6 Ways to Keep Your Cat Healthy in 2012

With the turn of every year, countless people resolve to improve their health by losing weight, exercising and more. The vast majority breaks those promises and ends up disappointed. So rather than subject yourself to another year of self-defeat, why not resolve to improve the health of your cat instead? Below are a handful of both timely and timeless ideas to choose from.

1. Assess your choice of cat food. As your cat ages, its nutritional needs will change. “Aging brings with it physiological changes. Some are obvious, others are not,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams. “Skin and hair coat changes may be obvious, while lean muscle mass loss and digestive or immune system failure may be less evident or hidden.” The science behind today’s cat food has gotten specific enough that there are different blends for almost any situation. Talk to your vet about whether your cat is due for a change.

2. Upgrade your cat’s ID tag. The classic heart-shaped metal collar charm may help your cat get returned if it wanders away, but technology allows for so much more. Dr. Patricia Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists says, if possible, to use a GPS tracker that allows you to find your cat wherever it is. Another option is a QR code tag, like those offered by PetQRTag. The tags are the same size as a regular ID tag but are not as constrained by space. They point a person to a Web page that can hold as much information as you’d like to give, from contact info to special medical issues your cat has. As your cat ages and your contact information changes, the tag never needs to be replaced.

3. Hop on the social media bandwagon. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can help you diagnose and work through potential health problems. A standout is PetPop.com, where pet owners create profiles and link up. In the PetPop Healthy section, a panel of veterinary experts fields questions from site members and provides advice.

4. Enrich your cat’s environment. Scientific evidence continues to show that when a cat is stressed, it can get sick. The good news is that the same scientific data has now shown that an enriched environment can help prevent illness. “Happy cats are healthy cats, and their environment plays a role in that,” says Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University. “There’s now good evidence for this.”

5. Don’t ignore dental health. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, periodontal disease is the most diagnosed problem in cats. But it doesn’t have to be that way. “Dental disease is one of the most preventable conditions in veterinary medicine,” says Dr. Katy Johnson Nelson, a veterinarian in Arlington, Va., who is a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council. Schedule an appointment with your cat’s doctor for a teeth cleaning, and start doing brushing on your own as well.

6. Get pet health insurance. Sometimes even the best prevention can’t stop disease or an accident, and veterinary bills can add up quickly. It can put pet owners in the most difficult of positions: You either set yourself up for extreme financial hardship, or consent to putting your cat down. Health insurance allows an alternative. Thanks to more modest monthly premium payments, decisions to undergo costly procedures are easier to make.

So this New Year’s, let yourself off the hook and make a resolution for your cat. Whether you opt for the tried-and-true or the timely and trendy, following through with just a few of these tips can make a world of difference.

Pregnant Cat Care

Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson has three words of advice for cat owners thinking about breeding their cats: Don’t do it. “Just because your cat is cute and your neighbor’s cat is cute does not mean they should get together to make kittens,” says Nelson. “You need experience and know-how to breed. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

Nelson suggests spaying and neutering to avoid unplanned pregnancies. If you do find yourself tasked with the care of a pregnant kitty -- known in the cat world as a queen -- there are important steps you can take to ensure a healthy pregnancy and delivery. Below, Nelson weighs in on how to provide the best prenatal and postnatal care for your pet.

Veterinary Visits

When you first suspect your cat is expecting, it is important that her veterinarian examine her in order to confirm the diagnosis. “Infections to the uterus can mimic pregnancy, with an enlarged midsection and discharge,” says Nelson. “These infections can be life-threatening, so it’s important to rule this out.”

Once your vet establishes your cat is indeed pregnant, her vaccination schedule should be checked to make sure she is up-to-date. “Maternal antibodies last 12 weeks in kittens. They benefit from having a fully vaccinated mother,” explains Nelson.

Queens gestate their babies for about nine weeks. Your cat will see her doctor two or three times during this period. The veterinarian can help you anticipate what to expect during labor, including how many kittens may be in her litter.

Nutrition and Exercise

Because her most pressing need during pregnancy is for more calories, a pregnant cat should be fed a nutrient-dense kitten formula immediately after her status as a mother-to-be is confirmed. She should also have access to plenty of water.

Like a pregnant human, a pregnant cat can benefit from regular exercise. “It’s hard to get a cat to exercise, but present her with toys that she enjoys,” says Nelson. Play with her in ways that keep her moving. If her muscles stay toned, she’ll have a safer labor and delivery.”

Labor Day

In advance, prepare a private, quiet place for the birth to occur, and keep the room warm. “Like human females, a female cat doesn’t want 10 people in the room when she’s in labor,” says Nelson. She suggests providing your pet with a birthing area -- a comfortable bed or box filled with newspapers she can shred. Nelson also suggests a room with a tiled floor to make cleanup easier.

Your veterinarian should speak with you about the signs that your cat is going into labor. “She may become very aloof, or on the flip side, very clingy,” says Nelson. Follow your queen’s lead: if she doesn’t want company, don’t force it on her. “Her hormones are raging. She’s very protective of these arriving babies. Read her body language and take it seriously.” Keep the number of a 24-hour veterinary clinic on hand in case there are labor complications, such as strong contractions without a delivery for more than two hours.

Postpartum

The most important consideration for your new mother is nutrition, specifically a higher caloric intake. She should continue to eat kitten food until her babies have weaned (about eight weeks after birth). “If the litter is more than three kittens, intense nutritional support is in order,” says Nelson. Consult your cat’s veterinarian about how much food she’ll need.

You should also be tuned in to the mother’s overall health. Postpartum cats can develop eclampsia, which results from a calcium imbalance and can be life-threatening. It usually happens within a week of delivery, and signs include shaking, seizures and lethargy. If your cat exhibits these, get her to the vet immediately.

With the right medical and nutritional support, every cat can have a healthy pregnancy and a happy Mother’s Day -- every day.

Who Works at Your Cat’s Veterinary Office?

When you take your cat to the vet, there may be a number of people working there, other than the veterinarian. These individuals can include a veterinary assistant and a veterinary technician, among others. Don’t know the difference? Below, veterinarian Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists explains the roles that these individuals play in the typical office of an animal doctor.

Veterinary Receptionist
There typically is a difference between the receptionist at your veterinarian’s office and the one at your dentist’s, for example. The former likely has a love of animals and some degree of on-the-job training that allows him or her to determine whether your pet needs immediate care. Veterinarians often choose their receptionists carefully, as they are the first to greet every patient that walks in the door. “They are the folks that get your information, find out what’s wrong, and decide if the animal needs immediate care,” says Joyce. They do not need a higher degree, but often use the job as a stepping-stone in order to gain experience and move up in the field.

Veterinary Assistant
Veterinary assistants are trained by veterinarians on the handling and restraint of animals. “Almost anything a veterinarian does with an animal requires two people,” says Joyce. “You can’t place a catheter or draw blood by yourself.” Veterinary assistants help veterinarians and veterinary technicians to keep an animal still during a variety of procedures. They are also often tasked with the housekeeping of the office. “They walk animals, clean cages, do laundry,” says Joyce.

Veterinary assistants receive on-the-job training and are not required to have any particular level of formal education. Some are happy to remain assistants, while others take the job as a means to an end. It can be a good a way to build a resume before applying to veterinary school, admission to which is very competitive.

Veterinary Technician
Veterinary technicians, or vet techs, come in two varieties: licensed and non-licensed. Licensed veterinary technicians spend two years in school and come out with associate’s degrees. After finishing school, they must pass a credentialing exam in order to obtain their license. “It’s very specialized study,” explains Joyce. “They get a good understanding of disease and are trained in doing invasive procedures like inserting catheters.”

Non-licensed veterinary technicians are trained on the job and their skill level varies according to experience. “You can have a fabulous one who’s been working for 25 years and really knows her stuff, or a high school kid who just likes animals,” says Joyce. She acknowledges that the latter can be less than desirable, and notes that it pays to ask your veterinarian whether the techs in her office are licensed, especially if they are assisting in complicated procedures involving anesthesia.

Veterinary Technologist
A veterinary technologist attends a four-year college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology. Despite this difference in training, they perform the same duties as the technicians in the clinic. “We group technicians and technologists all into one category,” says Joyce. “If you’re going to a four-year college and decide you’re interested in working with animals, it’s a degree you might choose -- though not too many colleges actually offer it. What it really comes down to in the office is still licensed versus non-licensed.”

Veterinarian
After completing a bachelor’s degree, a veterinary student attends four more years of school to earn a degree in veterinary medicine. The fourth year is generally spent working in a hospital or medical practice. Veterinarians are trained in basic science like anatomy and physiology as well as other care like nutrition, diagnostics, surgery and dentistry. It is increasingly common for veterinarians to continue training for at least a year after graduation, and more than that if they want to specialize. “You can spend as long doing your training as you would in med school,” says Joyce.

Veterinary Trend: Cat-only Clinics

Dr. Kelly Wright, a veterinarian and the co-owner of The Cat Clinic of Orange County in Costa Mesa, Calif., doesn’t experience daily barking, panting or dog smells in her cat-only clinic. As a result, the stress levels of the cats that come in and out on a regular basis are “two or three notches down,” according to Wright.

“Cats can get very nervous and stressed at a vet visit,” agrees Dr. Arnold Plotnick, a veterinarian and the owner of the Manhattan Cat Specialists in New York City. “If a cat is in a carrier near a German shepherd in the waiting room, it can be so frazzled by the time it gets to the exam room that it can be impossible to deal with. But here it’s peaceful and quiet. They don’t see, hear or smell dogs.”

A Unique Option for Cat Owners
There are no statistics available on how many cat-only clinics have been established across the country, but Internet searches reveal a healthy number of them in most U.S. states. Like the Cat Clinic of Orange County and the Manhattan Cat Specialists, many were designed from the start to be cat-specific. There are no oversized scales, the kennels are consistent rather than varying in size, and the drug inventory is specialized for cat care. “We have a very dedicated staff that cares very much about cats,” says Plotnick. “We’re all cat lovers and I think it shows in our work.”

Plotnick strives to go beyond standard veterinary care, offering wellness programs tailored to four different age groups and providing extensive preventive health services. The Manhattan and Orange County clinics both also offer grooming and boarding services. The Orange County clinic has large-windowed enclosures that overlook the building’s large lobby, as well as multilevel “townhomes” -- complete with four-poster beds and skylights -- for the most discriminating cats.

Benefits of Cat-only Clinics
Plotnick and Wright note that their decisions to focus only on cats should in no way detract from the quality of care at general, all-species veterinary clinics. A good veterinarian is a good veterinarian, no matter how many kinds of animals he or she treats. For midnight emergencies, a general veterinary hospital will likely remain your only option, but even doctors at general hospitals say that cat-only clinics can have distinct advantages.

“You get the benefit of a vet who has decided to make themselves an expert at this one animal,” says Dr. Trisha Joyce, an emergency veterinarian at New York City Veterinary Specialists. “Also, it probably means that they are better able to invest more in equipment and medical supplies specific to the illnesses cats get. Cats aren't small dogs, and sometimes the drug options stocked by a general hospital are geared more to dogs.”

Ironically, there’s also a human element that gets addressed, according to Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian. “Cat owners and dog owners are very different creatures in and of themselves,” she says. “So, having a facility that caters to the needs of ‘cat people’ could be very advantageous in dealing with this clientele.”

Plotnick concurs, noting that his clients tend to be “very attuned” and “super-devoted” to their cats. While his decision to focus exclusively on cats inevitably cut a large population of animals out of his business model, it’s a decision he gladly made.

“During my post-grad career, I always had an affinity for cats and became known as a person who enjoyed feline medicine and was good with cats,” he says. “I was comfortable with them and found their diseases and illnesses particularly interesting. When I opened my practice, it seemed natural to do it as cat-specific. And I think it’s worked out very well.”

How to Know Your Cat’s Vet Needs

It’s not always easy to know when your cat should see a veterinarian, in part because cats are masterful at disguising illnesses and injuries. Whether you turn to books, the Internet, your personal experience or veterinarians, be sure to look out for certain health signs.

Cat Health Resources
The first step for most cat owners is noticing something’s amiss, whether your pet is eating less, urinating outside the litter box or sneezing. Although it’s natural to try to figure out what’s going on before you make that veterinary appointment, first and foremost, just call your veterinarian, says Dr. Annie Price, owner of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta.

Educating yourself about cat behavior and the symptoms of illness is helpful as well. The American Association of Feline Practitioners offers good advice at CatVets.com and HealthyCatsForLife.com. Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine also provides useful information about cat health at www.Vet.Cornell.edu . The university offers phone consultations three days a week, but each consultation costs $55. Plus, it may take up to 48 hours from the time you place the initial call until your consultation.

Whether you read cat health books or take first aid classes for pet owners, educating yourself can help you become more attuned to health indicators that are easy to overlook. “Because cat owners are around their cats daily, subtle changes or gradual changes can be missed,” says Dr. Joanne  Gaines, owner of Ridgeview Animal Hospital in Omaha, Neb. “Increases in drinking and urination and weight loss are the most common gradual changes we see, and those changes can be caused by thyroid disease, kidney or liver disease or diabetes, most commonly.”

It’s best to let your veterinarian help you determine when a visit is in order, but Price and Gaines offer these helpful guides:

  • Keep a watchful eye. If your cat expels an occasional hairball, it’s probably not significant, says Price. “One hairball, a little regurgitation of food -- it happens,” she says. A few sneezes here and there may be something to monitor, but should not require a veterinary visit. Cats occasionally will have a runny eye that should resolve itself. If your cat snoozes more after an active day, it is probably just tired. Your cat might not eat as enthusiastically once in a while, but note if it’s becoming a pattern of behavior.
  • Schedule an appointment. Continued vomiting or diarrhea, poor grooming habits, a regular eye discharge or a squinting eye, increased water intake, increased urination, a runny nose and regular sneezing are among the indicators that your cat should see a veterinarian, say Gaines and Price. Sick cats will often sleep or hide more, notes Price. She particularly cautions against mistaking urinating outside the litter box as spiteful behavior. “A lot of people assume it’s behavioral or revenge, but that can mean a simple urinary tract infection, or your cat could be developing kidney problems or metabolic problems,” says Price.

If your cat becomes more vocal or begins grooming less, schedule an exam. “Anything subtle and different is something to take note of,” says Price. A change in personality, such as aggressive behavior, warrants a veterinary appointment.

  • Get your cat to the veterinarian immediately. “Emergency situations include straining to urinate, trouble breathing, bleeding, severe lethargy and most things relating to the eyes,” says Gaines. If you feel your cat’s health situation is urgent, don’t hesitate. Rapid breathing should be checked immediately as well, advises Price. “If your cat appears to be suffering a seizure, get it to the veterinarian right away,” she cautions.

Scheduling regular veterinary visits is the safest way to monitor your cat’s health. “Physical exams on a regular basis are so important. I always recommend once a year. There’s so much we can see just in a physical, tip of the nose to the tip of the tail,” says Price.