Best Practices for Bathing Your Cat

Since cats aren’t generally known for their love of water, it’s a good thing they don’t need to be cleaned as regularly as dogs. The reason is because cats fastidiously clean themselves with their tongues and teeth on a daily basis.

Most of the time, brushing your cat will be enough to keep him clean, but on occasion -- like if your cat has gotten into something particularly dirty, or you’re trying to eliminate excess dander -- little Fluffy might need to take a dip in the tub.

In those cases, here are some tips for making the experience less traumatic for you and your furry friend.

  1. Be prepared. When giving your cat a bath, the quicker you can make the experience go by, the better. Have a plastic pitcher or large cup, a towel, a washcloth and cat shampoo at the ready. Also, the ASPCA recommends trimming your cat’s nails prior to bathing him if you’re concerned about scratching. You should also brush your cat thoroughly before bathing him to remove all excess hair and mats ahead of time.

  2. Set the scene. Fill a sink, basin or tub with several inches of lukewarm water. Keep in mind that your cat probably will try to claw her way out of wherever you’re washing her, so try confining her to a space that’s not as easy for her get out of, like a tub with glass doors. If you have access to a spot with a retractable spray nozzle, even better. Test the water, just as you would for a child or baby, to make sure it’s not too hot or cold.

  3. Be steady and confident. If you’re nervous, your cat will sense that and be nervous as well. When you’re ready, place your cat in the water and wet him from his neck to his tail using water from the pitcher. Don’t pour water on your cat’s face, and do not dunk his entire body into the water all at once. Not only will he hate it, but you run the risk of getting water in his ears and/or nose. Instead, use a damp washcloth once the cat is out of the bath to gently wipe off his face.

  4. Lather up. Clean your cat’s fur with specially formulated feline shampoo, since human shampoo can be too drying for cats’ sensitive skin. Be sure to pay attention to the specific product’s instructions.  Again, avoid your cat’s face, especially his nose, ears and mouth. Use the pitcher or cup to rinse off the soap. Since cats clean themselves with their tongues, be sure to get rid of all the suds so that they don’t ingest too much of the shampoo later. Be sure to check under his chin, paws and belly for any residual bubbles.
  5. Dry him quickly. Wrap your cat in a soft towel and dry off his fur as much as you can. For long-haired cats, you may need to brush or comb their fur to get out tangles.
  6. Give your little bud lots of praise -- and a treat! -- for being so brave. Who knows, your cat might be one of the few that likes baths or, at the very least, will stoically endure them.

If you know your cat is extremely anxious or water-adverse, be sure to consult your vet first. And if your cat absolutely will not tolerate being submerged in water, consider having him professionally cleaned at either a groomer or at the vet.

Insure Your Kitty's Health

Gretchen von Grossmann was stunned when her vet told her that it would cost $3,000 to treat her 8-year-old tabby, Bob, for a serious infection. “I stepped outside the office and cried,” she says. “Then I went back in and told them I had to put him down.” 

Luckily that didn’t happen, since von Grossman and her veterinarian discussed other options and agreed on a more affordable treatment. But for many pet owners, the cost of care does lead to that desperate outcome. An often-overlooked solution is pet health insurance. Knowing that they will never have to put their kitties down for lack of money to pay for veterinary fees offers cat owners peace of mind.

Why cats are good candidates
Pet insurance is less common among cat owners than dog owners, even though kitties are perfect candidates for it. Why? Maybe because it’s easy to think a young, healthy or indoor cat doesn’t really need it -- or that an older cat may not even qualify for it. In all of these cases, however, insurance can be life- and money-saving.

“Cats will hide their illness or injuries,” says Jack Stephens, DVM, who founded the Boise, Idaho, insurance company called Pets Best Insurance. “It’s their wild nature to hide when they’re vulnerable, for protection.” Because of this, a pet owner may not realize a cat is ill until a disease has progressed to a point where treatment is expensive. “Cancer is the main reason for euthanasia of cats,” says Stephens. “We’re working to make sure pet owners don’t have to do this.”

Younger cats, and indoor cats of any age, can also get into household mischief that leads to accidents or ingestion of nonfood items. When James Helmer’s cat, Mittens, began limping around the house, he immediately took him to the vet and learned that Mittens had a torn ACL (a ligament in the leg). Surgery and testing came to $1,800, but Helmer’s pet insurance -- Veterinary Pet Insurance Company (VPI) in Brea, Calif. -- reimbursed him $1,400. “If it wasn’t for VPI, we probably would have put him down,” Helmer says.

What to look for
A lot of pet owners don’t even think about insurance until their pets become seriously ill, and by that time, it’s usually impossible to get coverage. So, do your feline family member a favor, and look into the costs and benefits of pet insurance well before a crisis. Here are some questions to ask when looking for a reliable insurance company that will fit your needs:

  • Does the company offer coverage for routine health care? Often, different levels of programs are available, one of which may cover basic care, sometimes referred to as “well-cat care.”
  • Does the company spell out what it does not cover and explain all fees? A schedule of benefits and any extra fees should be clear to you.
  • How long has the company or its executives been in this business? Look for stability, as well as experience with veterinarians.
  • Does the company require you to visit only certain veterinarians? If this is the case, check to see if your veterinarian is on the list of accepted doctors.

Insurance makes even more sense if you have more than one cat, because of the eventual costs of care they may rack up. “The earlier you can get your cat enrolled, the better,” says Brian Iannessa of VPI, which currently insures over 400,000 pets. “The longer you wait, the greater the chance that an illness or injury will occur.” Also, be clear about what is not covered. For instance, some insurance companies do not cover diseases that are preventable by vaccines, orthodontics or treatment for parasites.

How it works
Once you enroll your pet or pets, you will be charged a monthly premium. You can get an estimate on premiums at many pet insurance Web sites. When you take your cat to the doctor, you will need to later submit a claim for the cost, and the insurance company will then reimburse you the full amount, or a high percentage of the fees.

“Pet insurance is a form of risk management,” says Iannessa. “It’s there to protect you and your pet against the unexpected.” It can give you the confidence of knowing you’re doing everything you can to provide your kitty with a long and healthy life.

Photo: Corbis Images

Top 10 $1,000 Cat Health Insurance Claims

Few of us consider that treatment for a single pet-health incident or condition can cost $1,000 or more -- a reason many cat owners give for surrendering their pets to shelters. A recent survey from Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the nation’s oldest and largest provider of pet health insurance, identified the top 10 most common claims that cost $1,000 or more. They are:

1. Torn knee ligament/cartilage

2. Foreign object in the intestine

3. Foreign object in the stomach

4. Intervertebral disc disease

5. Stomach torsion/bloat

6. Broken leg

7. Laryngeal paralysis

8. Tumor of the throat

9. Ear canal surgery/ablation

10. Ruptured bile duct

Heart disease, diabetes and other types of cancer didn’t make the list because the survey includes large one-time expenses rather than the cost of care for chronic diseases.

Common Sudden Expenses for Cat Owners
Out of the top 10, the most common costly problems affecting cats are Nos. 2 and 3, related to cats accidentally swallowing foreign objects like string, according to Dr. Silene Young, a veterinarian and the director of veterinary marketing for VPI. “Because the digestive tract is basically a long hose open at each end (mouth and rear), if a long, stringy object is ingested and then the ‘hose’ is wiggled around, the string ends up causing twisting and ‘knotting’ in the hose. This results in damage (holes) to the intestine (hose) and requires surgical removal.”

The surgical process isn’t simple, though. “As you can imagine, if you put a string through a hose then twisted it up and then pulled from each end, the string would cause more damage; it wouldn’t just pull out of the twisted mess of hose,” she explained. “Any surgery involving opening up the abdomen and cutting open intestines, in one or multiple locations, to remove objects requires a good deal of surgical time, anesthesia, pain control, medications and recovery.” The average cost for a pet insurance claim for such work comes close to $2,000.

Preventable Conditions
When shown the top 10 list, Dr. Karen Halligan, a veterinarian and the director of veterinary services at the Los Angeles SPCA, was surprised. “What I thought was interesting was that several of the conditions on the list were preventable.” Cat owners, for example, can keep strings, ribbon, tinsel and other dangerous-when-swallowed items hidden.

Halligan was also surprised with throat tumors being that common, since she rarely diagnoses them, but cancer in general is on the rise partially because pets are living longer. That’s an important point, because cats go through the aging process faster than we do. Prevention can help stave off certain health problems, but you will probably be caring for your pet through its old age, when medical issues can creep up.

Pet Insurance to the Rescue
The only thing likely to cure the shock you experience when a steep veterinary bill comes is pet health insurance. “Most of us will have pets with an expensive veterinary bill at least once,” says Young. “Pet insurance is how you plan for that eventuality so in a time of stress, you can focus on your cat and not your bank account.”

People often think that insurance is an investment that should pay back money. Some owners do save quite a bit, depending on when an illness or accident happens. Like home, auto or any other type of insurance, however, the real benefit is planning for the future -- with your cat in mind.

Cat Health Care on a Budget

During the economic meltdown, families are looking to cut expenses, including their pets’ health care costs. But Arden Moore, editor of Tufts University's Catnip magazine and author of Happy Cat, Happy You (Storey Press 2008), learned firsthand why it's sometimes a good idea to pay a little more up front and avoid costly veterinary bills later.

Moore had purchased pet health insurance for her two dogs and her youngest cat. But when her 12-year-old cat, Callie, had to undergo radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, it cost $1,500 from her pocket. "Because of her advanced age and preexisting condition, the insurance policy would only cover accidents -- not medical conditions," Moore says.

The lesson she learned: get a health insurance policy when your cat is young, before it develops a health condition. "We love our pets," Moore says, "but medical procedures can be very expensive." Here are some other pointers on how to best maintain your cat's health during the recession, without it costing an arm and a leg:

Tip No. 1: Don't Skip the Annual Checkup
While it may be tempting to skip your cat's annual or biannual veterinary appointment, you may end up paying more in the end. At a routine checkup, your veterinarian can spot signs of illness so that you can treat them early, potentially saving a bundle on bills later on and possibly saving your cat's life.

"When talking about pet health care on a budget, treat it like your child’s health care -- it’s the one thing you don't want to skimp on," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified animal behavior consultant and author of several books on cats, including Psycho Kitty (Ten Speed Press 2007). "Your cat should be going to the veterinarian a minimum of once a year for a checkup and whatever else the cat needs for its stage of life. The sooner you find out about something that might be wrong, the easier and cheaper it is to correct."

Tip No. 2: Shop Around for Vaccines
Vaccinations are one form of routine care that your cat needs on a regular schedule. But did you know that you have choices about where to get them done? Low-cost -- and safe -- alternatives are widely available for less than you'd pay at a veterinarian’s office.

First, try your local animal shelter or humane society. They often hold walk-in clinics. It may cost you in time (there are often waiting lines), but it will save you in your pocketbook. Certain humane societies, for example, have advertised feline leukemia vaccines for $15 apiece and rabies shots for as little as $12. Fees can vary.

If your local animal welfare organization doesn't offer vaccinations, ask other cat owners or inquire at your local pet shop about where an animal lover on a budget can get low-cost vaccines for kitty. 

Tip No. 3: Ask for Generic Medications
Pet medications can cost a bundle. So when your cat needs a prescription, don't hesitate to pop the question that you've learned to ask your own doctor: "Is there a cheaper, generic version of the medication available?"

"Veterinarians are like that, too. You can ask them if a generic is OK," Johnson-Bennett says. "If it's not, they will specifically write that on the prescription." She also suggests that if you must spring for the name brand, see if your veterinarian might let you pay in increments on a payment plan if you've lost your job or are having other money troubles. There's no harm in asking.

Tip No. 4: Brush Kitty's Teeth and Hair
Get in the habit of brushing your cat's teeth at least a couple of times a week, Moore recommends. Use special toothpaste and brushes made specifically for cats. You can find these at most pet stores. Cats are physiologically different than humans, so don't try your own favorite brand on your cat. Regular dental care may prevent oral health problems that can be more costly in the end. "It can cost up to $400 to do a professional dental cleaning," Moore says. "By just getting in the habit, you'll be able to see early on if the gums aren't pink or if there is a tooth problem."

By the same token, another regular grooming routine to get into with your cat is brushing its hair. "I have a short-haired cat, and I brush it not only to keep the coat clean, but to let me feel for any lumps and bumps that weren't there last week," says Johnson-Bennett. Another positive effect of a regular brushing is that you can possibly cut down on your cat's hairballs. The more dead hair you remove, the less the cat is ingesting. Hairballs can become costly if they cause an intestinal blockage, which may jeopardize both your cat and your pocketbook.

Tip No. 5: Practice Good Nutrition and Don't Overfeed
Moore suggests that you spend a little more -- even in tough times -- to buy a good-quality commercial cat food made with real protein and all the other nutritional elements that cats need. In the end, you're actually going to save more on veterinary bills than you would if you started buying bargain-priced kitty food. To help cut costs, buy in bulk sizes. Moore recommends putting extra food in resealable freezer bags, adding a date and storing the food until you need it; however, freezing will not extend the “best used by” date of the product.

Keeping your cat at a healthy weight can also prevent future health problems. "Fat cats may look cute, but those cats can cost you because they’re more prone to developing diabetes, arthritis and other conditions," Moore says. "Treat them with calorie-free hugs, rather than a bunch of extra food treats."

Tip No. 6: Try Pet Health Insurance
Ultimately, as Moore discovered, it may be worth your while to spring for cat health insurance from the start. For as low as $8 per month, you can find some basic coverage for your cat that will pay up to 80 percent of most veterinary bills related to major illnesses or accidents. There are a variety of companies and groups that now offer cat health insurance, including Pets Best and VPI Pet Insurance. Even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals now offers pet insurance in conjunction with the Hartville Group.

Here are some quick questions to ask when considering cat health insurance:

  • Are there discounts for insuring multiple pets in a household?
  • What are the different tiers of coverage, and what is the maximum per ailment that each tier will pay out?
  • Does the plan cover wellness visits and routine care?
  • What is the lifetime maximum payout?
  • How much will your costs increase as your pet ages?

As Moore found out the hard way, cat health insurance "­­­is your safety net."

How to Manage Your Cat’s Health Care

Has the recession affected your spending habits? A new survey reveals that the economic doldrums have impacted many cat owners. “Dogs and cats are feeling the bite of the recession as pet owners put a leash on pet care expenses,” says Susan Spaulding, executive vice president and principal at The Pert Group, which conducted the survey with Brakke Consulting. “The recession has not only decreased what consumers spend on their own health, but what they spend at the veterinarian.”

Cats have especially taken a hit. John Volk, a senior consultant at Brakke Consulting, shares the reason why -- as well as promising news for cats and their owners.

Fewer Cats Are Going to the Veterinarian
On the downside, the Pet Owner Channel Use Study found that less than 50 percent of cat owners took their cats to the veterinarian last year. “Some have never even been to a veterinarian,” says Volk. He believes additional research is needed to dig into the reason as to why that’s the case, but he offered these possible explanations:

A lot of first-time pet owners are cat owners. They haven’t developed proper habits for routinely taking their pet to a veterinarian.

Cats are often indoor animals, so owners may feel they can spend less on health care prevention, such as heartworm and flea and tick products. (All of these problems can hurt indoor cats, as any owner fighting a home flea invasion knows.)

In comparison to what’s available for dogs, there aren’t as many health-related products available for cats.

Factor in the recession and the cost of veterinary care and you can see why owners could be postponing trips to the veterinarian. A lot of people are tight on funds now.

Longtime cat owners, however, realize that preventive care can help stave off health issues, ultimately saving pet owners money. If your cat is 6-7 years old or younger, schedule a veterinary visit once yearly for a routine examination. Cats older than age 7 would benefit from twice-yearly vet visits. The visits will include the basics, such as a full physical, a dental evaluation and a parasite check. Routine blood work and a urinalysis should also be included, especially for older cats.

Pet Insurance Spending Is Increasing
One positive outcome from the study is the finding that cat owners are now spending more on pet insurance. Insurance is another tool for combating the recession, allowing for regular veterinary visits and safeguarding against the cost of required special care, such as hospital stays and treatments for serious illnesses.

Volk says there is growing interest in health insurance for pets, so expect this business sector to continue to grow in the years to come.

Food Spending Remains the Same
Compared to a similar study conducted in 2007, the findings of this latest pet owner study show that cat food expenditures are basically the same. “There are more purchases of cat food, but actual expenses are higher for dog owners because dogs are often bigger than cats and eat more,” says Volk.

The Way We Buy Pet Health Care Products Is Changing
The study found that more and more cat owners are turning to the Internet for their shopping needs. The reasons? Variety, sometimes-lower costs and convenience. Still, the trend is worrisome to Volk, who supports one-on-one interaction and expertise rather than online ads and in-store displays.

He and his colleagues are also concerned about the Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011. This legislation was introduced last year and referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health. Among other things, it would require veterinarians to write a prescription whether or not they will dispense the product. The majority of survey respondents have already indicated that they would fill those prescriptions outside of their veterinarians’ offices at least some of the time. How veterinary offices would react to the change remains unknown.

Signs of Improvement
In the few months since the new Pet Owner Channel Use Study was conducted, there are “anecdotal reports that veterinarians are seeing increased volume,” says Volk. However, Volk also adds that it is too soon to tell whether or not the recession and other problems of recent years are finally on the way out.

Nevertheless, at least one major pet health insurance company has “reported a good uptick in revenue for the first quarter of 2012.” That, food sales and other indicators provide hope that cat owners have learned to cope with financial challenges and are looking ahead to an even brighter future for themselves and their pets.