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.

Dishware
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.

Shampoo
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.

Miracle Cat Cure

Doing acupuncture on cats may sound crazy. After all, your furry pal can barely tolerate riding in a car, let alone somebody poking it with needles.

Yet in a feline medical first, researchers recently succeeded in using acupuncture to treat a cat suffering from limb paralysis. Could acupuncture benefit your cat, particularly if physical or emotional issues have cropped up?

Acupuncture to the Rescue
Oriental medicine, including acupuncture, has been used for thousands of years to treat ailments in people and animals. Acupuncture involves inserting tiny needles into specific points in the body called meridians, where chi -- or vital energy -- is said to flow. According to traditional Chinese medicine, when chi is blocked, the body suffers. Yet by using acupuncture on several of these meridians, practitioners say chi can be unblocked and health restored.

In the aforementioned study, researchers used acupuncture on a 14-year-old cat with disc disease. The cat showed significant improvements in posture and mobility four months after starting acupuncture. The regime involved weekly visits at first, which were later reduced to every other week. After this brief round of treatments, the feline patient was walking and running again.

"Due to the seriousness of the disease, acupuncture was the only medical option, but I didn't have great expectations for this cat," admits Keum Hwa Choi, DVM, the study’s co-author who is an assistant professor of integrative medicine at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul. She had previously used acupuncture on dogs, horses, cows, rabbits and ferrets. Needless to say, the cat's response excited Dr. Choi. 

Disc disease is only one condition in cats that acupuncture can help. Others include kidney conditions, autoimmune disorders, allergies, hip dysplasia, arthritis and certain musculoskeletal problems, along with some emotional issues. In most cases, acupuncture is used in conjunction with other treatments.

Cat Acupuncture Basics
If you're considering this treatment option for your cat, here's what you should know:

  • Special training Because this treatment is so specialized, only certified veterinarians should perform acupuncture. Contact the AAVA or the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society to locate a qualified practitioner. Also, ask other pet owners for references.
  • Short-term costs Acupuncture costs about $160 per session, on average. While that might sound like a lot up front, in the end, it will cost you less than trying to manage a condition without it, says Gary Van Engelenburg, DVM, president of the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture (AAVA).
  • Treatment schedules The treatment schedule depends on the condition being treated. For about 90 percent of conditions, you'll see improvements in two to four treatments, Dr. Van Engelenburg says. Once the cat shows improvement, time between treatments is increased.
  • Painless procedure Surprisingly, acupuncture is a low-stress treatment, says Dr. Van Engelenburg, who usually uses lasers over needles. The procedure takes only a few minutes and should help relax your cat in the process.
  • Supplementary treatments While acupuncture might work wonders for your cat, it's not a cure. For instance, if your cat has arthritis and kidney issues, it may need additional treatments every few months. 

In the end, though, the results of acupuncture may surprise you. Dr. Van Engelenburg has seen cats that were given only a few months to live yet survived several more years after acupuncture treatments. As he says, "This noninvasive procedure could improve the quality of life for your cat and perhaps help it live longer."

DNA Findings Will Revolutionize Cat Health

King Wu of Zhou the Fifth and Empress Li Lihuana, now living in Philadelphia, Pa., were recently joined together at a joyous celebration that was followed by much speculation as to when they might start a family. Their adopted relatives at least were assured the pair had a good chance of siring healthy offspring. You see, this was a coupling of Himalayan cats and not royal humans, and their relationship had already received a veterinary thumbs up, thanks to new breakthroughs in feline DNA research.

Perhaps the biggest boost in this scientific field was the recent announcement that the domestic cat genome was sequenced. But what exactly does that mean, and how could it affect you and your cat now and in the future?

The ABC's of DNA
DNA is like a somewhat secretive code made up of words that consist of only four letters: G, C, A and T. Like lottery numbers, the letters combine in all sorts of different ways in the genome, which is an individual's full set of DNA. Each "word" contains instructions that help to make and run each and every cell in the living creature's body. The individual could be a human or all other species on the planet, including your cat.

"Cats are the greatest predators that ever lived," says Stephen O'Brien, PhD, who led the Cat Genome Project. Dr. O'Brien, a scientist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and a feline fancier himself was thrilled when he and his team recently announced that the domestic cat genome had at last been sequenced. He explains that he and his team identified the order of the DNA words, or building blocks, which was like "decoding" the secret genetic recipe for what makes up a cat. The arduous process entailed the identification of a whopping 20, 285 genes in the feline genome, proving that cats are indeed complex critters.

Immediate Benefits
As exemplified by the planned, guilt-free joining of the two Himalayan cats from Philly, pet owners like you can already benefit from the DNA secret code unravelings. Randall Smith, spokesman for DDC Veterinary, a division of DNA Diagnostics Center in Fairfield, Ohio, oversaw King Wu of Zhou's DNA paternity testing. "Breeders like his owners, who wish to remain anonymous, are really fueling advances in this field," Smith says. "If an animal is a purebred, we can help to confirm and trace back its family lineage, but there are big health benefits too."

Smith explains that his laboratory also tested the royal, handsome feline for a deadly disorder among Himalayan, Persian and other exotic cats called polycystic kidney disease, or PKD. This inherited disease causes cysts to form on a cat's kidneys. Eventually PKD may lead to a painful death. King Wu's tests came back completely negative, meaning that neither his father nor his mother carried the PKD gene, so he's now good to go for breeding umpteen litters of PKD-free kittens, so long as his mates also test negative.

PKD is the primary DNA health-related test for felines now, but Smith predicts that others will soon be possible. "Cats have been slow to come on to DNA testing, perhaps because more dogs are purebreds and are easier to study for genetically inherited disorders," he says. "But advances likely will come very quickly, since many hereditary disorders in felines mirror similar ones in people."

Cats May Benefit Human Health
One amazing realization made possible through the recent advances in genetics is how similar cats are to humans on the DNA level. In fact, all mammals that have had their genomes deciphered -- cows, dogs, mice, chimpanzees, rats and more -- share similar chromosomes, which are the specialized structures that hold genes in each cell. For researchers, such comparisons are like analyzing the primary ingredients of a bunch of different cookies. One may be peanut butter and another chocolate chip, but the basic formula remains the same, so they're all cookies. In this case, a comparable formula encodes for all mammals.

Because of the cellular similarities, cats and humans can suffer from similar health problems. In fact, Dr. O'Brien says domestic cats possess over 250 naturally occurring hereditary disorders, many of which are similar to genetic pathologies in us. For example, cats may inherit a genetic mutation that causes retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that can lead to blindness in both people and felines. Thanks to the recent cat genome work, Dr. O'Brien and other scientists are on the road to finding a cure for this debilitating disease.

Hereditary diseases aren't the only ones that might experience cures in the future due to the DNA findings. Cats can also suffer from infectious diseases that are very similar to HIV/AIDS. One feline virus, called FIV, is a genetic relative of HIV. Dr. O'Brien is hopeful that studies on FIV and another immunodeficiency cat virus, FeLV, could one day lead to cures for both AIDS and even leukemia, which also targets both feline and human immune systems.

How Can You Prepare for the Future?
Like a child, your cat is a longtime family investment, so you are probably in it for the long haul in terms of your feline's health. While paternity and PKD tests are already available, you might wish to be prepared for future DNA tests that might happen in the months and years to come. Animal DNA Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia, and DDC Veterinary actually can store a DNA sample from your cat in environmentally controlled banking facilities. That way, you'll have a genetic fingerprint for your cat on file, and you'll be ready when future health screenings become available.

Smith explains that the process is like the DNA cheek swabs commonly shown on television detective shows. The cells on the inside of the mouth frequently shed, so they are easy to collect. Here are the steps DDC recommends:

1. Fill out the laboratory's requested health information about your cat.
2. Open the provided package and remove the Q-Tip-like swab. It has a plastic handle so it's important to touch only the handle and not the cotton, so as to not contaminate the sample with your own DNA!
3. Hold your cat by the scruff with one hand and place the swab into your cat's mouth, so that the swab brushes against the inside surface of your cat's cheek.
4. Twirl the swab there for several seconds. The goal is to capture loose cheek cells and not saliva.
5. Immediately insert the swab into the provided special envelope.
6. Repeat the process with other provided swabs.
7. Mail the whole thing back to the laboratory.

While your cat may squirm, the process is simple and relatively painless. In the future, biochips containing copied cells from the provided samples may allow you to test your cat for all sorts of diseases and conditions. You may also be able to test your cat out on medicines and other products, like shampoos, to see which ones, and in what amounts, might best work for your feline. "It's difficult to speculate on what exactly will be possible," Smith says, "but scientific teams at universities and other facilities are making new discoveries all of the time. The future for genetic research looks incredibly bright."