubt, natural cat litter made from wheat and corn is better for the environment. It breaks down naturally rather than spending a lifetime in a landfill. The impact on your cat’s health? Inexpensive litters in general create more dust, which can trigger asthma attacks. If you’re concerned about your cat’s lungs, monitor how much dust is stirred up in the burying process. Switch litters if necessary.

Veterinary Verdict: Natural cat litter is best for the environment and produces the least dust, which is also best for your cat’s respiratory system.

Over-the-counter cat shampoos often contain perfumes, which smell pleasant to cat owners but may irritate sensitive feline skin. If so-called organic cat shampoos are perfume-free, your pet may tolerate them. However, veterinary-prescribed cleansers are less likely to cause dry skin and allergic reactions.

Veterinary Verdict: If you choose an organic, over-the-counter product, make sure it is cat-specific as opposed to a general pet shampoo. Look for the AVMA seal of approval. Be on the alert for signs of allergic reactions (e.g., excessive scratching) after the first use.

Cat Accessories
When it comes to beds, collars and toys, carcinogens are not a big kitty health concern -- for reasons explained above -- though the well-being of the environment may be. Such items are currently made from a variety of recycled and organically grown materials, taking less of a toll on the natural world. “With cat toys, the main health concern is not lead paint but a small piece that may break free and be ingested by the animal,” says Dr. Joyce.

Veterinary Verdict: If being kind to the environment is on your priority list -- and it should be -- organic cat accessories can help you meet your goal. When buying cat toys, forgo those with small pieces that may break off.

General Tips for Choosing Organic Cat Products

  • Buy products specifically made for cats as opposed to products for all pets.
  • Look for a seal of approval from the AVMA.
  • If your cat is doing well on a traditional product, think twice before making a switch to organic.
  • Be cautious. Consult your veterinarian before trying new cleaning or medicinal products.

While organic goods appeal to consumers for a variety of important reasons, Dr. Joyce warns that the industry is not yet well-regulated. “Theoretically, organic has less chemicals, and that’s best for cats because they’re so sensitive,” she says. “But I recommend caution in experimenting with new products. Try things slowly and only in moderation.” Those are words for the healthiest cats to live their nine lives by.